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Christ's cross is unAmerican, thank God

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Recently, I felt led to pick up Jurgen Moltmann's, Crucified God. It unfolds a story of the Triune God unrecognizable to most in US Christianity. I wrote this blog post after reading it.

It's still hard to make sense of the cross from an ordinary and this-worldly point of view. Most Christians I know have an insider's take on the cross. Their explanation sounds like a formula. Jesus died to save them. I see something less self-serving. When I consider the story of a god who dies humiliated on a tree, I hear a message that is wildly prophetic and counter to American culture. The primary message of Christ's cross is not "How to get into heaven." It's much more radical than that.

My culture, American culture, glorifies freedom. But, American freedom isn't generic freedom. It's a certain kind of freedom.

America worships freedom wed to power. It's the power to have what you want, be who you want, and say and do what you want.

Unlike universal or shared freedoms, American freedom compromises little. It's self-fulfilling and self-righteous. Its real character shows quickly whenever American wants (individual or national) become grand, demanding, or just run up against limits like the rights or freedom of others. Then, America's brand of freedom gets naked. Real Americans, the patriotic ones, believe in an "F- you, I can do what I want" kind of freedom. Real freedom gets what it wants.

The US has become an empire. Our culture and ideals have changed with it. Our brand of freedom is now defined in empire-definitions. It's reinforced throughout US culture and politics. American self-fulfillment, self-interest, autonomy and self-determination are at their best when they're limitless. American sports, entertainment, business and industry, and even American religion reinforce this definition.

Rome had the Coliseum. America completely outdoes Rome. Sports not only entertain and distract. Displays of competition reinforce the logic of empire. American power is superior strength, skill, cunning, desire, and fate in the face of chance. Freedom is the spoils of winning. Only one rises to the top. True freedom goes to the one who dominates. So it is with empire.

We also love our heroes in Hollywood and Washington. Entertainment and politics may seem strange bedfellows. They are not. Empire propaganda is transparent, even unconscious. It appeals to our base emotions. Our heroes on-screen - whether Netflix or news - do what they want and say what they want. Freedom pushes boundaries. Its heroes break the laws of decency. Its heroes are morally ambiguous. (Morality and ethics are legitimizing, but ultimately constraining.) To show true freedom, they'll act outside the law. It's entertaining, emotionally vindicating, and captivating. Most of all, it reminds us of American freedom. Do what you want. Say what you want. Defy limits. So, we approve with our likes, screen time, and votes.

Self-improvement, from make-up to wellness, also promises us freedom to be our true selves. We can be who we want. We can look 25 at 55. We can be healthier. We can push harder, do better, do more, set new PRs (personal records), and live longer. Good is the enemy of better, but you have to be your best. Here's a product, plan, promotion...and we consume happily.

American free enterprise is the engine of American global dominance. It promises opportunities to achieve anything we want. It promises profits to accumulate as much as we want. Free as free markets means very little is off-limits. In free enterprise, taxes, regulations, environmental protections, even the government itself, are limits. So the ideology of American freedom and free markets tends to oppose them, like permits and background checks.

Even American Christianity promises our religion is the biggest and the best. You can believe whatever you want in America but also know our God is the biggest, strongest, and the only way to heaven. The Prosperity Gospel augments eternal salvation with wealth and comfort in this life.

American religion is more about self-determination and self-fulfillment than about wisdom, metaphysical questions, or the interrelatedness of everything. Empire religion isn't interested in limits. In America, freedom is a compulsory belief. Individuals are compelled to believe they are sovereign, free, and deserving of self-fulfillment unrestricted by others. We want to self-determine, be our own authority, and be free to choose. This kind of liberty and freedom is found on all ends of most American political spectrums. My point is not that human beings have limited or finite freedoms. (Though, we do.) My point is that American culture not only devalues human interdependence, vulnerability, and weakness. Empire is ignorant of it. Our culture and brand of freedom have become ignorant of it. And, I think it will eventually be our American undoing.

Empire, by definition, has no alternative. Empires are exceptional. Its rule and culture represent themselves as the best and most desirable. Empire culture and its propaganda reflect the empire's identity, values, and way of life as superior to all others. The rest are lesser. Second best is first loser. But, if those others are smart, they'll emulate "us" because losers want to be winners.

Empires win. Empires are built on beliefs in supremacy and power. Power is defined and managed by military, economy, culture and religion. Because dominance and supremacy must be consistently maintained and reinforced, empire associates vulnerability and dependence with inferior or lesser power. Empire beliefs make interdependence, vulnerability, and compromise logically negative. They are a lack or inadequacy. Vulnerability is weak. It marks a breaking point where winners are separated from the losers. The best are separated from the rest. Freedom becomes its opposite. Vulnerability, interdependence, and weakness are limits, and contrary to true freedom. But, of course, it's not presented to us so simplistically. We're nearly unconscious of the empire propaganda arounds us. This is because empire propaganda can go a step further.

