Bearing Crosses and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering, Part 1

Bearing Crosses and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering, Part 1 February 20, 2024

Bearing Crosses and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering


Our reading this second week of Lent is from the gospel of Mark:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

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But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)

Every year when this passage rolls around in the calendar of the lectionary, I’m reminded of how much care and intentionality must be exercised with passages like it. This passage is especially vulnerable to being interpreted in death-dealing ways rather than life-giving ones. It’s one of the central passages that has been used thoughout Christian history to teach the harmful myth of redemptive suffering. Let me share a little bit of personal background.

I grew up as an only child with a single mom. At times, my mom would find herself in abusive relationships with men. Only once did I ever see my mom try to stay and make it work, and that only resulted in harm for both her and me. After that experience, she never hesitated to leave again. I’m proud of my mom for learning how to establish healthy boundaries in her life. While she was alive, through her difficult life experiences, she developed a keen ability to defend and hold onto the value of her humanity and mine. I was her only son. And she would not allow men who even began to reveal red flags that were potentially abusive to take up space in her life.

My mother was a Christian, and I also witnessed many pastors at various times use this week’s passage to encourage her to stay, stick it out, and “turn the other cheek,” to “be like Jesus” and be willing to “take up her cross.” At times, they encouraged this approach with the idea that somehow my mom’s suffering might change, save, or redeem her husband. This is the myth of redemptive suffering: that our suffering can redeem our abusers and oppressors. It’s not only bad advice based on harmful interpretations of what bearing a cross or being like Jesus actually means, but it has literally been lethal to so many women. Women have lost their lives staying with abusive men. (I realize that women are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of abusive partners, and I’m using my own experiences with my mother and her life as my primary reference point.)

As we consider our passage this week, I want to highly recommend the now-classic essay by Brown and Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” We’ll pick up with this essay, in Part 2.


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About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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