Thursday, January 08, 2009

Crucifix or cross?

This was an interesting debate. Make sure you also watch the video. I'd love to hear other reflections on this.

The story in brief: a church in England has removed a 45 year old large crucifix which had hung prominently on the exterior of its building and plan to replace it with a empty cross. The reasons? One negative: the crucifix was too scary, especially to children. One positive: the empty cross is a symbol of hope and resurrection.

The critics say that it is an attempt to sanitise the Christian message, to downplay the reality of human suffering and that only a suffering God can help (to quote Bonhoeffer). The supporters say that they are not removing the cross or denying its centrality, but affirming that the cross must be understood in the light of the resurrection. Jesus' redemptive suffering was not simply that God has entered into our pain and so knows it from the inside, but in the resurrection, has won a victory over it. The narrative of the good news about Jesus does not end with a cross. Thus, the symbol of an empty cross points beyond the moment of pain to that of vindication and so is an image of hope. While I think there is a place for images of Jesus' death and reflecting upon his suffering - and that of a crucified world - I also think that the empty cross is an important witness to the healing of the nations promised by the risen Christ.

But there is a second issue: that the crucifix, depicting Jesus obviously in excruciating* pain was a scary and off-putting image. In feedback from church members, all the comments about it were negative. While I'm with the previously mentioned argument for the theological import of the empty cross, here I think the church members just need to be better educated. "I don't like it" or "It makes me feel uncomfortable" are not sufficient reasons for turning our gaze away. Some images must be faced. The crucified Christ is an accusation. His very refusal to fight back, to vindicate himself, is an accusation against not only the violent oppression of the powerless, and not only against the human rejection of God, but also against our turning away from what makes us squirm. We love the darkness and run from the light. The dying Christ, though not accusing and not defending himself, is even an accusation against our self-righteous desire for moral self-preservation. His is the kind of accusation that wins over those who will lower their guard to look at him, who allow themselves to be scandalised at such an image but who move on to being scandalised at their own scandalisation. His accusation is that we spend too long accusing others or defending ourselves and do not simply accept God's verdict upon us. The God who says "no" to all our self-destructive self-obsession in order to "yes" to our very selves.
*Describing the cross as "excruciating" is as tautological as saying it is "crucial".


Anthony Douglas said...

Hmm. I wonder if the crucifix is cruciating, and the empty cross is ex-cruciating...;-)

I could make a joke about the crux of the matter, but will show self-restraint. Or you might get cross.

I think you're right, of course. The primary symbol - the kind of thing you'd label the building with - should be the cross. But their reasons are weak. Maybe they should take the figure off the crucifix, give him a shave, and put him beside it to represent generic humanity...

Jonathan said...

Of course you're right about not avoiding the pain of the cross, but I simply don't get the idea of the empty cross as more of a symbol of hope. For anyone who knows the good news, the crucifixion does not end with the cross, and so comes with hope. Perhaps the empty cross is a more neutral symbol than the crucifix, not drawing us to dwell on death at the expense of the resurrection, but it doesn't in itself point to hope. In most cases, an empty cross spoke of a body taken down and buried - it is not an empty tomb. In this particular case, outside a church, I suspect all it will say to most people is "This is a church".

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron

I had some thoughts back in May about this issue: