Mary C Boys. Cross Currents. Volume 44, Issue 1. Spring 1994.
The scandal of the cross consists in this: Christians in their history have made it a sign of conquering hate rather than sacrificial love. It is now time to ask whether the cross itself can be redeemed.
The cross is a symbol on which I was raised. Although I cannot remember the first prayer I was taught, it is highly likely that, as with nearly all Catholic children, I was initially taught to make the “sign of the cross.” This ritual dates back at least to the early third century; in Tertullian (ca. 160-230) we read: “We make the sign of the cross on our forehead at every turn, at our going in or coming out of the house, while dressing, while putting on our shoes, when we are taking a bath, before and after meals, when we light the lamps, when we go to bed or sit down, and in all the ordinary activities of daily life.”
Although we may have taken Tertullian further than he intended—I think of routinely making the sign of the cross when I stood poised at the free-throw line in a basketball game—we did indeed trace that sign upon ourselves.
Originally, of course, it was traced upon us in baptism. We began and ended all prayers with the sign of the cross. When I started going to church, I learned to sign myself—dipping my hand in the blessed water, thus recalling the waters of baptism. The cross, usually in the form of the crucifix, dominated the sanctuary in nearly every church I entered. In the classroom of the Catholic schools I attended, we looked upon the crucifix at the front and center of the classroom. We participated in rituals such as the “stations of the cross” and the veneration of the cross on Good Friday, and on Holy Thursday sang in our processions the Pange Lingua, the sixth-century hymn of Venantius Fortunatus:
Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminiset super crucis trophaeo dic triumphum nobilem,qualiter redemptor orbis immolatus vicerit.Sing, my tongue, the glorious battleSing the ending of the fray.Now above the cross, the trophy,Sound the loud triumphant lay;Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,As a victim won the day.
Though we did not have a Bible in our home, we did have a crucifix, one handed down in the family. When I made my first communion, I was given a cross by my family—a cross we passed on a few years ago to another first communicant, a little girl dear to us. When I professed my vows in 1968, the bishop presented us with two symbols of our intensification of the baptismal promises: the crucifix and Book of Constitutions of our congregation. And when I die, that crucifix will be placed on my breast along with the copy of my vows.
So it is from my earliest days to my final end that I am marked with the sign of the cross. It is a symbol in my bone marrow.
Yet, as Paul Ricoeur says, symbols give rise to thought. And my thoughts have been complicated by the painful recognition that this central symbol of Christian life has a shadow side—a realization I owe initially to Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. Asher Lev, member of a community of Ladover Hasidim and brilliant artist, seeks to find a form that might express his mother’s suffering during her years of anxious waiting for his father to return from his travels on behalf of the Rebbe, as well as her anxieties about her son’s journeys:
I stretched a canvas identical in size to the painting now on the easel. I put the painting against a wall and put the fresh canvas in its place. With charcoal, I drew the frame of the living-room window of our Brooklyn apartment. I drew the strip of wood that divided the window and the slanting bottom of the Venetian blind a few inches from the top of the window. On top—not behind this time, but on top—of the window I drew my mother in her housecoat, with her arms extended along the horizontal of the blind, her wrists tied to it with the cords of the blind, her legs tied at the ankles to the vertical of the inner frame with another section of the cord of the blind. I arched her body and twisted her head. I drew my father standing to her right, dressed in a hat and coat and carrying an attache case. I drew myself standing to her left, dressed in paint-spattered clothes and a fisherman’s cap and holding a palette and a long spearlike brush. I exaggerated the size of the palette and balanced it by exaggerating the size of my father’s attache case. We were looking at my mother and at each other. I split my mother’s head into balanced segments, one looking at me, one looking at my father, one looking upward. The torment, the tearing anguish I felt in her, I put into her mouth, into the twisting curve of her head, the arching of her slight body, the clenching of her small fists, the taut downward pointing of her thin legs…I painted swiftly in a strange nerveless frenzy of energy. For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.
Lev has appropriated the very symbol under which his people suffered at Christian hands. His two paintings, Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II, evoke revulsion and rage. The form he has chosen elicits only the bitter memories of persecution. His paintings, consequently, are beyond the ken of his community: how could this son of faithful parents betray them by painting the very image that represents generations of dispute, domination, denunciation, and death for Jews?
So it is in this essay that I examine a symbol that bears the history of our relationship as Christians and Jews. That history, of course, is a complicated one, with far too many twists and turns to explore in one narrative. If, however, we keep the symbol of the cross before us as we follow the sweep of major periods—the New Testament period, the early church, the Crusades and the High Middle Ages—we find a compelling and tragic story of two peoples who carry radically different memories of a single symbol. It is a story that enables us to understand more profoundly the recent, painful breach between Christians and Jews over the convent at Auschwitz.
