Carrying the Cross in Public
Used with permission from Boston at en.wikipedia
In the summer of 2012, Junior Garcia carried a 12-foot wooden cross from his home in Texas to Washington, DC, in an attempt to share the gospel in the public square.
In February of this year, a secular group filed a lawsuit to remove a 40-foot tall cross from public land in a suburb of Washington, DC. A quick Google search will reveal lots of similar stories.
What does it mean to bear the cross in public? This is a question that has been on my mind a lot as I prepare to join other Christians in Washington, DC, for Ecumenical Advocacy Days this weekend. I sincerely doubt that many of us will show up with literal crosses on our backs. And erecting a marble/wooden/plastic cross on the National Mall doesn't appear on my copy of the agenda. Yet, many of us will travel to Washington believing that people marked by the cross have something worthwhile to say in the public square. We will carry the cross in public, to the halls of our government.
Too often, Christians have carried the cross in public with a steady supply of nails, ready to pin down and condemn their neighbors. The public face of Christianity in America, it seems to me, is too often a posse of crucifiers, rather than a communion gathered around the crucified. To bear the cross in public does not mean fighting over monuments or carrying literal crosses, and it certainly does not mean entering political life with a readiness to put others on the cross. As Lutherans, we believe that we are marked by the cross in baptism and shaped by it for our whole lives. We are a cruciform ("cross-shaped") people, who bear our mark in private – at home or church – and in public – as workers and citizens. And this must mean something more profound than either of the alternatives above.
To bear the cross, to enter politics and public life as one shaped by the cross, is to be marked by three qualities: humility, honesty and love.
The cross is a problem that confounded early Christians and continues to confound us. Christian history is filled with attempts to explain the cross, but the cross is nothing short of a scandal. To bear the troubling cross is to carry with us the humble awareness that we don't have all the answers. The cross restrains those who would enter the public square with a triumphalist Christianity as much as it chastens those who believe that any human government or policy or law can ultimately solve all the world's problems.
The first person who reveals Jesus' true identity in the Gospel of Mark is the most unlikely of characters: "Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, 'Truly this man was the Son of God!'" (Mark 15:39). In the Gospel of Luke, it is from a common criminal, executed with Jesus, that we hear a clear pronouncement of Jesus' innocence and a sustaining faith in the coming Kingdom of God (Luke 23:39-43).
To be marked by the cross is also to recognize that wisdom and clear sight are gifts God grants in unlikely places, to unexpected people. Cross-shaped advocates recognize this and remain open to this wisdom wherever it arises. This means being open to dialogue and discernment with a variety of people. Being shaped by the openness that comes from humility, we know that public life is lived in common, among people with diverse gifts.
To bear the cross is to be marked by honesty. We know as well as Isaiah did that "truth stumbles in the public square" (Is. 59:14). Yet, as cross-shaped advocates, we are called to speak the truth from a long tradition of truth-tellers, ancestors like Moses, who "spoke truth to tyrannical power" (Paul Hanson, Political Engagement as Biblical Mandate, p. 32) and Amos, who refused to be silent in the face of injustice.
Most of us know the famous story of David and Bathsheba. David saw Bathsheba bathing, desired her and so arranged for the death of her husband. After David had claimed her for his own, the prophet Nathan told him the story of a rich man who cheated a poor man out of the one small lamb that the poor man had raised (see 2 Samuel 12:1-15). "Who is this man? He deserves to die!" David exclaimed, to which Nathan, in an ironic turn, shouts, "You are the man!" Nathan holds a mirror up to David to reveal to the king his own injustice. Sent by God, Nathan dares to speak the truth when power becomes corrupt.
The cross, too, is a mirror. We see in its torturous use the oppressive power of the Roman empire. It reveals to us the depth of human sin which would lead us to kill our own savior. There is nothing joyous or triumphant here; there is simply a body broken by the political and religious power that sin corrupts. To bear the cross is to hold up a mirror to a sinful world. This means channeling Nathan and speaking the truth in the face of injustice. It means telling the stories many don't wish to hear. Truth demands that we speak up, with and, sometimes, for those who really are "left behind": the poor, the marginalized and the excluded.
Yet, to carry the cross is also to be a loving presence within the public square. The cross reveals the depth of human sin, but it also reveals the more profound depths of God's love. And the empty cross reveals that, in the end, it is God's love – and not human sin – which wins out. The cross reveals a broken humanity, persons whose lives are one long via dolorosa, who cannot overcome injustice on their own. To carry the cross in public is to accompany in love those who are treated unjustly.
To be a Christian advocate for justice demands – and offers – much more than dogged pursuit of a policy or a position. Perhaps by taking up our cross as Lutherans, we can showcase a faithful citizenship that is loving, just and worth listening to.
Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is the Program Director of Hunger Education for ELCA World Hunger. Ryan.Cumming@ELCA.org