Christianity and the Cross in an Age of Empire
“A Christian is one who is striving for liberation” -James Cone
When James Cone began articulating and evangelizing Black Liberation Theology in the mid 20 th century, he was doing a radical thing: claiming that Jesus was on the side of the oppressed. This was only radical because so many Christians had forgotten Jesus’ central message: God was on the side of the oppressed, the same message of all the prophets of Judaism before Jesus. The story of Judaism is a story of God’s relentless love in the midst of oppression, as well as God’s condemnation of participation in oppressing others. As Christianity left Judaism, in many ways it left the Jewish prophetic tradition behind it.
The faith preserved important symbols, however, that are able to resist being coopted. While many today understand the cross as a symbol of Christian faith and regard the symbol with great meaning and power, we often miss the political message of the cross as a reminder of Jesus’ seditious movement and threat to oppressive power structures. The blood of Jesus, shed unjustly by empire, is consumed by the faithful, uniting our life forces with the life force of compassion in carnet. His blood was not wasted; it reminds us of His unwavering love in the face of manipulative displays (and acts) of aggression.
In particular, the cross stands for a willingness to look, to see and acknowledge, the death-dealing and death-wielding forces in our society without flinching. To stand and say, “I see how this works, how it silences, divides, and terrorizes the people of God.” The cross faces those forces without the security of a well-justified revenge fantasy or a willingness to do harm. It faces them without fear, grounded in a deep trust of God’s justice, mercy, and love.
This is what sets Christianity apart from other world religions: our Savior and leader and political figurehead (Lord) was murdered by Empire (see Sept Message). Our faith, like faiths around the world, encourages mindfulness, compassion, generosity, humility, courage, connectedness, detachment from material measures of success, and relationship with the transcendent. What makes us different is our commitment to the cross, our commitment to remembering those who suffer (not just ourselves) and the ways that injustice produces differential experiences of suffering within society. The truth is, some people are made to suffer. It is by design. It is the way Empire was always intended to work.
Christianity has lost its way. In particular, our faith has lost its willingness to confront Empire. We often teach a moralized view of the world, seeking to do and be seen as “good” by some invented standard, thereby viewing ourselves and others as “bad” when we, and they, fall short. All the while, we lose the freedom we have in Christ; we become hyper-aware of our moral-social standing and inevitably privilege our own opinions of ourselves (and others) over God’s opinion. We have become uncomfortable with the idea of “belovedness” as a fundamental, universal attribute of human beings. As our differences become measures of our relative worthiness, we become “more” and “less” beloved children of God.
The Way of Jesus is, by Ibram X. Kendi’s definition, inherently an antiracist faith. “An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals and in all their apparent differences… antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequalities” (Kendi 2019:20). Therefore, learning about antiracism IS learning about the Way of Jesus. Resisting racism is, by definition, resisting Empire. So that is what we are going to do.
In Peace and With Love,