A Theology of the Cross & Postcolonial Horrors

"[W]e have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2:1b-2)

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit" (Gal 3:13-14).

I stay a Christian because of Jesus Christ. I mean this in a couple of ways. In the infinite mystery of grace and free will, I stay a Christian because it is Christ who saves me, upholds me and will complete his good work in my life. In that sense, my Christian identity is not dependent upon me or anything I can do. But also, from a smaller human perspective, I continue to be a Christian because I cannot imagine making sense of the universe without him.  When I find myself hopelessly in despair because of the church's hypocrisy, or more often, because of my own hypocrisy, it is the cross that explains this world to me. I admit that bringing a theology of the cross to bear on the pains and challenges of the postcolonial world is a subject that is beyond me.   (I, after all, I'm writing from the relative safety of the U.S. in a rather sheltered university environment.) Yet I feel this semester's reflection would be incomplete without some discussion of the central revelation of the Christian faith. I will begin by reminding us of some of the key teachings of the Christian tradition concerning the cross; then, I will offer some tentative observations as to what this says to postcolonial peoples.

I. The Cross as Atonement (I Jn 2:1-2, Rom 5:6-11, Col 1:15-22, Heb 4:14-5:10, 9:11-10:17, I Pet 1:17-21, Rev 5)

Christ's death on the cross is a propitiation, a repairing of damages or a settling of a debt, that satisfies the justice of God. The Bible pictures this as both a purchase made (a kind of indemnity paid) and as a blood sacrifice, Jesus himself being the Lamb. The Scripture also speaks of Jesus being our high priest, one who intercedes for us with God the Father. He has entered the holy of holies, God's inner sanctum, to bring for us the pure sacrifice needed to cleanse and restore us. By his sacrifice, we, who were God's enemies, now become his friends. We, who were estranged from the Triune One who created us, have now been reconciled; our rebellion against his legitimate authority is ended, and promise of inclusion in his family is offered us. And this is a grand cosmic vision of restoration. As scripture tells us, Christ's cross reconciles "to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Col 1:20). Christ's resurrection, then, completes what the cross opened.

II. The Cross as Curse and Sign of Judgment (II Cor 5:20-21, Gal 3:13-14, Eph 1:18-23, 2:13-17, Col 2:13-15)

The cross, an instrument of human torture, was obviously not on the surface of things an instrument of blessing, but another wretched example of the human ability to do the most vile things to others.  In Christian teaching, Christ, who was sinless, became sin in our place and took freely upon himself our curse. Ironically, it was by this most horrifying abasement that Christ conquered the codes and purveyors of human sin and destruction. After this humiliation, he is pictured as one who "having disarmed the powers and authorities, [. . .] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." Thus, Christ is the Victor, the triumphant, resurrected hero who has conquered the forces of the world system, sin, and the devil.

III. The Cross as Example of Love and Model for Suffering (Jn 3:16-17, I Jn 3:9-11, II Cor 1:3-7, 4:7-12, Gal 6:17, Phil 1:29-30, 3:10, Col 1:24-26, I Pet 2:21-25, 4:1-2, 4:12-14)

Thinking about the cross only in legal, commercial, military, or even priestly terms may lead some to miss the great love God as shown us in the cross. That love is fully expressed in what God Himself as Trinity underwent. God the Father out of love for the human condition willingly gave up his only Son for oursakes. This grand rupture can be heard in Christ's agony on the cross: ""Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" --which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"(Mark 15:35-36, cf. Ps 22) None of us deserved such love; we did not earn it or find a way to make it happen in and of ourselves; rather, it was and is a free expression of God's compassion.

Furthermore, the love and suffering of Christ is a model for us. It teaches us how to endure, even grow through, suffering in this life. Scripture, even implies that our suffering as Christians somehow participates in the suffering of Christ, that we share in his at some level, as he does in ours. Paul goes so far as to say of his difficulties: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church" (Col 1:24). This is a profound mystery, but it speaks to our crucifixion with Christ, that in his death, burial, and resurrection, we are judged participants (Rom 6:1-14, Gal 6:14, Phil 3:10).

IV. The Cross' Healing, Cleansing, and Honoring (Is 53, Col 1:21-22, Titus 2:13-14. 3:4-7, Rev 1:5-6)

The work of the cross extends beyond the forgiveness of our sin; it extends to the restoration needed to break the hold of sin over our lives, families, and communities.  The cross offers us a healing of the whole person, now in part and in full in the eschaton.  The cross cleanses us of the filth and impurity of being defiled or being defilers.  The cross overturns our shame as victims and victimizers, honoring us with the very sacrifice of God.  There is a sense in which the very death of the Son of God is understood as an infinite compensation for all the effects of sin in this world, so much so that his sacrifice in its beauty overflows all the ugliness of this world.