America's entertainment, official history, and influence on religion include representations of weakness, vulnerability, and interdependence. But, it's a noble choice. Choice makes vulnerability and dependence an exercise of power. The hero rescues the damsel; the soldier liberates the victim; the winner is generous to the loser; the good guy gives the villain a second chance. But, they do so because they can. They have the power. They don't need to because American freedom is supreme. It's the best, and does what it wants. Heroes of empire and its freedoms choose moments to be vulnerable and dependent on others because they're free to. Such representations make power and supremacy acceptable, even comforting.

Vulnerability humanizes power and supremacy by giving domination a human face. A culture that glorifies uncompromising freedom and invulnerable power must show that its sovereign power is not just desirable. It must also appear moral. That's why we accept, even appreciate, empire.

I see something very different depicted on the cross.

Christianity uniquely proclaims God's nature and purpose are revealed in Jesus' cross. The cross is the center of Christian faith, the hinge on which its faith pivots, and its soul. The resurrection is not the soul of Christian faith. Resurrection is necessary, but it is not faith's center. Resurrection, whether we interpret it as literal or figurative, is logically possible with any death. So the logic of divine things goes. (Consider the Gospel stories of Lazarus or Jairus' daughter....or the Egyptian myth of the Phoenix) But, Jesus' cross is absolutely dehumanizing and humiliating. It's a violent death, a political display of empire's public emasculation. It was designed to erase its victim's identity and significance, to make an example of their nothingness.

The cross is not just a way to die. It's more accurately a symbol of domination and dehumanization by a supreme power. This is how Christianity proclaims God's being in the world.

When Christians claim God was in Christ, God enters the human condition. Trinitarian theology goes further to proclaim God's will is revealed in the Son's death. This is where the cross of Christian faith is pivotal

Traditional interpretations of Jesus' cross focus on a necessary sacrifice. By some diving mandate, either God or sin demands a ransom payment. But, this interpretation strips Jesus' cross from its real-world revelation. It becomes a stage for some cosmic gift given through a Father who chooses his Son's murder. The logic of sacrifice doesn't adequately explain why the cross was necessary.

By itself, a sacrifice to God or for God could have happened in the Temple. It could have been transacted in some holy rite or self-sacrifice. But, that's not what happens. The cross is political. On the cross, God faces empire. The cross also reveals God among the godless and hopelessly vulnerable.

Jesus is literally lynched and tortured. He faces a sham court proceeding that castes him out of Jerusalem in an act that removes him from any sense of belonging to God's people or the covenant. He's taken to a place for outsiders, where the city's garbage is burned. There, he is stripped naked, nailed to a tree, ridiculed by onlookers and scorned as an example to others. His manner of death is reserved for disobedient slaves and radical dissidents planning armed rebellion. He dies a scapegoat in a display designed to demonstrate the empire's absolute power. He's godless (accused of being a blasphemer) and friendless (his disciples deny him). In a weekend, he goes from parade lead to nobody. By his own words, the Son dies utterly abandoned by his Father, God. Later, the first Christians argue Trinity on the cross. God, the Father, is present in the Son as he dies. This is Christianity's proclamation to the world.

The cross is in no way just some ransom payment a cosmic drama to appease God's anger or satisfy justice. That begs more explanation. A loving Father does not murder His son in a vindictive display of domination just to expose his weakness and vulnerability. Yet, Christianity says this death is the pivot on which Jesus becomes Christ.

If that's true, then God in Christ journeys with Jesus all the way to humiliation and vulnerability on the cross. In that death, something about God's nature and purpose is revealed in Rome's manner of violently disposing of him. Paul argues throughout his writings, as does John, that this can only be the work of a God of Love, who is Love. The way of the cross is the way of God. But, what kind of God loves like this?

Only a vulnerable Father who suffers death with and in his Son does this. Only a vulnerable God who suffers death with and for God's people does this. Only God's way of vulnerability, interdependence, and suffering love reveals God's true purpose and being. Jesus' ministry also reveals this. Jesus chooses to reveal God's reign among Israel's sinners, outcasts, scapegoated and godless (the Gentile). Why? To reveal what gets revealed ultimately on the cross. It's where God's heart and purpose are. Jesus is like them. He is poor, vulnerable, and scapegoated on the cross, declared a blasphemer.

If this is true, Christianity has a wildly prophetic message to American empire. Human vulnerability is holy. Trinitarian faith doubles down on this message. God is present and revealed in Jesus through and beyond the cross. This reveals God's interdependence and vulnerability in humanity. If Jesus is our humanity, God is present with us, between us and in us. This is the way.

Resurrection simply confirms what Jesus already shows. Human vulnerability, interdependence, and weakness are divine. They have overcome death and will overcome empire. Empire's freedom, domination, and power are not ultimate. With God, American freedom and power are a lie. Christ reveals it. It's not a greater power that overcomes empire. God's vulnerability in Jesus, God's interdependence in him and with him, and the weakness of suffering love outstrip all worldly claims to supremacy, freedom and power. If all of this is true, then Christianity has a prophetic message to proclaim in US culture and empire. It's a profound countercultural and alternative message. It points away from freedom to want all you can want, and to a completely un-empire-like freedom and way of life.

I wonder whether anyone can see it or hear it.

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