Ultimately, this story evokes a question, which the final sections of my essay explore: given its history, should Christians lay aside the cross as a symbol of their life?
The New Testament and the Cross
Let us begin with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth itself, circa April of 30 C.E. Political and military leaders regarded crucifixion as a chilling deterrent—brutal and bloody, yet cheap and effective. A capital penalty widespread in antiquity, no other punishment quite so effectively humiliated the naked victim, who hung suspended at a prominent place for crowds to taunt and who was generally left unburied for carrion to dispose of. In Roman practice, the victims of crucifixion were nearly always dangerous criminals and members of the lowest classes.
No wonder, then, that Paul could write that the Crucified One emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself in obedience unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:7-8). No wonder, too, that early Christians avoided representing the body of Christ on the cross.
“Paul’s Jesus did not die just any death; he was `given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way.” Jesus’ death was in the world’s eyes foolishness (moria), a scandal (skandalon), yet in God’s eyes wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24). “For the foolishness of God is wiser than humankind, and the weakness of God is stronger than humankind” (1 Cor. 1:25). For Paul this radical act of folly was nothing less than an act of divine power; in Jesus’ death the Holy One had identified with human wretchedness. For Paul this event made everything else relative. In a profound note of irony, Paul made the cross a source for boasting: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
In the gentile circles in which Paul moved, this message indeed appeared ludicrous. Yet Paul would not relent. Let others regard his proclamation as folly. God’s power was made manifest in death, which had now lost its sting (see 1 Cor. 15:56). God had triumphed over evil.
One wonders what might have become of Paul’s interpretation of the death-resurrection of Jesus had it not become linked with later polemical preaching against the synagogue. By the latter part of the first century, however, the proclamation of God’s wisdom had an added twist. “Men of Israel,…” Luke portrays Peter preaching in the portico of Solomon, “the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers [mothers], glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate…” (Acts 3: 11a, 13; emphasis added). Now the preaching had taken a polemical turn. The Jews crucified Jesus (see Acts 4:10; 5:30; 7:52)-an accusation that had staying power particularly because of its emphasis in the Gospel of John. By the time of the Gospels, the “followers of the Way” had both to attain respectability in the Roman Empire and to assert their identity vis-a-vis the synagogue. Hence, their passion story diminished Roman culpability, especially that of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and projected it onto the Jews.
The Cross and the Charge of Deicide
Late in the second century, Melito of Sardis added still another twist to the polemics: in crucifying Jesus the Jews have murdered God. Thus originated the charge of deicide, an accusation that took a fierce hold on the Christian imagination. Melito’s charge resonated in fourth-century Antioch when a presbyter of uncommon rhetorical power, John Chrysostom, inveighed against Christians attracted to the celebration of Jewish festivals and to worship in the synagogue (“Judaizers”). Like Paul, he linked the crucifixion to foolishness—but of a very different sort. “Is it not folly for those who worship the crucified to celebrate festivals with those who crucified him? This is not only stupid—it is sheer madness.” God’s back has been turned to the Jews:
What sort of folly, what kind of madness, to participate in the festivals of those who are dishonored, abandoned by God, and provoked the Lord….They killed the son of your Lord, and you dare to gather with them in the same place? When the one who was killed by them honors you by making you a brother and fellow heir, you dishonor him by revering his murderers, those who crucified him, and by attending their festival assemblies? You enter their defiled synagogues, you pass through impure gates, and you share in the table of demons. That is what I am persuaded to call the Jewish fast after the God-slaying. What else can one call those who set themselves against God than worshippers of demons?
The Cross: Divine Victory
Not only had the folly of the cross become something quite different in Chrysostom’s invective, but Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge in 313 also transmuted the symbol. The emperor ordered that the banner of the cross be carried at the head of each of his armies as it went into battle. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-339) described the vision inspiring Constantine’s order:
He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
… And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.
Thus, it became, in Eusebius’s terms, “the victory-granting cross.”
For Paul, too, the cross had represented victory—God’s victory over the grip of death and evil. Lost now was the Pauline insight that the victory of the cross came through vulnerability. The cross of the Constantinian era symbolized only triumph; another of Fortunatus’s compositions, the Vexilla regis, most likely sung as part of a procession heralded by the cross, resounds with nothing but victory:
Vexilla regis prodeunt,Fulget crucis mysteriumThe royal banners forward go,The cross shines forth with mystic glow.
