The cross and radical activism

The cross and radical activism March 29, 2013

The idea that Jesus chose, out of his own free will, to go to the cross is a favorite among abusive church leaders. What better way to get people to submit to you than to compare the God they worship to a lamb led to slaughter? Over and over and over I’ve heard Jesus’ submissiveness unto death used as an excuse to abuse or to silence those who wish to call out abuse.

I want to propose a different perspective and I want to start with a woman named Alice Paul.

In 1917, women in the United States were not allowed to vote. Alice Paul and a group of other women wanted to change that. These women boldly picketed the White House with banners that called out the hypocrisy of the man in the White House–Woodrow Wilson–who was so quick to send troops overseas to Germany to fight for “liberty,” but who was ignoring the fact that women here were not even treated as real citizens (sound familiar?).

Though their peaceful protests broke no laws, these women were arrested and sent to prison under the false charge of “obstructing traffic.”

Incarcerated without reason in the “land of the free” (a land in which she–as a woman–already lacked the rights of a full citizen), Alice Paul asserted her autonomy and her humanity by fighting back the only way she could.

She stopped eating. 

Alice Paul went on a hunger strike as a way to protest the unjust conditions she was facing.

The 2004 movie, Iron Jawed Angels, depicts this true story (with some obvious dramatizations of course). During one scene, Alice Paul (played by Hillary Swank) is sent to a psychiatric ward because she refuses to eat. The doctor examining her asks about her hunger strike.

Alice: The hunger strike was a tradition in old Ireland. You starve yourself on someone’s doorstep until restitution is made and justice is done.

Doctor: Doesn’t sound like a very effective method.

Alice: A stinking corpse on your doorstep? What would the neighbors say?

We live in a world of violence, of poverty, of rape and war, of oppression and abuse.

We also live in a world of willful ignorance and pride.

People are starving and dying  at our doorsteps (metaphorically speaking), but we’re great at ignoring it. Sometimes it takes radical activism (like some literally dying on our doorstep) to change things.

Alice Paul offered up her life in order to fight injustice. Though she survived the hunger strikes (not every hunger striker does), she still willingly put her body at risk. She was willing to starve on the doorstep of injustice. In doing so, she put the United States to shame, uncovering its disturbing hypocrisy (a hypocrisy that continues today).

She gave herself up willingly.

Was this an act of passive submission?

What do you think?

Those who use the story of the cross to convince oppressed or abused people to stop fighting for justice are missing the point of radical activism. Sometimes, in the face of unrelenting oppression, brave, radical activists stand up and take control of their lives and bodies…

…by giving them up.

When Alice Paul, and Hana Shalabi, and other hunger-strikers stopped eating, it was not an act of submissive, obedient defeat.

 It was a powerful assertion of bodily autonomy in a world that tried to deny their humanity.

 It was a bold act of love by people who were willing to lay down their lives for their friends, their freedom, and their people.

It was a stance that forced oppressors to open their eyes, uncover their ears, and stare into emaciated face of the injustice they had caused. 

The cross of Jesus doesn’t mean that we suffer in silence while we are abused and oppressed. It does not mean that we “turn the other cheek” when we notice others being abused and oppressed. As I wrote earlier this week, we must start to see the cross is a middle finger to the world’s oppressive power structures.

God, as symbolized in the crucifixion, is with the victims who are oppressed. God is also with those who stand up and fight oppression.

The cross is a symbol of both the evils of oppression and of the radical activism that opposes oppression.

We should not have to live in a world where the only way people can gain power and assert their humanity is through hunger strikes. We should not have to live in a world where people are detained in prisons without charge. We should not have to live in a world where people are put to death by crucifixion or lethal injection.

Jesus’ radical activism points us to a new world.

Anyone who tells you that the cross means you have to stop fighting oppression is missing the point.

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  • “Anyone who tells you that the cross means you have to stop fighting oppression is missing the point.”

    While I’m not sure I’m on board with all your premises, I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. This is great.

  • This is a very different view of the crucifixion than I was taught growing up, and I appreciate it. I’ve long admired Alice Paul, too.

  • Patrick

    I have so many thoughts here!

    First off I’m reminded of Renee Girard’s thesis (which I can’t endorse, Girard has a lot of flaws) that Christ’s sacrifice is designed specifically to reveal the mechanism of how people use scapegoating to repair crisis in the community, because it is unjust.

    But I also think about my MA advisor’s book on Self-Inflicted Violence in Late Imperial China, and his chapter on the Chinese tradition of “chaste widows” who performed various forms of self-inflicted violence, up to and including suicide, to resist remarriage desired by the families of their deceased husbands. Dr. Yu frames it, and I agree, as a technique often used to assert agency and control in a society where women were often legally powerless.

    Or of the use by Buddhist monks in Vietnam and Tibet of self-immolation.

    And I think of how Ghandi (who while he had some severe flaws is a very interesting figure) shaped the idea of satyagraha and how terrifying that truth force can be when wielded.

