15 Comments

The cross and radical activism

The idea that Jesus chose, out of his own free will, to go to the cross is a favorite among abusive church leaders. What better way to get people to submit to you than to compare the God they worship to a lamb led to slaughter? Over and over and over I’ve heard Jesus’ submissiveness unto death used as an excuse to abuse or to silence those who wish to call out abuse.

I want to propose a different perspective and I want to start with a woman named Alice Paul.

In 1917, women in the United States were not allowed to vote. Alice Paul and a group of other women wanted to change that. These women boldly picketed the White House with banners that called out the hypocrisy of the man in the White House–Woodrow Wilson–who was so quick to send troops overseas to Germany to fight for “liberty,” but who was ignoring the fact that women here were not even treated as real citizens (sound familiar?).

Though their peaceful protests broke no laws, these women were arrested and sent to prison under the false charge of “obstructing traffic.”

Incarcerated without reason in the “land of the free” (a land in which she–as a woman–already lacked the rights of a full citizen), Alice Paul asserted her autonomy and her humanity by fighting back the only way she could.

A photograph of Alice Paul (c1920 by Harris & Ewing)

A photograph of Alice Paul (c1920 by Harris & Ewing)

She stopped eating. 

Alice Paul went on a hunger strike as a way to protest the unjust conditions she was facing.

The 2004 movie, Iron Jawed Angels, depicts this true story (with some obvious dramatizations of course). During one scene, Alice Paul (played by Hillary Swank) is sent to a psychiatric ward because she refuses to eat. The doctor examining her asks about her hunger strike.

Alice: The hunger strike was a tradition in old Ireland. You starve yourself on someone’s doorstep until restitution is made and justice is done.

Doctor: Doesn’t sound like a very effective method.

Alice: A stinking corpse on your doorstep? What would the neighbors say?

We live in a world of violence, of poverty, of rape and war, of oppression and abuse.

We also live in a world of willful ignorance and pride.

People are starving and dying  at our doorsteps (metaphorically speaking), but we’re great at ignoring it. Sometimes it takes radical activism (like some literally dying on our doorstep) to change things.

Alice Paul offered up her life in order to fight injustice. Though she survived the hunger strikes (not every hunger striker does), she still willingly put her body at risk. She was willing to starve on the doorstep of injustice. In doing so, she put the United States to shame, uncovering its disturbing hypocrisy (a hypocrisy that continues today).

She gave herself up willingly.

Was this an act of passive submission?

What do you think?

Those who use the story of the cross to convince oppressed or abused people to stop fighting for justice are missing the point of radical activism. Sometimes, in the face of unrelenting oppression, brave, radical activists stand up and take control of their lives and bodies…

…by giving them up.

When Alice Paul, and Hana Shalabi, and other hunger-strikers stopped eating, it was not an act of submissive, obedient defeat.

 It was a powerful assertion of bodily autonomy in a world that tried to deny their humanity.

 It was a bold act of love by people who were willing to lay down their lives for their friends, their freedom, and their people.

It was a stance that forced oppressors to open their eyes, uncover their ears, and stare into emaciated face of the injustice they had caused. 

The cross of Jesus doesn’t mean that we suffer in silence while we are abused and oppressed. It does not mean that we “turn the other cheek” when we notice others being abused and oppressed. As I wrote earlier this week, we must start to see the cross is a middle finger to the world’s oppressive power structures.

God, as symbolized in the crucifixion, is with the victims who are oppressed. God is also with those who stand up and fight oppression.

The cross is a symbol of both the evils of oppression and of the radical activism that opposes oppression.

We should not have to live in a world where the only way people can gain power and assert their humanity is through hunger strikes. We should not have to live in a world where people are detained in prisons without charge. We should not have to live in a world where people are put to death by crucifixion or lethal injection.

Jesus’ radical activism points us to a new world.

Anyone who tells you that the cross means you have to stop fighting oppression is missing the point.

Advertisements


37 Comments

Crucifixion and Liberation

[Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, and violence against oppressed groups]

Image by Aaron Douglas

Image by Aaron Douglas

I recently wrote a blog post for Rachel Held Evans in which I talked about how many popular images of God are abusive. Someone left this comment:

I read something once -and it has troubled me since – that God requiring Jesus to die on the cross ‘for our sins’ was the equivalent of child abuse. I would love to hear some opinions on this matter.

A few commenters jumped in to say that since Jesus IS God, it was a personal choice and therefore not abusive and, well you know the rest. I’m sure you’ve heard justifications for this theology many times. My opinion on the matter was that penal substitution is still a terrifying theology about an abusive God.

I’m guessing many people that I know (including some of my readers) would be shocked to hear that I do not believe that God had to die because humans were just so evil and God was just so wrathful and required a blood sacrifice. I even know many self-identified progressive Christians who would probably assume that I wasn’t really a Christian if I told them I didn’t believe that Jesus died in the place of wicked human beings in order to save us from our sins.