Throughout the early Middle Ages, jeweled crosses such as in the mosaic of the church of Santa Pudentiana in Rome, testified to the glories of divine triumph. Still another witness is the Anglo-Saxon poem, “Dream of the Rood.”
Lo! I will tell the dearest of dreamsThat I dreamed in the midnight when mortal menWere sunk in slumber. Me-seemed I sawA wondrous Tree towering in air,Most shining of crosses compassed with light.Brightly that beacon was gilded with gold;Jewels adorned it fair at the foot,Five on the shoulder-beam, blazing in splendour.Through all creation the angels of GodBeheld it shining—no cross of shame!Holy spirits gazed on its gleaming,Men upon earth and all this great creation.Wondrous that Tree, that Token of triumph,And I a transgressor soiled with my sins!I gazed on the Rood arrayed in gloryShining in beauty and gilded with gold,The Cross of the Saviour beset with gems.
The Cross as Sword: The Crusades
In the eleventh century the victory motif began to be dramatized in a new and terrible way in the Crusades, so called because of the cross emblazoned on the tunic of each crusader (croises, crociati). Here the cross became a clarion call to liberate the “Holy Land” from “infidels,” i.e., the Muslims. In violation of papal policy, however, the baser elements among the crusaders raped, and pillaged, and murdered “infidels” closer to home, i.e., the Jews. As Marc Saperstein comments, “the cross, the symbol in which the massacres were perpetrated, acquired powerful negative associations for Jews that linger to this day.”
Pope Urban II had called for the First Crusade at the conclusion of the Council of Clermont in November 1095 in order to free the churches of the East, especially Jerusalem’s, from Muslim domination and to liberate the city of Jerusalem. Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith contends that the pope’s absorption in the liberation of the holy city Jerusalem “almost certainly led Urban to introduce for crusaders the wearing of the cross, reflecting contemporary preoccupations with the cross as a devotional symbol, with the crucifixion and with the duty of men to follow the way of the cross.”
The papal summons attracted both disciplined armies, who constituted the official contingent that set forth on the designated date of August 15,1096, and popular crusaders of various sorts who departed on schedules of their own making. Among the latter group was that led by the Rhineland count, Emicho of Leiningen. His men massacred all the Jews they could find in the towns of Speyer, Worms and Mainz in May 1096; then they continued to Regesburg, Metz, Prague and throughout Bohemia until they were defeated by the Hungarians. Emicho’s marauders on occasion spared Jews who converted to Christianity under the threat of the sword.
What motives drove these malevolent crusaders? Historians have offered a variety of explanations, including greed and eschatological fervor. Gavin Langmuir notes their geographic roots in northeastern France and the Rhineland, lands where Germanic culture confronted Mediterranean influences. He suggests they had overlaid their Germanic religiosity—replete with imagery of warfare—with Christian symbols. “To them,” he argues, “it seemed ridiculous to go and kill distant Moslems before dealing first with God’s enemies close at hand, the Jews who had killed Christ.” Apparently, the religious symbols of Christianity, most notably the cross, served as a catalyst for their energies without at the same time offering a vision of a new society. Unable to conceive a new image of Christian life in the midst of the social and cultural upheavals, they “were prepared to take any action, however extreme, that seemed to reconnect them with God and reassure them of the value of their existence.” Langmuir contends:
The preaching of the crusade had excited some of the most alienated, frustrated, and aggressive individuals, who sought immediate gratification, to give new meaning for their lives through violence that was connected with Christ through Christian symbols and that would, they had been told, save them. The symbolically designated object closest at hand was the relatively defenseless Jews, “God’s worst enemies,” a central symbol for Christians but also real humans who could be subjugated or killed.
Riley-Smith offers a complementary hypothesis: the desire for vengeance was a major factor in motivating the crusaders. Many knights in the West would have interpreted the initial call to liberate the Holy Land as a summons to avenge injury to feudal lords or kin. But why, they may well have reasoned, exact vengeance only against the Muslims who had occupied Christ’s city, Jerusalem, for 450 years—why not also wreak vengeance on the Jews, who had caused Christ’s death?
The motive of revenge can be traced in a number of documents. For example, both Christian and Jewish sources record variants on this vengeful call to arms:
Behold we journey a long way to seek the idolatrous shrine and to take vengeance upon the Muslims. But here are the Jews dwelling among us, whose ancestors killed him and crucified him groundlessly. Let us take vengeance first upon them. Let us wipe them out as a nation; Israel’s name will be mentioned no more.
