The call to “carry our cross” is… intense. I don’t know that talking and thinking about it means as much as just doing it, but then Jesus did leave us not only His example but also His words. We have to understand what He calls us to do; we have to count the cost.
Reading books about cruciformity such as “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and “Cruciformity” by Michael J. Gorman have been an excellent starting-point for me on this subject. If not for anything, they have helped me recognize how we as Christians can easily take the cross for granted as a gift to us from Jesus rather than the entire definition of the life of discipleship He calls us to. Books, history, and the life of Christians in the past can effectively point us back to hearing Jesus speak to us today, loud and clear.
Figuring out what “take up your cross” means isn’t easy, and it isn’t simply an intellectual exercise. But, as we meditate and mull, some parts of the picture began to become just a little clearer.
It’s just like the story of Dirk Willems. There’s something about his life and death that was reflective of Jesus’s call so much that it speaks so powerfully to us today. It elaborates to us the call of the cross that we can easily miss amidst beautiful symbols and songs about redemption and Jesus’s sacrifice. We tell these stories, we read about the martyrs and we put reminders of what cross-carrying means across our church and home life… and we absolutely should. Even our Christian sacraments center around the cross – not only what Jesus did for us, but what Jesus calls us to participate in.
Baptism is actually our cruciform death with Him and the Lord’s Supper is our partaking in the sacrifice of His body and blood. Partaking! Not just receiving, but actually being called to the same sacrifice. Jesus’s first-century listeners understood this.
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, (John 6:53-54)
When Jesus explained this, the reaction of people was that this was simply too difficult.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”… From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:60; 63)
Jesus did not exercise power over a single person in His lifetime. He called and invited people to follow Him, and they did because they were drawn to Him. But He coerced no one, and people easily went away. The entire, compelling power of Jesus was in His transformative, cruciform example. Those who heard His voice chose of their own volition to attach themselves to Him. He didn’t command and dictate as the religious leaders did, but led by example.
Sometimes we Christians may think, “Well such and such a situation calls for more aggression and power than just carrying the cross. We need to step in, show who’s boss, and set things straight. Things won’t get done unless we make them happen.”
I think in being tempted away from the cross we diminish (in our minds) its transformative power. If we think we need any other example to follow than Jesus’s, I think we’re telling Him that He’s not enough for us and that His ways are “foolish” or a “stumbling-block” (1 Corinthians 1:23). We edge closer to conformity with the world.
However, sometimes, we do the opposite. We water down the cross into saccharine, doormat-like behaviour. We think it only means patiently enduring harm, allowing violence to happen, and being silent and beaten down. We create overblown theologies of suffering that worsen the guilt and sorrow of those who are actually suffering in our midst. We develop martyr-complexes, but of an out-of-context form that isn’t glorifying or redemptive.
Sacrificial love, for example, is taught to victims of abuse. We heap burdens on them, wounding them and expecting them to somehow be able to love and forgive unrepentant and manipulative abusers into redemption. We put the most burdens on the least power, when Jesus actually called the most powerful to the greatest contrast of sacrifice and humility.
No! If there’s anything about the example of Christ and the martyrs, it is that carrying the cross is not simply allowing oppressors to overcome us. Jesus did not merely let Himself be defeated by Rome – He defeated the principalities and powers. The words “overcoming”, “defiance”, and “subversion” come to mind, but the most powerful word that captures the message of cross to oppressors is “rebuke”.
The cross is a rebuke to oppression and a rebuke to violence. The politics of Jesus is to refuse the sword and rebuke the sword.
The cross, a symbol of Rome’s cruel, imperial might and of the shame and weakness they tried to portray in Jesus, mocking Him as the “King of the Jews”… this symbol becomes our rallying-cry as Christians. What was shame is glory. What was oppression is victory.
But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. (Galatians 6:14 KJV)
For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2 KJV)
There is a reason why the Roman centurion recognized something completely different in Jesus. A man who was a servant of Caesar’s empire, who carried out acts of terror and violence, who was trained to conquer and dominate and exert his rule over the Judeans and any other colonized subjects… this was the man who saw Jesus and said, “Surely he was the son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
Martyrs who went to their deaths were sometimes gagged so they could stop defiantly preaching the gospel and converting spectators. Many who witnessed and carried out their deaths were ashamed. When we carry the proverbial pack one extra mile, when we turn the other cheek, when we give someone our tunic along with our cloak when they demand the shirt off our backs… we are actually echoing Christ’s steadfast rebuke of evil.