I take a more, shall we say, literalist viewpoint.

God didn’t kill Jesus. People in power killed Jesus. 

My friend David Henson recently said on Facebook:

If atonement is literally at-one-ment — being at one with — perhaps it is God that experiences atonement in the crucifixion by being with us and being at one with us in death.

I would take this even further. Christ didn’t experience just any death, but a death reserved for those who challenged the oppressive power structures of the time. Jesus’ teachings of liberation threatened Rome. But even more so, they threatened the religious leaders of the day: spiritually abusive leaders who had turned their backs on Judaism’s message of justice and mercy and had twisted the teachings to oppress others.

Jesus stood with the oppressed. He healed on the Sabbath. He advocated for the poor. He spoke out against the abuse of women.

And those in power killed him for it. They silenced his message (but it couldn’t quite stay dead, could it?).

Maybe this is the real message of the cross. That the God of all creation loved the oppressed enough to become one with them, even in death–the ultimate tool of oppressive forces. 

I think of an article about the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by liberation theologian James Cone. Cone makes a comparison between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in the society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree. Hengel asserts: “Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock. . . . Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame.

I don’t think many white people like this comparison (as a white person myself, it is challenging and sobering). So white theologians shy away from this comparison, as obvious as it seems. Instead, they embrace a spiritualized version of Christianity in which Jesus is nothing but a sacrifice, meant to save us from some abstract idea of inherited sin. Where Christ’s life of healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, touching the untouchables had nothing to do with his death. Where the promise of liberation and justice  given by the Old Testament prophets to the oppressed in Israel is not considered part of the gospel. Where the only real result of Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are free from our sins (though we still sin), and go to heaven when we die (maybe–if we ask nicely).

If we did embrace the similarities between the cross and the lynching tree, it would open the doors to comparing Christ’s unjust death with the many other injustices that go on in our society.

The wife who is raped and beaten by her husband, and then told by her church to stay with him.

One of the transgender people that are murdered every three days. 

The Muslim people who are bombed by the United States just because some people who looked like them happened to be terrorists.

The people in poverty who starve to death because they cannot afford food, or die slowly from illness because they cannot afford healthcare.

The woman on the street corner in Detroit who was forced into prostitution at age 11.

The young black man who is shot in the back of the head because he looked threatening.

The young woman from Steubenville who was gang-raped and then shamed for it.

The gay, black mayoral candidate who was beaten, set on fire, and killed in Mississippi.

Christ is crucified again and again as injustice goes on and on. 

But the cross means, to the oppressed, that God is on our side.

As James Cone says,

The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the “least of these,” the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.

The cross can empower those who are suffering. It can give us hope. But as James Cone continues,

But we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

The cross cannot just mean that we are “saved from sin,” and “going to heaven.” Our speaking about the cross cannot just sound like those cliched platitudes that Christians often tell those who are hurting. The cross that Jesus reclaimed from the Roman Empire has fallen back into the hands of oppressors, becoming a tool of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of heterosexism and transphobia, of the military and prison industrial complex, of those who wage warfare on the poor. 

But I want to reclaim it, like Christ did.

If we are to find liberation in the crucifixion, then the cross must stand as a middle finger to oppressive power structures.

The cross of Jesus reveals the ugly truth behind oppressive power, and then the cross mocks that power through the resurrection.

The cross of Jesus calls those of us who are oppressors (most of us–myself included–are oppressed in some contexts and oppressors in others) to humility, repentance, and a new way of living.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed–in a world that tries to convince us that we are not even human–that we are not only made in God’s image, but that God came to earth to be made in ours.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed that we can take up our crosses and our protest signs and join together, armed with the power of love, to defeat the powers that rape, abuse, and murder us.

The cross of Jesus tells us that they can kill our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they win. 


20 Comments

No one’s Messiah

Image

Image via PassionOfAGoddess.com

To Christian men and the churches they attend:

I am not your Christ.

Churches may try to put women on a cross, sacrificing them so that men may be pure and holy.

But I am not your savior.

Churches may expect women to keep silent, to hide their talents, their bodies, to sacrifice who they are to protect men from sin and shame.

But I am coming down off of that cross.

Churches may ask women to endure abuse for a season–like Christ endured crucifixion–so that abusive men might be saved.

But I am no one’s fucking Messiah.

I won’t take the beatings. I won’t bear the shame. If that makes me a bad Christian, fine. If that means I’m going to hell, show me the door.

I’ll let myself in.

Because I know what real hell is like. I’ve been there. Real hell is pretending to happily, silently endure physical, spiritual, verbal, and sexual abuse in hopes of drawing my “brethren” back to the light. Hell is having to bear the sins of Christian men in my body. Hell is hanging on a cross built by a church, dying to save abusive men.

I won’t go through that again.

I am not your Christ.