Echoes of this mentality resonate in the Chanson d’Antioche, one of the great vernacular epics of the First Crusade. In this stanza the “good thief” (see Luke 23:40-43) addresses the crucified Christ:
“It would be most just, moreover, if you should be avengedOn these treacherous Jews by whom you are so tormented.”When Our Lord heard him he turned towards him:”Friend,” said he, “the people are not yet bornWho will come to avenge me with their steel lances.So they will come to kill the faithless pagansWho have always refused my commandments.Holy Christianity will be honoured by themAnd my land conquered and my country freed.A thousand years from today they will be baptized and raisedAnd will cause the Holy Sepulchre to be regained and adored … know certainlyThat from over the seas will come a new raceWhich will take revenge on the death of its father.”
In sum, the First Crusade cast a long shadow on the “victory-granting cross.” True, bishops attempted to protect Jews in the lands under their jurisdiction. True, massacres such as those led by Count Emicho flagrantly violated papal policy and canon law. True, Emperor Henry IV granted Jews who had converted under duress permission to return to the practice of Judaism. True, great preachers such as Bernard of Clairvaux in the Second Crusade (1147-1149) preached against the persecution and murder of Jews with such persuasive power that the massacres of the previous campaign were largely prevented. But a fundamental turning point had been reached: Christian anti-Judaism after 1096 became increasingly “general and violent.” Again, Saperstein:
. . . there are grounds for seeing the anti-Jewish violence of the Crusades as symbolic, if not symptomatic, of a profound change. The massacres revealed that lower levels of Christian society could not be counted upon to behave toward the Jews as official doctrine taught, that popular antipathy could be stirred up by lesser clergy and spill over into violence unsanctioned by king or pope. From the Jewish side, this antipathy was fervently reciprocated, the Hebrew chronicles of the Crusades are filled with expressions of contempt for all that Christians hold sacred. The biblical imprecation “Pour out your wrath upon the nations that do not know you” (Ps. 79:6) was incorporated into the Passover Haggadah at this time. New systems of Jewish thought would emerge in which all contact with Christians was viewed as dangerous and sullying.
The Cross ant Charges of Ritual Murder
Roughly a century later, the Christian assault on Jews in the name of the cross found another expression in the accusation of the ritual murder by Jews of a Christian lad, William of Norwich, in 1144. Note how the author, the monk Thomas of Monmouth, plays on the imagery of the passion of Jesus:
For they esteemed him to be especially fit for their work, either because they had learnt that he was guileless and skillful, or, because attracted to him by their avarice, they thought they could bargain with him for a lower price. Or, as I rather believe, because by the ordering of divine providence he had been predestined to martyrdom from the beginning of time, and gradually step by step was drawn on, and chosen to be made a mock of and to be put to death by the Jews, in scorn of the Lord’s Passion, as one of little foresight, and so the more fit for them….Then the boy, like an innocent lamb, was led to the slaughter…. Having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn-points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made. And so cruel were they and so eager to inflict pain that it was difficult to say whether they were more cruel or more ingenious in their tortures. For their skill in torturing kept up the strength of their cruelty and ministered arms thereto.
And thus, while these enemies of the Christian name were rioting in the spirit of malignity around the boy, some of those present adjudged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion, as though they would say: “Even as we condemned the Christ to a shameful death, so let us also condemn the Christian, so that, uniting the Lord and his servant in a like punishment, we may retort upon themselves the pain of that reproach which they impute to us.”
Conspiring therefore, to accomplish the crime of this great and detestable malice, they next laid their blood-stained hands upon the innocent victim, and having lifted him from the ground and fastened him upon the cross, they vied with one another in their efforts to make an end of him. . .
Hence it was laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in scorn and contempt of Christ, that so they might avenge their sufferings on him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ’s death that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land.
William receives honorable mention in the first edition of Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints (17569, later shortened to The Lives of the Saints): “William of Norwich, another victim of the implacable rage of the Jews against our holy religion.” This was simply the first in a long series of such accusations: at Wurzburg (1147), Gloucester (1168), Blois (1171), Bury St. Edmunds (1181), and Winchester (1192) in the twelfth century alone.
On a similar note, Christians of the town of Fulda (in Germany) accused the Jews of Fulda in 1235 of killing two boys and taking their blood. As a consequence, thirty-four Jews were put to death—a few of the thousands of Jews to be charged and killed over the next centuries for the “crime” of ritual murder. The fact that popes from Innocent IV (1247) to Clement XIII (1763) issued a series of decrees rejecting the charge of ritual murder suggests the hold the accusations had on the Christian imagination. Gregory X (1271-76) issued a bull in 1272 which declared that the testimony of a Christian against a Jew had no validity unless it was confirmed by a Jew, but the bull appeared to have had little effect.
