No amount of interpretive gymnastics can soften Jesus’ words here in the Sermon on the Mount. Essentially he is saying, if you are going to follow me and love the way I insist you should love, you have to love in a way quite different from the pagans. If you love only those who love you, if you love only those individuals you consider to be your neighbor, you have nothing to brag about; any atheist can do that. Just as Jesus refused to retaliate against his enemies who beat him so those who claim to have received the salvation he achieved for us on the cross must live in the way of the cross in the world. One cannot be had without the other…
The problem is that the church has had a Christendom addiction since the fourth century. Once the church had a stake in the power of the empire, the cross of Jesus could no longer be how God expects his people to live in the world. So the church in making its alliance with the empire had to commend, embrace, and even participate as pagans “lording it over others.” Thus, the cross was reduced to an individualized get out of hell free card because the politics of the cross, the way of being Jesus in the world, could not rule a violent world where violence was necessary to rule. The cross, which was originally a subversive symbol of the idolatrous pretensions of the empire, came to symbolize the empire in all of its pagan power and ways baptizing it with a thin veneer of Christian vestiges.
Until Christians in the twenty-first century West embrace the politics of the cross as it comes to us in the New Testament and reject the kind of reductionist atonement that amounts to nothing more than a policy for fire insurance that allows us to continue to embrace the governance of pagan ways, the church will be unable to be a suffering and peaceable and healing presence in a world ruled by violence and vengeance.
The politics of the cross and the politics of the nations are not compatible. To make them so is to baptize the secular and paganize what is Christian.