Barbara Brown Zigmund is dean of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 18, 1984, p. 395. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The cross is a supremely ambiguous force in the life of every Christian. It is both bad and good, shameful and inspiring, a burden and a blessing, a curse and a cure. It is both condemnation and salvation. The cross uniquely symbolizes the complex theological content of the entire Christian faith.
When I was growing up in Detroit, I lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Most of my high school friends went to Hebrew school and followed kosher diets. I was different: I went to church. And in that mixed cultural setting I was not always sure what it meant to be a Christian.
I do remember, however, that on my 13th birthday my parents gave me a little gold cross on a chain. I wore it proudly. It reminded me that I was a Christian and told others that I was different. Although I did not fully grasp the meaning of that cross (or any cross), I understood its power to bind and divide people. And, of course, when you are a teen-ager you need to know where you belong.
The most well known of all Christian symbols, the cross has for centuries marked the graves of Christians, perched high on steeples, inspired soldiers to wage holy war, or rested silently on altars between two candles. What is it for us? How does the cross of Christ call us into Christian unity?
We all know that the cross originally was something not to revere, but to abhor. It was not a symbol, but a concrete means of cruel and agonizing death. To be crucified, or to have known someone who was crucified, was shameful and demeaning.
But Jesus Christ transformed the cross from a brutal tool of execution into a promise. Jesus died on a cross, between two thieves; yet, because of who he was and because of the transforming experiences of Easter, the cross became for Christians a symbol of glory and victory. In the cross of Christ we glory, even as our lives are judged beneath its shadow.
The cross, therefore, is a supremely ambiguous force in the life of every Christian. It is both bad and good, shameful and inspiring, a burden and a blessing, a curse and a cure. It is both condemnation and salvation. The cross uniquely symbolizes the complex theological content of the entire Christian faith.
We are one through the cross in that we are broken, but still bound together, for despite our divisions we share a common promise. Although we know that the broken body of the church is real, we also come together in hope for its healing. The ambiguity of the ecumenical journey is grounded in the ambiguity of the cross. As some theologians say, it lives within the now and the not yet. In our denominational bureaucracies and confessional traditions, which partake of the brokenness and shame of the cross, we also have an ecumenical faith that the Easter promise calls us to be one.
When I reflect on the cross I am reminded that its ambiguity is its strength. It symbolizes the ironic fact that many of the divisive forces at work in the world, seeming to embody evil and destruction, also contain the seeds of hope. Things springing from the divisive, troublesome and even evil aspects of human life can also lead to redemption. Signs of unity can be discerned even in the fragmentation and confrontation of the daily news. What crosses today call us to discover that we are really one?
I think especially of three contemporary developments that seem to contain the promise of the risen Christ even as they express the pain of Golgotha. These three things frighten and discourage me daily, yet I also know that they are generating powerful forces for unity and human salvation.
The first of these is the worldwide concern about the arms race, and the cry for peace rising from the human community around the world. The specter of nuclear war is akin to a corporate Golgotha: it threatens to kill with prolonged pain and torture; it allows us to have conversations with the enemy, even as we face death; it dramatizes our relationships to others who are crucified; it reduces our possessions and property to stakes in a cruel game; it limits onlookers — like the women at the cross — to watching and praying from afar, powerless to stop the destruction.
Yet this cross of the threat of unthinkable war, like the cross on which Jesus hung, sometimes speaks to us of forgiveness and redemption. Jesus forgave those who crucified him, blessed the thief dying with him, and charged others to care for his mother. In the pain of that cross the wonder of God’s love and care was shared, and the nature of human faithfulness became known.
The increasing awareness of the horror of nuclear war is also generating faithfulness. In the peace movement there is promise. Against this threat of war our historic divisions and differences and our nationalistic and ideological loyalties pale. Because nuclear war is unthinkable to everyone, the call for peace transcends and ignores every human difference, making us one.
How ironic that out of the threat of war we experience the promise of unity. Christians are joining with other Christians; Christians are joining with peoples of other faiths; peoples of all faiths are joining with those of little faith. Is the threat of nuclear calamity a cross pointing toward Easter?
Or consider the struggle for human rights. Throughout the history of the world there have been peoples suffering terribly under oppressive rule and inhumane social systems. In the past, family structures, slavery and caste kept many from recognizing or challenging social injustice. Today, however, certain common understandings of human rights are emerging among the majority of the world’s population. National and international organizations formalize and seek to protect these rights for everyone. World opinion and global communication keep nations and leaders accountable.
Yet the very technology which crosses cultural barriers also allows new forms of oppression to flourish. In recent years many people have lost some of their basic rights. Terrorist conflict, martial law and nonrepresentative governments distort the quality of life for millions of citizens around the world. It is a depressing Golgotha scene where a few soldiers gamble for the possessions of the crucified.