In the thirteenth century, Christian biblical commentators taught that the Jews had recognized Jesus as savior and son of God but killed him deliberately nonetheless. In a similar vein, accusations that the Jews tortured Christ by desecrating the consecrated host also arose in thirteenth century France and England, and spread rapidly through Germany and Austria. These charges led to the murder of thousands of Jews in retaliation.
As is painfully evident, by the fourteenth century a new level of hostility toward Jews had built up. Tragically, developments in spirituality offered no counterpoint; on the contrary, they seem all too related, as the next section testifies.
The Cross and Devotion to the Passion of Jesus
Perhaps these accusations reflect another dimension of what many have recognized as the flowering of devotion to the passion of Jesus in the later medieval period. In the thirteenth century the renewed emphasis on the humanity of Christ found expression in a new meditative form in which the person meditating enters into the event as if he or she were an eyewitness or actor. Bonaventure’s Lignum vitae provides a stellar example. Thus he instructed his readers: “With your mind’s eye, see some thrusting the cross into the earth, others equipped with nails and hammers, others with the ladder and other instruments, others giving orders about what should be done, and others stripping him.” Sermons and passion plays amplified such meditations; in the fourteenth century, vernacular passion plays came into prominence. There was a feverish intensity in this medieval piety, a violence of emotion startling to moderns. German crucifixes of the fourteenth century, for instance, frequently portrayed Christ’s body in grotesquely distorted fashion, blood gushing profusely from his wounds. A German author detailed the mob that apprehended Jesus in the garden in vivid and imaginative prose; his descriptions were akin to the later paintings of Hiernonymous Bosch. Pietas became popular, with Mary as the model of compassion for those seeking to share the sufferings of Jesus.
As graphic as the art was the hagiography of the period. The saints of the fourteenth century “immersed themselves in devotional ceremony which gave them a sense of identification with the suffering Christ.” An emotional cult of the passion developed; meditation on the passion, often before the crucifix and with relics of the passion, characterized the devotions of the period. The saints seemed obsessed with details of the passion. Henry of Suso’s Little Book of Eternal Wisdom provides a vivid example:
See, My right hand was pieced by a nail, My left hand was transfixed. My right arm was stretched out, and My left most painfully twisted, My right foot was cut, and My left cruelly hacked through. I hung impotently, and My Divine legs were most weary. All my tender limbs were immovably riveted to the narrow halter. My hot blood burst out copiously through many a wound, in My anguish, so that My dying body was covered with blood, which was a distressful sight. Behold, a lamentable thing: My young, fair healthy body began to grow grey, to dry up and wither. The gentle weary back leant painfully on the rough cross, My heavy body sank down, My whole frame was bruised, wounded and cut through and through—and yet My loving heart bore all this lovingly.
As Ludolf of Saxony exhorted: “We must bear Christ’s cross, and help him to bear it, in our heart, by recollection and compassion; in our mouth, through frequent and devout thanksgiving; and in our body, by flagellation and castigation—so that we give thanks to our Savior by our heart, our mouth, and our deeds.” In their extreme asceticism, many saints of the fourteenth century inflicted upon themselves excruciating pain in imitation of Christ.
One wonders about the effect the devotional literature on the passion had on Christian perception of the Jews. For instance, Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations influenced artists such as Roger van der Wyeden, Albrecht Durer, Antonello da Messina, El Greco and Mathias Grunewald, reports a vision she had as a young girl. Seeing the figure of the crucified Christ, she asked him, “Oh Lord, who has done this to you?” Jesus responded to her: “Those who despise me and neglect my love—they have done this to me.”
Who did Bridget and her contemporaries understand the enemies to be?
Would it not be likely that those who meditated so intensely on the passion of Jesus would have carried intense feeling toward those whom they believed to be responsible for his death—the Jews? Would this not be all the more likely in an era when charges of ritual murder rang throughout northern Europe? When Jews, according to the decrees of Lateran Council IV (1215) were not to go forth in public in the last three days before Easter, lest by being better dressed than Christians, they “mock the Christians who maintain the memory of the most holy Passion by wearing signs of mourning”? When officially sponsored disputations sought to undermine Jewish life? When for many in the High Middle Ages the Jews were scapegoats for the evil of their time?
I am not suggesting cause-effect. Yet I find it a startling and sobering juxtaposition: devotion to the passion of Jesus at its height during a period when Christian persecution of Jews was widespread.
