Thursday, September 08, 2016

Beware Over-Spiritualizing the Cross

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
Matthew 16:24
The cross utilizes a political image of shame, humiliation, pain, social rejection, marginalization, condemnation, and death. Crucifixion, as employed by Rome, was a cruel means of execution (Tacitus, Ann 15.44.4; Seneca, De Ira 1.2.2; Josephus, JW 7.203 [“ most pitiable of deaths”]). It was not used for Roman citizens (Cicero, Pro Rabirio 9-17, except for treason), but for sociopolitical marginals such as “rebellious” foreigners (Josephus, JW 2.306, 308; 5.449-53; Philo, In Flaccum 72, 84), violent criminals and robbers (Martial, On the Spectacles 9), and slaves (Cicero, In Verr 2.5.162; Juvenal, Sat 6.219-224; Tacitus, Ann 13.32.1). Crucifixion in public places was intended to deter noncompliant behavior (Josephus, JW 5.550). Carrying the cross-beam (patibulum) to the place of execution could be part of the precrucifixion torture and humiliation (Plutarch, “On the Delay of Divine Vengeance,” Moralia 554B). For some Jews, crucifixion could be associated with the curse on those hung on a tree (Deut 23: 21;
Gal 3: 13; 11QTemple 64: 6-13).

Jesus' scandalous call, then, to take up the cross and follow (cf. 4: 18-22) is a call to martyrdom, to die as Jesus does (9: 15; 10: 4, 21, 28, 29; 16: 21). Such is the risk of continuing Jesus' countercultural work of proclaiming and demonstrating God's empire (10: 7-8). On another level, it is a call to a life of marginalization, to identify with the nobodies like slaves, foreigners, criminals, and those understood to be cursed by God. It is also to identify with those who resist the empire's control, who contest its version of reality, and who are vulnerable to its reprisals. It is to identify with a sign of the empire's violent and humiliating attempt to dispose of all who threaten or challenge its interests. To so identify is not to endorse the symbol but to counter and reframe its violence. As the end of the gospel shows, it is to identify with a sign that ironically indicates the empire's limits. The empire does its worst in crucifying Jesus. But God raises Jesus from death to thwart the empire's efforts and to reveal the limits of its power.

--Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation) (Kindle Locations 10421-10439). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

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