Iconic image is where salvation lies, says David Robertson
In a recent survey, the McDonald’s “M” and the Coca-Cola emblem were beaten into second and third place as iconic symbols by the cross.
In the modern-day world, that does seem a little strange. The cross is such a powerful symbol that a group called American Atheists has demanded that it be removed from a display at New York’s 9/11 memorial museum because it “causes mental anguish”. Apparently, atheists who visit the museum would have their visit spoiled by the presence of such a Christian symbol.
The cross is, of course, ugly. I have always struggled with the idea of people wearing one as jewellery. Death by crucifixion was one of the most horrendous forms of capital punishment ever derived by man. After being beaten and tortured, the victims were forced to carry their own cross to the execution site and then had their hands and feet nailed to it. Sometimes support was given (wooden footrests, for example, being nailed to the cross), not out of mercy but to prolong the agony. Death could take up to three days. If the victim was not supported, then hanging from nail-pierced wrists would lead to exhaustion, suffocation, brain death and heart failure.
The cross is offensive not just because of what it is, but also what it represents and teaches. Jesus Christ died for us and because of us. He suffered spiritually as well as physically: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He suffered the death that we deserved to die so that we might live the eternal life that he offers. To both the religious and the non-religious, that is deeply offensive. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion sums it up in his usual pithy manner: “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent … if God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them?”
Like the French philosopher Rousseau, we want to believe there is not that much wrong with us, and even if there was, “God will forgive me, that’s his job”. Many in the Church also find the cross offensive. That is why this Easter, many sermons will speak of Easter bunnies, spring, chocolate and give an almost Pythonesque “always look on the bright side of life” version of the cross. Some professing Christians are so repelled by the cross, that they reject the very heart of Christianity. And thus the Church, for whom Christ died, rejects the very death that brings it life.
Could it be that the idea of atonement is real and that what is in us is so deep and so ingrained that only the most radical action and surgery could get it out? We like to think that people who commit what we call inhuman acts are not human. Those who live in the Disneyesque modernist fantasy world of the enlightenment liberal do like to keep telling themselves that human beings are basically good and getting better. It’s what we mean by “progressive”. But what if that is not true? What if there is evil out there? Even worse, what if there is evil within me? How can that be dealt with?
People will offer many solutions. From a kind of moralistic, therapeutic deism, “God is good, so you be good too”, to a Blairite “things can only get better”. But for me, the cross offers real hope because, while it shows us the horrendous evil of human sin, it also shows us the wonderful and only realistic solution to the problem of human evil. Pope Benedict sums it up nicely: “Enmity with God is the source of all that poisons man; overcoming this enmity is the basic condition for peace in the world. Only the man who is reconciled with God can also be reconciled and in harmony with himself, and only the man who is reconciled with God and with himself can establish peace around him and throughout the world. That reconciliation and peace comes through the cross”. That’s why, this Easter, we follow the example of the early Church and preach Christ crucified.
When Jesus went to the cross, he was forsaken – not just by his people, his enemies, and his friends and family, he was also forsaken by his Father. He became the sin bearer. The punishment that brought us peace was laid upon him. He bore our hell. He was forsaken, so that we would not be.
The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not cause mental anguish; it relieves that anguish. There is forgiveness, freedom, new birth, hope and renewal – all because of what happened on that hill far away, on the old rugged cross. Cherish it. Think about it. Act upon it. Happy Easter.
• David Robertson is director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity in Dundee: www.solas-cpc.org