Does the Cross Perpetuate Suffering? (In the Wrong Hands, Yes)

Does the Cross Perpetuate Suffering? (In the Wrong Hands, Yes) September 1, 2015

Does the Christian cross, as a symbol of the suffering of Christ, contribute to more suffering and victimization?

Crucifixion by Theophanes the Cretan
Crucifixion by Theophanes the Cretan

Here’s a nice warning from Moltmann’s The Crucified God on the ways that the cross as a symbol of suffering is often used to perpetuate the suffering of the oppressed.

Moltmann is in the midst of explaining what he calls the “mysticism of the cross,” which is an approach to the cross as a symbol that when spiritually internalized in the midst of suffering and death brings healing, and salvation to the one who appropriates it.

This mystical approach can be–in the wrong hands–be used to solidify unjust power structures because it can encourage passive, apathetic resignation by the suffering and active oppression by the powers. The true message of the cross should expose and explode that bad theology.

 One can perhaps apply to this mysticism of the cross of the poor, the sick and the slaves the saying of Karl Marx: ‘Religion is the groaning of oppressed creation, the heart of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of situations where there is no spirit.’ The point of this mysticism of the cross is missed if it is seen as only the ‘opium of the people’, given to them by their masters to keep them quiet, as is suggested by the other expression of Lenin, that religion is ‘opium for the people.’

Of course the mysticism of suffering can easily be perverted into a justification of suffering itself. The mysticism of the cross can of course praise submission to fate as a virtue and be perverted into melancholy apathy. To suffer with the crucified Christ can also lead to self-pity. But faith is then dissociated from the suffering Christ, seeing him as no more than a replaceable pattern for one’s own sufferings, as the patient sufferer who provides the example for one’s endurance of an alien destiny.

His suffering is then no longer of special significance for one’s own acceptance of suffering. It does not change anything in it, nor does it change the human being who suffers. The church has much abused the theology of the cross and the mysticism of the passion in the interest of those who cause the suffering…

Thus it makes a difference who speaks of this mysticism of the cross, to whom he speaks and in whose interests he speaks. In a world of domination and oppression one must pay close attention to the concrete function of any preaching and any devotion. An ‘opium for the people’, produced by those who caused the suffering, this mysticism of suffering is a blasphemy, a kind of monstrous product of inhumanity.” (48-49)


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