There’s been a storm in white evangelical Christian twitter recently. Tish Warren, an Anglican priest, wrote a piece in Christianity Today asking who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere. She focused on the way that popular Christian writer and blogger Jen Hatmaker changed her stance on the gays and wondered what tradition she gets her authority from. While conservatives like Warren think of authority in terms of tradition, the authority I understand to be central to Christianity is the authority of Jesus’ cross. This authority has long since been buried under the institutional, imperial authority of church tradition, but the cross is the ultimate measure of the validity of any claim to Christian authority.
Christianity was originally built upon the hearts that were “cut” when three thousand Jews realized they’d crucified their messiah (Acts 2:37). That is how the cross’s authority is supposed to work. It cuts our hearts. It convicts us of our sin, while simultaneously showing solidarity to the victims of our sin. This is unlike any other form of authority that human civilization has come up with. Worldly authority is established through coercive violence, not through nonviolent suffering. Victims of ignoble state executions are not supposed to be revered as kings. A cross is supposed to be a disgrace. For Jesus to insist upon the cross as his coronation says something about the authority God chooses to most perfectly represent himself: it comes from the margins.
Those who exercise authority as coercion and control are not exercising the authority of the cross, which means they forfeit the right to call their authority Christian. People whose authority is cruciform do not coerce or control other people. They love as fiercely as Jesus did, and their love is what compels obedience. There have been Christians like this throughout the centuries. Sometimes they have been part of the official tradition. Sometimes they have been in positions of power where they could impose violence on other people if they chose. But their Christian authority has come from their willingness to bear their crosses and inspire discipleship through their love.
The church’s apostolic tradition is valid to the degree that it has obeyed the simple command of Jesus to take up our crosses (Mark 8:34). Christian apostles are those who bear crosses like Jesus, which means that the church’s apostolicity is called into question when it turns to imperial violence in forms like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the European religious wars, the colonial conquest, or the many other acts of violence that have been anointed by the church often as hideous forms of “evangelism.” In Galatians 3, Paul says that those who have the faith of Abraham are more legitimately heirs of Abraham than those who can trace their biological ancestry to Abraham. I don’t see why the same logic shouldn’t apply to Christian authority. Those who carry crosses are Jesus’ apostles; those who carry swords are not, no matter whose heads have been anointed by bishops.
All this is to say that an uncritical appeal to tradition as authority is incompatible with a cruciform understanding of Christian authority. Deference to tradition is inherently Eurocentric because of the reality of Christian history. The reason it’s harder for non-white-men to appeal to any established Christian tradition is because it’s incredibly recent that non-white-men have been given a voice in Christianity at all. They only have traditional authority to the degree that their theology and hermeneutics conform to the sensibilities of centuries of European culture. Under what tradition did black slaves gain the authority to theologize in their spirituals? They would fail to meet Tish Warren’s standards too. They had to make up their own tradition because the established tradition wasn’t for them. But they have profound authority as the crucified victims of the colonial brutality that European Christendom blessed for centuries. And their songs have incredible theology that deserve more examination than merely singing them in church every fifth Sunday for the sake of “diversity.”
A Christian tradition that has done little to process its sinful legacy has little authority with me on the basis of its apostolicity. It is filled with incredible resources like any imperial starship that can be scavenged, but I do not submit to it simply because it’s tradition. I plunder it like a scavenger and try to find the pieces that help me to take up my cross to march with Jesus and those who are being crucified with him. What’s much more important to me is to hear how marginalized people process the Christian gospel. Jesus said he came to proclaim good news to the poor, so confirming whether something is good news to marginalized people should be a basic criterion by which we measure the legitimacy of our gospel.
For example, while Martin Luther had many great things to say, a gospel formed by centering the emotional needs of a neurotic monk has unsurprisingly resulted in a Protestant salvation story that has little to say about restorative justice for the marginalized (though many renegade Lutherans throughout the centuries have forged a radical, beautiful gospel). Of course Martin Luther himself would say look at the cross if you want to see God. Perhaps he would also agree that the people carrying crosses have greater authority to speak for God than those whose authority is based on institutional power.
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