But in the midst of this pain, faithfulness emerges. The shared knowledge of injustice is empowering. Because neighbors refuse to pass by on the other side, resistance does not always lead to martyrdom. In the midst of massive human-rights violations, the promise of human dignity draws diverse peoples together. A more global awareness of human-rights violations is calling people everywhere to speak out against injustice and to work to assure that every person has fullness of life. Is this another cross pointing toward Easter?
And finally, I notice that the controversies raised by the women’s movement are disturbing and spiritually unnerving the faith of many church people. Although this issue may not be as life-threatening as nuclear war, or as universal as human rights, it is very distressing. The women’s movement highlights ambiguity, while we yearn to escape from ambiguities. Today women are challenging understandings of the right to life, our definitions of priestly authority and the nature of the church, and even the very language we use to share our faith. Yet this cross of controversy, like the cross of Calvary, also contains the promise of Easter.
Women have always been caretakers of life, conceiving, anticipating, birthing and feeding the young, healing and revering the ill and the aged. In recent years. however, women have become more self-conscious about their moral responsibility in making choices. Medical progress has changed the context for decision-making. In every community of faith, contemporary women seek the freedom and the assistance which will allow them to make responsible choices that are faithful to their understanding of God.
“Freedom of choice” and the “right to life” do not need to be opposites. In the midst of bitter controversy some women are finding that the common struggle to be faithful draws them together. Unity emerges in the cross they share.
Or consider the divisive question of women’s ordination. Although women have always been ministers in the church, definitions and authorizations for ministry have been rooted in patriarchal Scripture and tradition. Church leadership has been defined according to the mores of existing cultures. In our time many women (and I number myself among them) believe that the gifts of ordained leadership must be honored in women as well as in men. We press for recognition of these gifts.
Yet many Christians, even those who agree with us, urge us to be patient. They fear that the fragile ecumenical community that has emerged in the past 100 years will be destroyed if we are too assertive. They believe that the goal of unity should not be weakened by excessive concern about women’s place in the church.
This is an attitude that many women resent and fight. In the midst of their pain and discouragement, however, they also find hope. Women and men are discovering new patterns of unity, while isolated women find that sisters in distant parts of the world share their call. Angry women insist that a unity failing to recognize the radical equality of women and men in the church is not the unity of Jesus Christ. Out of struggle Christian oneness is strengthened, not weakened.
Finally, the language we use to speak about our faith has become controversial, dividing rather than uniting us. Women have raised theological consciousness about the patriarchal bias of certain words shaping our prayers and even our thoughts. They have challenged forms of piety as well as theology.
In recent months the publication of the Inclusive Language Lectionary by the National Council of Churches has highlighted the importance of language. It was created because many Christians were concerned that faith must free itself from the linguistic habits of the ancient world and the interpretations of previous translators.
The Inclusive Language Lectionary seeks “to recast some of the wording of the Revised Standard Version in order to provide to both the reader and hearer a sense of belonging to a Christian faith community in which truly all are one in Christ.”
At the same time many other Christians have found this effort offensive. They argue that we cannot change language without compromising the very nature of the faith. A small book by Vernard Eller, The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism (Eerdmans, 1982), puts their case this way:
We can possibly know of God only as much as he has chosen to reveal of himself. And he has revealed himself to us only in, by, and through our own history, by way of that which is relevant to our own historical existence. He has addressed us only as his beloved, only as feminine co-respondent to his own masculinity, not as confidant to his existence before the worlds began.
To press for language which describes “the God beyond gender” may be “evading the subordination attendant upon confessing him as husband or father or lord.”
Although I do not agree with this position, I know that Christians feel strongly about language. It is a controversy which threatens to weaken our life together. Sometimes it seems petty to argue about word choice in the face of life-threatening problems. But in the controversy over language there is ecumenical energy. Past divisions and previous alliances among Christians are rearranging themselves. Christian women and men concerned about their capacity to communicate accurately are finding new opportunities to share their faith with each other.
In women’s concerns about choices, about the church’s ministry, and about the language of faith there is great pain. But it is also possible to see the ambiguity and irony of the cross in these controversies. Do they, too, constitute a cross which points toward Easter?
The cross stands at the heart of our hope for unity. Paul noted how nationalistic divisions could set nations and peoples against each other; yet he believed in the power of Christ to bring peace between Jew and Greek. Paul recognized those social systems which violated human dignity; yet he believed that in Christ slavery was transcended. And finally, Paul observed that gender had nothing to do with faithfulness. Christian unity involved the entire community of women and men. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, and there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When I consider the escalating arms race, the insensitivity of oppressive governments, and the unrest created by women’s issues in our churches. I am not likely to view them as redemptive. Just as the disciples could not see Easter beyond the cross, I become discouraged and look in other places to find God’s grace.
But if we are called into unity through the cross, we need to look again. It may be that the most horrible, discouraging, divisive or troublesome developments in the world and the church today are the very things that can lead us toward our oneness in Christ, for struggle and conflict create continuity. After all, we are the people who believe that death on a cross gave Easter its power. We are called to be one through the cross of our Lord.