From the beginning of Christianity, the cross has stood as the central symbol of the new way of looking at life, death, violence, peace and the building of the Reign of God. Indeed, the message of the cross is clear: human activity cannot save humanity, only the suffering of Christ can do that. Over the past century, we have tried again and again to create and enforce our “peace” on the world through the violence of war. The mere fact that the past 110 years have seen a series of armed conflicts resulting in even more conflict should be enough evidence for us to realize that our way is not working.
As Christians we believe that as we willingly share in the suffering of Christ we
are victorious. We can transform our weakness become a blessing for our environment,
our people and our Church. And when we see the cross of Jesus, we are reminded of our baptism, when each of us chose to follow Christ. God calls each of us to act in history in precisely the same way He called Jesus to act: with compassion, fervor, non-violence, unconditional love and with an unswerving belief that the world’s powers can be transformed.
Over the last fifteen hundred years no symbol has been more employed by the Churches than the Cross of Jesus Christ. Yet, despite this fact, what has gone almost unproclaimed in most of these Churches
is that, in its historical context, the Cross of Jesus is a Cross of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. Regrettably, the Cross has regularly been employed by Christians over the last 1700 years as an ensign to lead human beings into the mass slaughter of war. This dissociation of the Cross of Jesus from its historical reality has resulted in the Cross becoming everything from a magical artifact to a motivating logo used to encourage and justify homicidal violence, oppression, brutality, enmity and the lust for power—none of which can be justified in the Gospels.
Jesus goes to His death on the Cross rejecting violence, loving His enemies and praying for those who are
persecuting Him, which should indicate to us that in order to follow Him, our response to the world needs to be made after His example. As Edith Stein points out, it’s good to venerate the cross of Christ, but it’s even better to venerate the presence of Christ in the living souls of other people.
The Cross is a symbol that reminds us that love is what saves us and makes us most fully human. The
Cross is the ultimate expression of Divine Love made visible in a history drenched in sin and pride and evil. In such a history, love means taking serious risks, accepting the high cost of loving. Intended to become a symbol only of violent death and destruction, the cross has instead come to symbolize the absolute victory of God over all earthly power. It is the victory of nonviolent Christ-love on behalf of others. To follow Jesus, then, means to put up one’s sword, to love one another “as I have loved you”, to ask God for forgiveness of those who “know not what they do.“ The Cross reminds us to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.”
The past century has seen more death and destruction through the scourge of war than has been experienced in all the wars in the previous 10,000 years of human history. In every country of the world people gather to remember those who “died for their country” in the armed services, but we also need to remember the other
victims of war: the women, the school children, the older adults simply going about their daily business when destruction came upon them. A popular bumpersticker says, “freedom isn’t free”—which is true enough, but the implication is that war is justifiable and necessary for us to maintain our way of life. We have clung tenaciously to what Walter Wink calls the “Myth of Redemptive Violence”, the idea that whatever the problem is, we can fix it with enough artillery and bombs and military might. While it may be true that violence can effect a temporary cessation of hostilities, it does not and cannot cure the root cause of violence, which is fear and hatred of others. We have walked the path of redemptive violence and we see that it does not work: We have no other option except for the one option we abandoned in the 4th century, namely, employing the nonviolent power of the Cross.
Most institutional churches and most Christians have reinterpreted following Jesus in such a way that His Cross of nonviolent love of friends and enemies is dismissed as irrelevant and naïve. The reason these people disconnect the cross of history from the cross of faith is that they find the weakness and the vulnerability of the Cross undesirable and unrealistic. Most of us simply do not want to live without the power of violence! We view the Cross in worldly terms and see only weakness—and that frightens us. We cannot imagine living a life exclusively under the same divine protection in which Jesus trusted and under which He lived his entire life. We are afraid to risk living by the power of the Cross alone. We believe in the power of the cross, but only after the gun has been unable to deliver the victory to us!
During WWII the churches were filled to capacity every Sunday in this country because the outcome of the war was far from certain. The future of the entire world hung in the balance and despite the record numbers of bombs and planes and artillery, victory wasn’t being achieved by either side. After the war was over and Germany and Japan were defeated, church attendance immediately dropped off significantly. The power of the Cross was useful, but only as a backup plan when conventional military might failed. (It is also, by the way, the advent of what restaurants now call “Sunday brunch”. For the first time in the history of this country, large numbers of people chose to sleep in on Sundays, getting up later in the day, ready to enjoy a meal
prepared by someone else.)
We come again to another Memorial Day, a holiday that began in the aftermath of the Civil War, when families would gather in the various cemeteries and battlefields to place flowers on the graves of their beloved dead. Every generation since then has had its own long list of victims to mourn and remember, and every generation in the future will continue to mark this day with sadness until we make another, better choice for our future. We have tried violence, we have placed our faith in it to resolve the issues of humanity. It seems to me that if we are to truly honor the fallen soldiers of previous wars, we must see to it that their sacrifice results in a world truly at peace, a world without violence.
We say quite frequently that the Cross is our “spes unica”, our “only hope”, but that is not how we live. We need to recover an awareness that the Way of Jesus Christ is the way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. Jesus made this clear through his teaching, sweat, tears, death and resurrection that nonviolent and unconditional love will always be victorious. Always.
We are called right now, in this moment, to follow the Nonviolent One, who was once covered in his own blood but now stands victorious at the empty tomb. By the power of that resurrection, by the same power that raised Christ from the dead, you and I are called to commit ourselves without reservation to the Power and Wisdom of God, embracing the mystery of the cross.
Edith Stein, (now St. Maria Benedicta of the Cross) who died 69 years ago at Auschwitz, believed in the Cross of Christ and its power. She believed in the redemptive power of suffering, and she knew that a Christian does not expect to be exempt from suffering, but rather, through life’s sufferings we are called to the cross of nconditional, nonviolent love. The eyes of the Crucified are upon us, looking at us with a searching gaze.
His eyes are full of compassion because he is painfully aware of the countless number of lives lost because of war. His eyes also hold a question for each of us: “Are you willing, in all sincerity, to follow
my example for the salvation of the world? Are you finally willing to admit that worldly wisdom has not brought you the peace you desire? Are you ready, even now, to embrace the power of my cross?”