  • This is an interesting topic, but also difficult to sort the complexities. Among the paradoxes, is that God is with those who persecute, as well as those being persecuted (rain falls on the just and unjust – and equally so). This can be confusing. It can’t be right – can it? How do we find a workable perspective from which to view such deep questions?

    Switching our focus, I too take issue with the theme that God required (or requires) a blood sacrifice. This imagery is tightly bound with images of submitting to abuse and can be wielded unethically, as you observe. I believe the root of this understanding goes all the way back to our reading of Genesis, which in my opinion most Christians read improperly. It is not about “original sin.” It is about living in a fundamentally good world, fraught with human error at every turn. It is about realizing we are on a journey of self-discovery, and discovery (perhaps re-discovery) of the Divine, and that truly, “to err, is human.” But I remind myself, this is only half of the observation: “To forgive, Divine.” There is a lot that may be said about this and related topics, but in an effort to remain focused, the question of “original sin” I find to be perhaps the most highly dualistic point of doctrine held in most Christian churches. And it runs deep! Perhaps all the way back to Zoroaster! This is the birth place of religious symbology boiling down to “Good God vs. Evil God.”

    So then, why did Jesus go to the cross and his execution? This is one of the questions I examine in my own blog in “Follow-Up Answers to the Holy Supper vs. Sacrifice” ( I still search for a complete answer to this. I may always. In many ways this is a central question of my own spiritual search. So I cannot answer it here, but perhaps I can offer a thought or two for your consideration?

    One brief answer is that Jesus turned himself in to save the lives of his followers. I think this idea “has legs.” The celebration of Passover under Roman rule was a dangerous period! Rome answered perceived threats quickly, efficiently, and with deadly force. Knowing that many Jews who anticipated the Messiah were expecting a king who would (among other things) free them from Roman rule -a Warrior Messiah- and knowing this was *not* the kind of Messiah Jesus was, Jesus would have known his followers were about to face annihilation. And Jesus did not wish to start a bloody revolt. So he submitted to torture and crucifixion to save those he lived, as well as a great number of people he would never even meet. This is one of the “simple” answers.

    A different category of answer is that of theosis. This too I find has legs. We find a lot of passages where Jesus gives us hints as to his Divine nature. Few Christians object to this point. However, I believe Jesus pointed to an even deeper, more profound point. This is a point few enough of us take seriously… theosis. Jesus said, “I am in my Father –and you, are in me– and I, am in you” (John 14:20).

    I don’t think I could conclude my remarks with a more important thought, so I’ll close on this, hopefully resonate, note.

    • Erik~

      Great name, by the way. That’s my middle name – same spelling too. 😉
      Sacrifice is often depicted in modernity as a depiction of blood thirst and a penchant for death. It wasn’t. Sacrifice was a means of covenant making in the ancient world – the idea being that if you break the covenant, may the fate that befell this animal also befall the covenant breaker. God’s employ of that in making covenant with Abraham was a means of depicting how serious this covenant business was. If you trace it, however, God very quickly begins reshaping sacrifice, its use, and what it means so that it moves away from anything abusive. By Hosea, He is denouncing the offering of sacrifice in lieue of justice. In Jesus, we find the culmination of the Abrahamic covenant and the end of sacrifice altogether.
      It is also worth mentioning that sacrifice was linked to food. One wouldn’t simply kill an animal and be done with it. It would be slaughtered, cooked, and eaten. In the surrounding ANE culture, the sacrifice would be completely consumed by fire as a means of transferring the food to the realm of the gods, where the gods could then eat. In Israelite culture, most of the sacrifices were eaten with a portion then burned. The symbolism is powerfully relational: God invites us in fellowship to the table.
      I actually go into depth tracing the development of sacrifice throughout the pages of scripture here:

  • Marie

    Great food for thought for today. Thanks, Sarah.

  • Good essay and historical context, it seems that the cross means you have to start fighting oppression which is the hard part for many people to comprehend.

  • As a Christian woman, who has struggled to understand and live with the submission model that I’ve been taught all my life, I’ve got to say, this perspective is SO much more empowering than the weak Westernized message of the Gospel I’ve always been taught. It gives way to a freedom I’ve never been able to find before. We don’t deny ourselves just because God says so. We deny ourselves to send a message to the world. Our God is bigger than oppression, and we can be too.

  • Liz

    PREACH it, Sister!! I just discovered your blog via Rachel Held Evans, and I’m in love 🙂 Thanks for speaking words that many of us have no place or way to speak, though we, too, are thinking them. And what powerful and truthful imagery on this Holy (not “Good” in my eyes) Friday. Thank you.

  • “Anyone who tells you that the cross means you have to stop fighting oppression is missing the point.” Wow Sarah I really like this post! I totally had not thought of Jesus’ death this way before. Keep writing. 🙂

  • I hope it is ok, I am reblogging this on and linking back to you.

  • Missy

    I love your thoughts on the subjects around abuse and fundamental beliefs that hold us captive to “other people” and don’t allow us to be free in Christ. Keep posting.
    I have a lot of learning to do myself and I enjoy reading what you have to say.