Solidarity: The Cross Shows Us Where to Find God
February 20, 2020
When we ask the question, “Why did Jesus die?” it’s tempting to start with the snarky but true response, “Because people killed him.” Jesus was kind and gentle and amazing to just about everyone he encountered, except for the religious and cultural and political elite of his age. When he wasn’t calling them flamingly cruel hypocrites, he ignored them and undermined their authority and messaging. Of course, they’d conspire to silence or eliminate him. Jesus seemed to know his ministry would end this way.
The cross at first seems like a pretty specific version of our cultural lament: This is why we can’t have nice things.
We could end our inquiry with this tragic observation, except that Jesus and his first followers didn’t cast Jesus as a victim. They saw the cross as part of the plan, in fact, a central part of Jesus’ destiny. Jesus death there wasn’t the end of his impact on earth, but the heart of its beginnings.
So let’s make our question a little more specific. We’ll ask not just why Jesus died, but why Jesus thought he had to die as he did. What was God doing or showing us on the cross? And why does that matter still?
There are many theories and metaphors that all partially answer these questions, and I find four of them especially powerful. We’ll look at the first of those four today, and follow with three others in the weeks to come.
Jesus died to show us where God is.
More specifically, Jesus died because God’s love compels God to be in solidarity with humanity’s greatest suffering.
Let’s follow three very different thinkers who explore this – the great American theologian James Cone, the Catholic priest and gang intervention leader Father Greg Boyle, and the folk-rock American icon Johnny Cash.
In 2011, the late great theologian James Cone published a little book titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I’ve heard it said that it is the most important book about God ever published in this country. I’ve read it a couple of times now, once with the staff at Reservoir, and I can’t disagree. It’s a book of horror and of devotion. Cone pulls together the two symbols that have most terrorized African-Americans. There’s the cross, the flaming version of which has become an emblem of White supremacy. And there’s the lynching tree, the means of death for thousands of African Americans at the hands of White American racists. And Cone asks how these symbols speak to one another. How do we approach the cross of Christ through the American experience of the lynching tree? This might sound like painful or morbid work, but Cone argues that an American can’t faithfully respond to the Jesus who died on the cross, without making the comparison to our nation’s most similar practice of execution.
After all, under Rome, the cross was a tool of violence, wielded by the powerful to terrorize, humiliate, and subjugate the less powerful, and often ethnic and religious outsiders in particular. The scriptures evoke this mode of death in poetry that resonates in this context, saying of Christ, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
The Cross and the Lynching Tree has a lot to say, but it starts with the inarguable implication that Jesus is closer to the experience of Black American suffering than White American religion. The God who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, whose biographies climax in his death on a cross, suffers with those who have (as Howard Thurman put it) “their backs against the wall”, and especially with those who suffer terror or violence at the hands of the powerful and privileged. God is in loving and powerful solidarity with Black Americans, and with all people whose lives and heritage and resilience are born of oppression.
Depending on your perspective and experience, this can be profoundly comforting and liberating, or profoundly unsettling.
How do you react to this God of the cross? How do you respond to the God of solidarity?
James Cone shows us that where you find God is in solidarity with your suffering, you can trust and love this God, and you can hope in this God for your liberation. The story of the cross after all doesn’t end with a dying Jesus, but one who rises from the dead, with a Roman empire that eventually outlaws and banishes crucifixion, and with an image of shame become an image of redemption.
Where your life has included shame or humiliation, suffering or grief, I hope that the cross tells you that God is profoundly with you there, that Jesus has brought God into your suffering to accompany you, to liberate you, or to reframe your story beyond the victimization that others may have intended for you.
And where those of us are troubled, or confused, or provoked by the God of solidary, we can hear an invitation to join God where God can still most be found. God is not on the side of oppressors, and God is not on the sidelines. God is with the oppressed. This is the insight of two very different American religious voices I’ve been listening to lately – Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, and Johnny Cash, the American country/rock singer born of depression-era rural White Southern poverty, but who became the Man in Black, friend to American prisoners and addicts and others who suffer.
Father Greg Boyle’s life work is among poor, traumatized gang members, coming alongside them for their healing and liberation. He insists he does this not to save gang members, or bring God to them, but to be saved by them, and find God with them. Boyle reminds us that when Jesus says we love Jesus by loving those who are poor or imprisoned or estranged, Jesus is saying that he is with those people and the ones being saved aren’t them, but the people who love them. Those who are marginalized are the best spiritual guides for those of who are less so. Greg Boyle’s teaching has been challenging me to consider what radical kinship the human family means for me.
I’ve also been listening to the music and message of Johnny Cash, thanks to psychologist Richard Beck’s fascinating little book Trains, Jesus, Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. Beck explores why Cash couldn’t stop singing about murderers and convicts and all kinds of American stories of suffering, and why he loved to sing these songs to American prisoners in particular.
Beck writes, “This is the gospel according to the Man in Black: drawing near to and loving the lost, unnoticed, unremarkable, excluded, powerless, broken, condemned, and despicable. Solidary is a love that grows warmest in the coldest places.” (32) If we want to find more faith, or more of God, we’ll most reliably do that in loving connection with those God lives with most. If you want more hope, go where God is stirring hope among the hopeless. Put more crassly, “Hope is where your ass is.” (33)
I am not an expert in solidarity, so I can’t teach us how to do it. I’m a relatively wealthy, privileged, White American middle class pastor. I’m just finding my way. But this is why I’ve started to spend some time in jail. This is why I’m learning to organize with and on behalf of disempowered residents of our state. This is why I’m trying to learn a new relational lifestyle of radical kinship. I can’t tell you how, but I welcome you on the road with me.
Let’s find the God of the cross together.