Christ cross

The shame of the cross

We know all too well what pure hate looks like.

We don’t need to look at history to see it. The town of Bucha is only 27 km west of kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

A few weeks ago, as Russian forces retreated from Bucha, they left behind a truly appalling scene. According to the BBC, at least 500 dead civilians have been discovered, many with their hands tied and showing evidence of torture. Relatives of the victims had to find the mutilated remains of their loved ones lying in and around their homes or hastily buried in mass graves.

It was shocking; but unfortunately, in the annals of war and military occupation, this is not surprising. What war criminals and torturers seek to do is not just to exercise physical dominance over their victims, but to dehumanize them. They deconstruct the humanity of others. They subject them to disgrace and shame, not only separating their bodies, but trying to rob them of their dignity and honor. They know that suffering is much more than the experience of physical pain: it is the loss of a sense of yourself – your personal wholeness and wholeness – that makes suffering what it is. Shame is arguably the most intense of all wounds.

Now, lest we be tempted to think that only Russians are capable of this sort of behavior, let’s not forget that amid our own pride in Australia’s history, there are also episodes of abhorrence and contempt for the humanity of others, both on this earth and abroad.

Shame is arguably the most intense of all wounds.

But the torturers and aggressors have a strange and perverse wisdom. They know that shame is something we can feel both as victims and as perpetrators. We can do things we are ashamed of; but we can have things done to us that also cause us shame, even if we are not guilty of the thing that is done to us. I have a friend who committed a minor offense for which he was justly punished by a court – and of which he is ashamed. But because he has a rather unusual name, his shame stayed fresh for him whenever someone googled him. The shame never seems to go away.

But I’ve also spoken to victims of abuse who can’t shake the feelings of shame they feel, even though they are in every way the victim and completely innocent. It’s the feeling that something happened that brought me down – whether I did it to myself or not.

The executioners of Jesus set out to strip him of his humanity and personality – to shame him completely. The squad of soldiers were only doing their job, we might say, but knew exactly what to do as an occupying force to impose the domination of Rome. Condemned to death, Jesus is not killed quickly and humanely, quite the contrary. First he is whipped, then he is ridiculed. The firing squad clearly makes the victim entrusted to them laugh.

And their sarcasm is biting. They dress him in a purple robe; they put on his head a crown, not of gold but of thorns. They call him ‘King of the Jews’. They bow to him in a mock show of deference. “Think he’s a king, don’t you? We’ll show him! This so-called king governs no one, commands no one, owns nothing. He pretends to be someone; let us remind him that he is nobody.

And then they took him out to hang in public so that his shame would be there for all to see. This is the King of the Jews on his “throne” – a throne made of two pieces of rough wood, to which he is nailed.

As the American writer Fleming Rutledge puts it, “degradation was the whole point of the crucifixion.” That it was excruciatingly painful was only part of it. It was a very public gesture of hatred and contempt. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The meaning of the cross does not lie only in physical suffering but above all in rejection and shame”. Isaiah saw the ugliness and shame of the cross centuries before Jesus:

He had neither form nor majesty to look upon,
nothing in its appearance that we should desire.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man suffering and accustomed to infirmity;
and as someone from whom others hide their face
he was despised, and we ignored him.

The cross is a deeply unpleasant and ugly scene, if you think about it – and that’s what those who used it intended. For centuries we have forgotten this because we are used to associating the cross with divine love and hope and because we have made pretty jewelry out of it or used it on national flags.

The cross is a deeply unpleasant and ugly scene.

But I have noticed that as our culture becomes more post-Christian, we begin to see again how brutal and shameful the cross is, and how strange it is as a symbol of the greatest love of God. We may need to issue trigger warnings for Good Friday – and perhaps rightly so.

So: the cross looks a lot like yet another deconstruction of a human being by other human beings; another example of “man’s inhumanity to man”, as we continue to see in our time.

And we can say, well, we remember an act of brutality, a shameful individual; but we can count the others by the millions. And yes – it is proof that human beings have this evil and dreadful power over other human beings, but we could multiply examples from any time period, could we? Is this then the only lesson of the cross – that human beings are skilled and passionate haters?

But there is another layer to this story.

One of the things about God is that he likes irony – and it’s impossible not to read that in the scene of Jesus with the death squad. Because in their very sarcasm, they were telling the truth. They laughed at him as a king, and yet that’s exactly what he was. They meant that the crown of thorns was a bitter, wicked sign of what Jesus was not, but that circle of thorns turned out to be a shining indicator of who Jesus is – the king who reigns by dying for the good of his people.

In this act of total hatred, God shows the depth of his love.

For this very moment of the most extreme ungodliness in human history – the most terrible desecration – was in fact the moment of the most intense presence of God. In this act of total hatred, God shows the depth of his love. Although they planned this day for evil, God intended it for good. He wrested the authorship of history from the hands of human beings.

The unpleasant scene becomes beautiful. This despicable act is transformed into ultimate good. The worst that you and I can do does not override, outwit or dominate the love of the eternal and holy God.

Why? Because here at the cross, when we say “no” to God, God says “yes” to us. The cross is a terrible and ugly symbol of how hellish we are – and how much we shame and dishonor each other. But because God himself was in Jesus Christ bearing our shame and our disgrace, the cross becomes something beautiful – not a sign of shame, but of honor, not of hate, but of love.

They tried to humiliate Jesus, but instead we find here his humble love.

John in his letter says this: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 5: God proves his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

So, yes: it is love. And this love means that we can come to Jesus Christ with all our shame, whether we are ashamed of ourselves or have been ashamed of others, and know the truth of God’s promise of Isaiah 45:17 – ‘whoever believes in him shall not be put to shame’.

For, as the letter to the Hebrews says: It was because of the joy that was reserved for him that Jesus endured the cross, despising his shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)

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