What it means to take up your cross

October 2nd, 2015

When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” his first followers probably did not hear it metaphorically. Crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state, so Jesus’ summons would have been heard as a call to insurrection. They knew that would-be messiahs and revolutionaries who proclaimed a new, imminent kingdom of God had said, “Take up your sword and follow me.” Some of these rebellions led to huge mass executions by crucifixion.

So, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross,” he’s skipping steps. He calls his followers to do the kinds of swordless, nonviolent things that would lead to martyrdom. Stephen, James and Paul all answered that call and died (their stories are in the book of Acts). “Take up your cross and follow me” is a call to nonviolent yet revolutionary action, the kind that would invite persecution.

Early followers of Jesus generalized his revolutionary call to other kinds of suffering. When the disciples were publicly flogged, they rejoiced that they could share in Jesus’ suffering (Acts 5:11). Paul connected personal and private suffering (his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:7) with his persecution for the sake of the gospel: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10).”

Today, “bearing your cross” is a Christian metaphor that can carry many different meanings. It’s often used to indicate the trials and temptations that we experience in life, covering everything from addiction to cancer, lust to poverty or financial hardship. One story goes that an 18th century preacher was asked if he would visit his estranged wife while he was in London. He replied, “Sir, I will gladly bear a cross, but I will not seek one out.”

“Take up your cross” has lost some of the power of its original meaning. It’s gone from changing the world and threatening the established order to struggling against our cravings for chocolate during Lent or tolerating people we don’t like.

This change in meaning has also led to a perverse Christian glorification of human suffering: If bearing a cross makes us holy, then encouraging others to bear crosses, or actively nailing them to their crosses, must also be holy. In this way we invert the cross and the gospel of Christ, and make ourselves agents of the Empire rather than martyrs for the gospel.

For example, we invert the call to take up our cross with poverty, treating the suffering that comes with poverty as a noble thing. Sure, Jesus said “blessed are the poor,” and encouraged Christians to sell what they had and give the proceeds to the poor. Saint Francis and other Christian saints have embraced voluntary poverty, and found that they could have joy in the midst of their suffering.

But too many Christians see poverty as benign instead of something to be alleviated, challenged and fought against. I often hear middle-class Christians who have gone on mission trips or served the poor say things like, “I was amazed at how happy they were. It just goes to show that you don’t need money to be happy.” This is not what “blessed are the poor” means. When Jesus said to sell all you have and give the money to the poor, the goal was not to increase the total number of people living in poverty — it was to decrease it. Being poor does not mean being joyless, but that’s hardly the point. The reason that God has a special concern for the financially poor is that poverty is cruel.

The romanticization of poverty ignores the neurological damage done to children who grow up in chronic poverty as well as the stress that generates an ongoing public health crisis and poor health outcomes for people in poverty. It ignores the systemic injustices that perpetuate poverty. When people talk about poverty as a cross to bear, or quote Jesus saying, “You will always have the poor with you” as an excuse for public policy inaction, they abandon the witness of the gospel in favor of the status quo.

We also invert the call to take up our cross with sexuality and gender identity. In our ethical and theological debates about sexual orientation and gender identity, many straight Christians have said that celibacy for gay and lesbian persons, or assimilation for trans, intersex, or genderqueer persons is just “the cross one has to bear.” This cross is not voluntarily taken up, nor does it threaten the Established Order of Things. It is assigned by a majority straight and cisgender culture, and those who reject this cross have often been nailed to it against their will.

Peter, by contrast, calls this kind of imposed obligation a “yoke,” not a cross. When he stands to address the church over the circumcision controversy, Peter (who was circumcised) asks the leaders, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Some of the Christians in Acts 15 probably thought mandatory circumcision was a cross that everyone — every male, anyway — should be willing to bear. But Peter’s speech challenges this assumption: The cross of Christ is something we take up voluntarily; a yoke is what we place upon another.

We invert the call to take up our cross with euthanasia. One meme asserts, “Suffering is a grace-filled opportunity to participate in the passion of Jesus Christ. Euthanasia selfishly steals that opportunity.”

Certainly, it is possible to approach suffering and death with an openness to know God as a co-sufferer with us. We may be able to experience transcendent grace in the midst of pain, and to come to a deeper appreciation of what it meant for God to be incarnate in Christ. But if suffering is such a grace-filled opportunity, why would we work to alleviate any suffering at all? Why establish hospitals? Why work to end poverty? Why take aspirin for a headache? Only the one who is suffering can decide if their suffering ennobles them and draws them closer to Christ, or if it leads them to bitterness and alienation. Even Jesus prayed to be delivered from suffering.

I’ve named some ways we rhetorically invert the call to take up a cross and follow Jesus: with poverty, with sexual orientation and gender identity and with euthanasia. There are certainly more ways that the improper use of this metaphor turns the Good News into bad news: Preachers have told folks to stay in bad or abusive relationships and to silently endure racial oppression as a way of “bearing a cross.” We should be suspicious of any rhetoric which places the cross on the shoulders of another. We are called to take up crosses — not nail others to them.

There’s one more important aspect to remember about suffering and Christ’s call to take up a cross: When Christ carried the cross, Simon of Cyrene bore it with him. There is a sense in which whatever metaphorical cross we take up, there should be others, a community of support, to carry it with us in solidarity. The natural response to anyone who tells you to bear a cross should be, “Then will you carry it with me?” If the answer is, “No, thanks,” then perhaps they aren’t that serious about it.

This is why we need to pay attention to the revolutionary meaning of “take up your cross.” Revolutions only happen when followers do the kinds of things that might get them crucified as a community. Brave individuals can do heroic things and suffer heroic martyrdom without leading to any significant change. But a community of people who do not fear the cross is an unstoppable force.

Bravery and a willingness to suffer itself is not the measure of what makes a cross. When Christians claim they are being persecuted, we need to ask critical questions about who is placing a burden on whom, and who is asking whom to endure suffering and for what end.

The cross of Christ, and the call to take up our own (instead of taking up arms), should not be stripped of its scandal and offensiveness to the world and the Empire. It is a call to change the order of things with our vulnerability instead of the power of the sword, with love rather than coercion. We take up a cross instead of a sword because the world is heavily invested in inequality, in patriarchy, in the coercive use of force and in the fear of suffering and death. Those who live by the sword die by the sword, but those who die by their cross live for God.

By all means, take up your cross and follow Jesus. But don’t nail someone else to one.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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