History, Auschwitz, and the Cross: Some Recommendations
It is a long way from the High Middle Ages to modernity, and the story of the cross is far more complicated than any single narrative can trace. From one point of view, however, it is a disturbingly brief distance. For the Nazi war machine found its pagan mythology adapted nicely to the foundations established by centuries of Christian anti Judaism. Thus we can hardly be surprised that the cross of the Christians bears the stigma of the Shoah. This can be seen in the rancor over the Carmelite presence at Auschwitz, particularly during the height of the crisis in 1989.
Many have contributed thoughtful analyses about the controversy over the Carmelite nuns at the death camp at Auschwitz. Without pretending to do justice to the complexity of the affair, especially with regard to the history of relations between Poles and Jews, let me suggest that one of the prime contributors to the dispute was a disparity in symbol systems.
Polish Catholics, mindful of the horrors of the death camps, did what was of no surprise to Catholics around the world. They fashioned what was for them a symbol of divine presence, in this case a convent where women would pray in reparation for the horrors that had happened on that soil; outside the convent, they erected a twenty-three foot cross. Their actions were in one sense typically Catholic. Raise a cross? It probably never entered into the minds of the builders to do otherwise. For Jews, however, the deed had a quite different meaning. Jews don’t build sacred edifices in cemeteries, least of all in the demonic dust of the death camps. And, as the preceding narrative illustrates, Jews have good reason not to regard the cross simply as a neutral symbol, the Christian equivalent of a menorah. For a Jew, the cross is inextricably linked with those ancient charges of being Christ-killers. Holocaust survivor Naftali Lavie puts it starkly:
Last month I stood with my immediate family—my wife, my daughter and my three sons at the Block of Horrors in Auschwitz…. From a window on the second floor, a huge wooden cross, eight metres high, blocked my view. Behind it stood the Carmelite convent….Many Jews see the presence of a cross at Auschwitz as a provocation directed at the Jewish people, and as a desecration of the Holocaust…I still remembered the fears that haunted us as children [in Poland], as we tried to escape the presence of the cross. In our heavily Christian communities, Catholic funeral processions were always led by a young boy holding a long metal sceptre with a cross on top. Behind the child the priest would march, reading the prayers. Any Christian passer-by meeting the procession would remove his hat, bend his knee and bow to the cross. Jewish adults knew how to handle this situation, sometimes seeking shelter in doorways to avoid confronting the cross. Children were less experienced, and were occasionally beaten when the procession passed by and they did not bend their knee before the cross … Those who raised the cross in Auschwitz perhaps meant to erase the uniqueness of what happened to the Jews in this evil place. But by doing this they have returned the symbol that has pursued us down through the generations to its proper place. There, within eyesight of the gallows on which the commandant of Auschwitz was hanged, stands the cross—fitting reminder to the world of who is responsible for the most horrible crime since the beginning of time.
Lavie’s testimony deserves consideration by Christians everywhere, not simply so they become more sensitive to the ways in which Jews might perceive their symbols, but also so that they might think about the consequences of using a Christian symbol associated with persecution of Jews. Minimally, Christians must refrain from any appropriation of the cross in reference to the Shoah. By this I mean not simply that we move the cross (and convent) from Auschwitz (as has been done) but that theologians and pastors not use the imagery in their reflections on the Shoah.
Pertinent is the 1990 “Declaration by the Jews and Christians’ Discussion Group” from the Central Committee of German Catholics:
True, it is a tradition of Christian piety going back to the early history of the Church to erect the Cross or a church at a place of martyrdom or over the graves of martyrs. But that tradition cannot be continued at Auschwitz. It would seem presumptuous because the dead at Auschwitz are not “our” martyrs, even though there were men and women among them who died as Christians. Furthermore, it would distort the fact that it was baptized people who became perpetrators. However understandable the longing of Christians to place the abysmal suffering of Auschwitz under the Cross of Christ so that the light of hope from the Resurrection may radiate over this place of incomprehensible Godforsakenness and contempt for humankind, however great the seriousness with which the Polish people wish to make that site a symbol of their own martyrdom and renewal, Auschwitz must and for all time be preserved as the place where millions of Jews died, abandoned by an indifferent world and by the Churches, who, after all, live with the Jewish people in one and the same Covenant of God.
Moreover, as Paul van Buren suggests, since the Shoah Christian reflection on the cross must be done with Auschwitz in mind. Auschwitz should make Christians more circumspect in speaking about what God intended; it may also “teach us what we should have learned from Golgotha: that God’s omnipotence is such that God can and does enter into the pain and suffering of his children.” From Auschwitz Christians might derive a rule to govern their language about the cross: “the death of one Jew, no matter whom [sic] or what he was in God’s purposes, should not be spoken of so as to lessen the significance and the pain of the death of any human being, least of all that of six million other Jews.”