As we have stressed this semester, the postcolonial condition is concerned with identity and justice, identities which are in someway impacted by past atrocities, injustices, and general cultural and institutional hegemony, and justice which cries out for a world built on shalom rather than personal autonomy and political oppression. Such a world is desperately in need of forgiveness--of the sins of its persons, its systems, and its spiritual orders, and of forgiveness between the perpetrators and the victims, as well as all their descendents. And this need includes those peoples who have had an historical association with Christendom. Just consider Christianity's involvement with European colonialism, the Crusades, the ancient hatred that members of the Orthodox Christian Churches in Greece, Armenia, and Eastern Europe still feel for past Muslim oppression, the Jewish pogroms often carried out under the sign of the cross, the slave-owning and enslaved Southern Christians of the United States, the divisions among "Christian" Rwanda and Ireland, what Palestinian Christians have experienced at the hands of Zionist Israel, the struggles of so many faithful believers in mainland China, Indonesia, and World A in general.

The Christian message is one of reconciliation--with God, each other, the creation, and within ourselves, so it should grieve us that so many in the name of Christ have forgotten that deep truth, and it should challenge us to pray for our brothers and sisters who even now must struggle to forgive amidst troubling circumstances. The cross reminds us that there can be no true or long-lasting shalom without a change in the very makeup of persons.  We are fallen beings who need a reversal of our priorities and of our communities' structures. We want a supernatural rapprochement with God, which will make other forms of restoration possible.

Because the cross provides a curse and judgment upon sin, all the oppressed are offered a true imprecatory hatred of injustice. The cross tells us how truly horror-filled the world's evil is, including its postcolonial varieties, and the cross renders judgment upon it. Yet in Christ's great sacrifice, all are also given a space to release that evil, to no longer be controlled by it.  This is a profound mystery, one that is infinitely beyond us, one that seems foolishness to many (I Cor 1), for it tells us that the worst postcolonial atrocity has been paid for in the death of the cosmic Son of God.

God's love is offered to the torture chambers of the globe, to the bigotry of the world, even to the secret police and the banal administrator of oppressive projects. It is a love that calls for true repentance for those who have been broken and those who have been colonizers. Only in such a state can the cycle of violence and recrimination be ended. Likewise, amidst such brutality, explicit or subtle, the cross offers to those who will take Christ as their own a new meaning for their suffering.   We read stories retrospectively once we know the ending. A character's pain or grief takes on a different, even acceptable existence, once we see how it all turns out.    For many, the condition of postcolonialism is despair. The cross (for it ends in resurrection) offers a retrospective reading of the believer's suffering, in recontextualizes it to become heroic, profound, and most importantly, purposeful. It is still suffering, but it is no longer meaningless.

But Christ's sacrifice does more than allow postcolonial persons to re-view their sufferings; it allows them to experience real healing, cleansing, and honor.   The work of the cross is that of the infinite God who esteems them, purifies them, and can make their lives beautiful. By consenting to suffer with us as a human being in the person of Jesus, by becoming a curse for our separation from God, Christ gives our lives a kind of visionary aesthetic, a shape and identity that transcends the sin we have caused and the sin we have suffered under. He removes the ritual and real defilement that often accompany colonialism. Those who are judged by imperial centers as marginal, as insignificant, as uncivilized, or as sub-human, are held by the cross as valuable, as noble, as central to the work of God's kingdom. As the Korean poet Ku Sang, reflecting on Easter, proclaims:

[. . . .]
Rooted in you, even in death
all things remain alive;
we see them reborn, transfigured.
How then could we doubt
our own Resurrection since
by your own you gave us proof?

Since there is your Resurrection and ours,
     Truth exists;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
     Justice triumphs;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
     suffering accepted has value;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
     our faith, hope, love, are not in vain;
since there is your Resurrection and ours,
     our lives are not an empty abyss.

In this lost corner of the earth,
dappled by the spreading spring,
as I imagine that Day's world,
made perfect by our Resurrection,
I am overwhelmed in rapture.

Sang, Ku. "Easter Hymn." Trans. Brother Anthony of Taizé. Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 524.

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding