Q & R: What about the cross? (A Good Friday meditation)

Here’s the Q:
I’ve read most of you’ve written, at least in book form. Your writings have been a great source of companionship and hope for me over the years. Your writings have helped me shift from what was a more “belief” centered understanding of Christianity and life, to a “faith” centered understanding of Chrisianity and life. It has been liberating as a whole. The burden of thinking the right beliefs can be exhausting and migrating toward faith based in love is much more transformational, both personally and globally.
Yet, there is a little fundamentalist that still resides in me, a little ballast in my ship that resembles core beliefs. I’m trying to process how the Christianity I attach myself to has any particularities. Anything that sets us apart from other great religions. Loving God thru loving others can be done thru other religions. Though I’ve migrated away from a need to nail down atonement theories, (I’ve especially moved away the substitutionary version, though I’m surrounded by many who embrace it), I wonder if Christianity particulars still prominently revolve around the cross.
Do you recommend other books that could help me navigate this world, or do you have thoughts you could offer? I don’t want to take a lot of time away from your world and commitments, but any insight or resource you could offer would be greatly appreciated.
I hope you and yours have a blessed Easter!
Here’s the R:
Thanks for this important question. I’m glad you found The Great Spiritual Migration helpful … Many people have told me it upset their “inner fundamentalist,” and that’s not a bad thing!
Two things especially interest me in your question.
First, it’s fascinating that you mention the word “particularities,” by which you mean “anything that sets us apart from other great religions.”
What I’d say in response is that I am with you 100% on the need to understand and celebrate Christian particularities. That’s a much better term than “exclusivity,” I think, because a religion can be particular, even unique, without being exclusive.  Christian faith, like every other religion, arose in a particular context. It has a particular core message (although there is less agreement on that core message than most people realize!). And its history has unfolded in a particular way.
What is most particular, most unique about Christianity is Jesus. Jesus makes a particular and unique contribution to humanity. If we lose that understanding of Jesus’ uniqueness, we’re all worse off.
Of course, it can also be said that Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and others have contributed unique messages and examples and practices to the world. The followers of all these religious leaders – Jesus included – have at times built wisely upon the foundation of those unique messages, while at other times, tragically, they have obscured and even betrayed them.
So to be a Christian, I believe, is to frame our lives by the unique and particular life and teaching of Jesus. While that doesn’t preclude you from learning invaluable lessons from the Buddha or Mohammed – or from Darwin or Hawking for that matter – it means that Jesus is, for you, at the center, and he serves as the gracious host who invites truth, beauty, and wisdom to be welcome, whatever their source.
I do need to add one thing. Today’s Christians, especially white Christians, need to be aware that our inherited version of Christianity was deeply (mal)formed by the Doctrine of Discovery and all that it entailed. (See the work of Mark Charles for more on this – or Part 2 of The Great Spiritual Migration.) This sense of white Christian privilege intensified through many forms of Calvinism (in the US, in South Africa, and elsewhere), and often went undercover in terms like “manifest destiny” and “American exceptionalism.” We need to be careful that our desire for our faith to have particular and unique contributions to make isn’t confused with or polluted by the need to be “exceptional” … which too easily slides into “supremacist.”
Second, on this Good Friday, I’m especially interested in your question whether Christianity “prominently revolves around the cross.” Because you and I come from a similar background that installed a similar “inner fundamentalist” inside us, we both know that for many people, to say Christianity revolves around the cross actually means it revolves around an atonement theory … a theory (penal substitutionary atonement) about what the cross is and does.
In that view, the cross is central because it somehow changes God’s heart toward us. God’s wrath (as a popular song says it) is “satisfied” by being poured out or vented upon Jesus. We were both brought up being told that was the heart or gospel of Christianity.
A much better understanding of the cross arises when we ask this question: is the problem between us and God on God’s side or our side? Is God’s heart hard toward us, or is ours hard toward God? If God’s heart is by definition OK – always loving, always just – then the problem must be on our side.
Which raises the question on this Good Friday … if we ponder “the sacred head now wounded,” if we meditate on the “wond’rous cross on which the prince of glory died,” if we open our hearts to the great suffering of Jesus, from mocking and scourging to crucifixion and stabbing … what effect does it have on us?
Does it reveal to us that God loves us with a love that is willing to suffer and forgive rather than inflict revenge? Does it reveal to us the ugliness of human violence – and the ease with which religious and political institutions unleash violence on innocent people like Jesus? And does that dual realization (again, in the words of a beautiful hymn) inspire awe in our hearts at “the wonders of redeeming love” and “our unworthiness”?
If the cross works on us that way, then the cross is indeed central to our faith.
But it is not central in a way that marginalizes Jesus’ resurrection, or Jesus’ teaching, or Jesus’ way of life from day to day. Rather, cross/resurrection/teaching/way of life are all bound together in a powerful revelation of what God is like … and what we can aspire to imitate as image-bearers of God.
Finally, you asked about other resources. Here are a few.
1. The work of Derek Flood offers great insight …
2. … as does the work of Brian Zahnd and
3. … the work of Tony Jones, especially in Did God Kill Jesus?
4. Finally, I’m a big fan of the work of Rene Girard and the light it sheds on the meaning of the cross. I give a summary of Girard in a few chapters of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road. Two excellent entrees into Girard’s work are Compassion or Apocalypse and the amazing website of Paul Nuecheterlein.
On Good Friday, my heart is always stirred by this beautiful hymn:
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