Is the Cross a Symbol Christians Should Now Lay Aside?
So where does this leave us, Jews and Christians? Two peoples, two vantage points on a single symbol. I find myself groping for a way of healing the rift, some means of a Christian retrieval of the cross that might make it less of a scandal (in a sense Paul never intended) to Jews.
But is this possible?
Many would say it is not. Among those who argue against the retention of the cross as a pivotal symbol of Christian life are theologians whose interests generally lie outside the domain of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Delores Williams, for example, argues that Jesus’ death on the cross could be used, consciously or unconsciously, to legitimate brutalization. Her objections are threefold. First, Williams contends that insofar as Jesus is understood to be crucified as a surrogate for sinful humankind, his death can give credibility to those who would use others, such as African-American women, as surrogates for tasks belonging to them. This was most apparent during the period of slavery, when black women nurtured white people’s children, did a man’s work in the fields and were used as sexual partners by white men.
Second, Williams suggests that the image of the “poor ethnic Jew” (Jesus) on the cross gives warrant to the acts of violence and violation white Christians perpetrate against ethnic sons and their people—Jews in the holocaust, blacks in the middle passage and during slavery, and Native Americans in North, Central and South America. The point is that “redemptive” suffering imaged by way of murder of an ethnic person makes ethnic people vulnerable before the adherents of a religion (Christianity) that puts great emphasis and value upon suffering.
Third, Williams takes issue with the emphasis in the Eucharist on Jesus’ sacrificial death. “Sacrifice” is not a neutral word for many women, who have often been socialized to sacrifice “all” for their family. Does the “sacred sacrifice” achieved through the brutalization of Jesus’ body, asks Williams, encourage battered women to stay in their situations, thereby offering themselves as a sacrifice for the family?
Because of these problems, Williams proposes two alternative symbols to the cross. The mustard seed evokes the importance of faith, the centrality of the Kingdom; it also raises awareness of the way societies “use and relate to nature and the religious effect of providing hope for human destiny.” The wilderness offers a symbol of Jesus’ victory over sin; it opens the possibility of Christians reflecting on their redemption in terms of Jesus’ refusal of temptation—and thus gives more emphasis to human volition than does the death on the cross. Moreover, drawing upon the imagery of the wilderness allows dialogue between Christians and those who have been “scapegoated by Christian societies—i.e., the Jews, blacks, women, Muslims and other cultural and racial minorities.” Because the Jews, as do African Americans and Muslims, also have wilderness traditions, the “wilderness, rather than the cross, connects Christians in a positive way with their Jewish heritage.”
In the face of the history that has disfigured the cross, should Christians lay it aside? Should they not repent of the violence it has justified and seek alternative symbols, as Williams, for instance, has proposed?
I believe there is warrant for this argument, at least on the rational level. But more than rationality is at stake. Symbols affect us at a deeper level than propositions; they cannot readily be discarded and replaced. As Lawrence Hoffman writes, “symbols are words, gestures or things that stand for something beyond themselves, but do so in such a way that the people who recognize the symbols feel deeply, often irrationally, attached [to] or repelled by them.”
I discovered this anew while in the early stages of research for this essay. Haunted by the history I was reading, I was prepared to argue for its replacement or at least for lessening its importance in Christian life. Then one Sunday morning at the parish where I worship I found myself caught up in the moving ritual marking the acceptance of candidates for baptism (“catechumens”) into the process of preparation (the “catechumenate”).
In the second part of the ritual, the presider traces the cross on the forehead of the candidates, praying for each by name: “N., receive the cross on your forehead. It is Christ himself who now strengthens you with this sign of love. Learn to know him and follow him.” Then the candidates’ teachers and sponsors sign the cross over their ears, eyes, lips, breast, shoulders, hands and feet, respectively:
Receive the sign of the cross on your ears,that you may hear the voice of the Lord.Receive the sign of the cross on your eyes,that you may see the glory of God.Receive the sign of the cross on your lips,that you may respond to the word of God.Receive the sign of the cross over your heart,that Christ may dwell there by faith.Receive the sign of the cross on your shoulders,that you may bear the gentle yoke of Christ.Receive the sign of the cross on your hands,that Christ may be known in the work which you do.Receive the sign of the cross on your feet,that you may walk in the way of Christ.