In short, therefore, the cross is the only means God ordains for the transformation of the world. Domination, coercion and force are out of the question. Secondly, the cross is not about being overcome by evil, but by overcoming evil with good. We do not allow evil to perpetuate and we do not give oppressors power. We instead expose abuse for the shame that it is and call oppressors to repentance. We become a witness to the powers.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19)
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, (1 Corinthians 1:27-28)
For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? (1 Corinthians 2:25)
Thus, the entire of the political call of the church, to peace, nonviolence, suffering love, etc. is encapsulated for us in the word “cruciformity”, that is, becoming like Jesus as revealed to us on the cross. We are to arm ourselves with the “same mind” as Christ in His suffering, rejoice when we can partake in them (1 Peter 4:1; 12-13)
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; (Philippians 3:8-10)
Many of us aren’t facing radical life-and-death choices on an everyday basis, however. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what it means to carry the cross today. I think Jesus encapsulated that very simply by saying “love your neighbour”. This often requires a transformation of the heart. I had one such experience in September 2019 and thought to share it, though it is quite a small and insignificant example.
I was browsing through our version of the dollar store, wandering from aisle to aisle while listening to the Third Way, podcast about nonviolent political theology. It all was going swimmingly. I was enjoying myself, looking at through electronics, hardware, crafts, home decor… However, by the time I got to the aisle of plastic baskets, mixing bowls and pails, I felt more than just intellectual stimulation from a rousing discussion of politics, theology and the Kingdom. It was something that I hadn’t felt in a long time – God convicting me.
Radical love was an idea broached by the podcast in contrast to the terms nonviolence and nonresistance. It refers to the love that we disciples of Jesus are required to have for the people around us, whether neighbours or strangers, strangers or brethren. And then, as I picked up a couple of mixing bowls, I realised that there was one group of people that I have failed, completely, to love as Christ loves.
Shocked, I internally protested. God, I do love these people, or at least some of them, but I can’t trust them. Not when they hurl threats and slurs, not when there were acts of violence that one time where people actually died. They spread hateful lies and rhetoric, treat us like second-class citizens, and reject giving us full recognition of equality. Discrimination, prejudice, and Othering… being treated like we will never really belong… we are a minority who will never have as much power as they do. We are told that we should be grateful for whatever benevolence and tolerance we’re given. it’s unfair.
In God’s eyes, however, these are people without Him, sheep He wants to gather into His fold. These are people who have not experienced the transformative example of the cross. Christians like me have two choices, really: we can fight for our rights and alienate our oppressors who will increasingly see us as threats, or we can lay down our ethnic loyalties and causes, reach across the dividing wall, and put the gospel first.
I remember John 18:36 convicting me, years earlier, that “This is not our Kingdom. This is not our fight.”. And while I had rejected this fight in many ways, I still carried some level of resentment. It was buried deep and I was unconscious of it until that moment when God called it into question.
What happens when you are subject to the whims of an oppressive system, whether benevolent or not? What happens if all of this is outside your control, and you can choose to fight back or you can choose to inwardly simmer? This is a different situation than that in some communities where it is Christians who twist the Bible into a tool of racism, as the weapon of the oppressive majority – I’m not saying roll over and not take a Biblical stance on justice. However, in a situation where I can control only my own attitudes, to choose between anger or love, God moved in my heart that day and told me that I needed to choose love.
Relinquishing resentment carries with it a cost, a kind of precarity and uncertainty for what the future may hold and what this love will demand. I learned three things that day.
- Clinging to ethnicity and culture, and all the values, prejudices and loyalties that entails, is antithetical to the Kingdom of God. Having an in-group identity means alienating my neighbour in disobedience to Jesus.
- The only way that we can live out the gospel and share the gospel is to lower down our barriers of self-protection and actually be willing to love sacrificially.
This is honestly not something I wanted to hear. Outwardly, I may have smiled and been nice. It’s not that I’ve behaved in a hateful way. However, the cross is more than just outward tolerance. Even in my human attempts to be a “good person”, I had fallen short of love. The attitudes buried deep within my heart, fueled by real-life injustices past and present – these all had to be buried with Him through baptism into death
Maybe that’s why we’ve been so unsuccessful in evangelism, because we’re caught up in a conflicting battle for ourselves against our “enemies” and have let the gospel fall to the wayside. Maybe it’s because we haven’t gone beyond ourselves and what we’re comfortable with. We haven’t laid down even our well-deserved human rights for the sake of the lost.
A Christianity that is married to a political agenda, even the fight for equality, fairness, self-preservation and political power for ourselves. is not really the following of Jesus at all. To really follow Jesus, I have to lay down my natural allegiances, my own “family”, my own prejudices, my own safety, to radically love people who see me as “other”. I cannot fight two battles, serve two masters or be full citizens of two different Kingdoms. This is the situation the true church most often finds itself in anyway – marginality and powerlessness.
If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find Him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
I left the store that day having looked the cashier in the eye and feeling for the first time, inwardly free and not weighed down by unconscious negativity. It was gelassenheit – the peace that comes from yielding something human and broken for something divine and whole. In the intervening years, I don’t know that that much has changed, outwardly. I haven’t baptized a multitude or turned the world upside down, but that was, I guess, a little start and a beginner’s lesson.