I knew in that moment that the symbol of the cross was too connected to my experience of faith to be laid aside. Rather, we Christians need to think together about this symbol we use with such frequency. We need to be less casual, more mindful about its function. We need to pass through the rigors of criticism so that our first naivete will be brought to the profundity of a second naivete. We need to repent of its abuse in order to reclaim its power.
What might orient us in the journey from a first naivete to the second? Let me proffer three modest proposals.
The first proposal is that we use the criteria implied by Kathleen Talvacchia. Talvacchia, sensitive to the feminist critique of the cross, argues that it can nonetheless serve the Christian community in two significant ways: (1) as a symbol of resistance for those suffering as a result of human sin, and (2) as a symbol of the power to embrace suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition. She cites her experience in El Salvador, where she found vivid images of the passion, including brightly painted crosses of folk art which “honor the cost of choosing to live and resist oppression, while expressing hope for the transformation of the suffering.” And, when suffering is not the consequence of sinfulness but rather of the those mysteries which lie beyond human ken, the cross has a different sort of power: “the power to embrace the irrationality, meaninglessness, and terror of experiencing something horrible, and in that embracing assure us that we do not suffer alone, that God is with us and suffers with us.” Talvacchia’s distinctions help us to differentiate between championing the cross as a glorification of suffering and using the cross to nurture resistance and hope.
Second, I propose that we Christians probe our understanding of the cross. Like some biblical texts with which we are overly familiar, we take the cross so much for granted that we are inattentive to its significance. We might, then, benefit from following a process akin to interpreting a biblical text: first, distancing the symbol by means of criticism of its history and ideology, and then reappropriating it by means of what Sandra Schneiders calls “aesthetic surrender” and “critical existential interpretation.”
Acknowledging, as I have done above, the connection between the cross and antisemitism serves, at least in part, to distance the symbol so that we might make an honest appraisal. Likewise, examining the tendency to legitimize violence in the name of the cross or to confuse fidelity with passivity and obedience with acquiescence becomes a means of distantiation. Schneiders’s caution that the goal of [biblical] criticism is “not only to sift the text for error, deceit, and distortion (i.e., to protect the reader from the text) but also to protect the text from a premature appropriation by the reader)” is applicable to the symbol of the cross as well. Knowing the history and ideology of the symbol of the cross challenges Christians both to repent of its abuse and to examine how the symbol functions for them: what it justifies, what it inspires, what it hinders.
Beyond criticism, says Schneiders, lies reappropriation of the text by means of involvement in its artistry and wrestling with its truth claims. In the former movement, one engages the text as a work of art; “in fact, experiencing the text as text is as integral to the work of biblical interpretation as hearing a Mozart symphony played in concert is integral to the work of the music critic or as seeing Hamlet in the theater is to the work of the literary scholar.” The latter movement involves “transformative interpretation,” which is “not blind submission to the text as an answer but an in-depth engagement of the text’s subject matter, of its truth claims, in terms of the developed Christian consciousness of the contemporary believer within the contemporary community of faith.”
Third, we Christians need to work at the moral imperatives of the cross: to keep ever on our horizon the command of Jesus to his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34 and par Matt 16:24 and Lk 9:23). This is, it seems to me, primarily a word for the church—a word about its call to be at the service of humankind at the expense of prestige and power. At the personal level, it is a summons to question the culture’s standards of success and achievement.
The Cross: A Concluding Word
Like all symbols, the cross evokes more than one can explain. It condenses death and life into one symbol. It enfolds some of the deepest fears of humanity—vulnerability, betrayal, pain, forsakeness—and transfigures them into expressions of hope. When Christians proclaim the power of the cross, they are voicing their confidence that death is not the end, that the grip of evil has been broken, and that the powers and principalities who seem to control this world will be banished. When Christians proclaim the power of the cross, they are declaring, albeit often with tremulous voice, that at times one must simply endure suffering, that certain things in life must be borne. And they are declaring that in the passion of Jesus we find a model for our fidelity.
The cross is a symbol Christians have been given to image their hope that God is with them even in pain and tragedy and ambiguity. It is a symbol of the longing to give themselves over to a project larger than their own self-interest, and of the faith that pouring out one’s life for the sake of another brings new life. It is a symbol that enables Christians to name the hard things of their lives, to express anguish rather than repress it.
Yet it is not a symbol that can be reappropriated without repentance. The story I have traced serves to remind Christians of their betrayal of Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, and their defilement of the symbol of his suffering. Too often have Christians become, in Paul’s words, “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18).
Just as a church building that has been profaned by a violent or blasphemous deed needs rededication, so too, the symbol the church carries must be purified by its people’s repentance. Only then can the cross embody the power of reconciliation for which Jesus lived and died.