Cross Covenant

February 25, 2018
Mark 8: 31-38

“It’s just my cross to bear.” You’ve probably heard people say it. Maybe you’ve said it. I know Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” I know we need Good Friday so we can move from death into life. But I so wish we could skip over suffering and the cross. I have heard too many stories of abused women and children, whose abusers told them that suffering made them closer to Jesus, that suffering as Jesus suffered bestows holiness and purifies. Dear friends, it is an abomination when the life-giving story of Jesus is used to inflict suffering on other people. That kind of cross is not one we bear. That kind of cross is one we resist!

This may be a good time to say that today there will be talk of violence in society – in our time and in Jesus’ time. If this is too much for you to hear, I am not offended if you tune out or even step out.

This passage from Mark’s gospel, where Jesus tells the disciples if they want to truly follow him they must take up their cross, makes me think of another saying of Jesus: turn the other cheek. And then I think of Walter Wink. And then I remember Emma Sulkowicz. And then I think of Jesus again. Come with me down some rabbit trails.

Walter Wink was a theologian and scholar who worked at debunking what he called “the myth of redemptive violence.” You might have read his books about the Powers – Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999).

As Anabaptists committed to peace, we often quote this saying of Jesus, “turn the other cheek.” In my experience, we have heard this as a command to be passive in the face of violence and injustice. Walter Wink says we have gotten it wrong. Wink helps us understand that “turn the other cheek” doesn’t mean lay down and get beat up. It means, as they chant at protests, “Stand up, fight back” – in a non-violent way.

What the text actually says is “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Stay with me here for Wink’s biblical interpretation,

If someone punches you on the right cheek, they have to hit you with their left hand. But punching with the left hand is just not done in Jesus’ day. It is still the case in many cultures that the left hand is for dirty work. You can’t use it for eating or shaking hands or punching because you have used the left hand in the bathroom. The left hand is unclean.

It is pretty hard to punch someone on the right cheek with your right hand. If you are hit on the right cheek with the right hand – it will be a backhanded slap.

In Jesus’ day, a backhand is an insult, meant to humiliate someone of lesser standing, to shame someone and “help” them remember their place. It is painful to name this explicitly – but here goes: the Roman backhands the Jew; the master backhands the slave; the husband the wife; the parent the child.

When Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” he is telling his listeners to challenge not just an abusive individual. He is telling his followers to challenge the system. He is inviting his disciples and others to stand up for themselves, to make themselves be noticed. Turning the other cheek is not rolling over for another punch. It is claiming your dignity; it is reclaiming your common humanity with the Roman or the master or the spouse or the parent. Turning the other cheek says, “Look at me! I am human and I challenge your treatment of me.” Turning the other cheek calls an unjust hierarchical system into question.

This kind of violent humiliation is still too real in many places. And I am not sure that in our individualistic society Jesus’ words make much sense. What good does it really do to tell an abused woman to stand proud? Isn’t she just provoking more anger? Certainly she is facing something much more dangerous than a backhanded slap. Think back on what Kim Schmidt preached in a sermon about the dangers of elevating martyrs like Dirk Willems. So how are we to take these words of Jesus about turning the other cheek? As followers of Jesus, inheritors of the covenant, how do understand Jesus’ command to take up the cross?

Do you remember Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who carried her mattress all over campus a few years ago? It was part of an “endurance performance art” piece she called “Carry that weight.” Emma had been raped in her dorm room. She reported it to the university, and despite two other women coming forward with similar allegations of assault, the accused was cleared. Emma, literally, took things into her own hands. She decided to carry her dorm room mattress everywhere she went on campus until the accused rapist was removed from campus. Emma carried that weight until she graduated in the spring. It became an embarrassment for the administration and a “nightmare” for the accused (who maintained his innocence.) Emma and some friends even carried the mattress across the stage when she received her diploma.

Which brings us back around again to Jesus and carrying the cross. In this passage from Mark, Jesus says openly to the disciples, that he is going to suffer, that the various religious leaders will oppose and reject him. He does not try to hide his sense that he will die. Nor does he hide that his death will not be the end.

Peter, who has recently declared that Jesus is Messiah, the Holy One, cannot handle hearing this about talk about death. It makes no sense, it is contradictory, for the Messiah to die. Peter sees it as his job to talk some sense into Jesus. Jesus will have none of it. Jesus knows temptation, he endured 40 days in the wilderness. Peter is another tempter, who does not understand the larger picture, who cannot see beyond the concrete.

And so Jesus begins a teach-in, not just for the disciples, but for the whole crowd. (Thank you Peter for helping this become not just a private event.) “If you all want to follow me, you must think not just of yourself. You have to pick up your cross and come after me.”

Think about the context in which Jesus is talking about the cross. It is not just Jesus and those two thieves that hang on crosses and are left to die. Crucifixion is a cruelty that the Romans use to keep everybody in line. Crosses line the roads for miles; they are an ever-present threat. And people are expected to carry their own instrument of suffering and execution to the place where they will die. It is humiliation and cruelty of the highest order. The cross is a way to keep the oppressed, as well as the low-level oppressors, living in fear, to keep them off balance. Mass crucifixion is a way the Romans hold onto power. Unfortunately, many of the religious leaders play right into the system and support it, when they feel their own power is threatened.

What if it is this whole unjust system that Jesus addresses when he tells his followers to take up the cross? It doesn’t work so well if only one person does it, but if whole groups of people begin to carry crosses, not because the Romans tell them to but as a statement of the cruel and unjust system perpetuated by the Romans perhaps it could begin to mean something. Perhaps consciences could be pricked and others resist. Maybe the humanity of the Jews will even be seen by those who are enforcers of an unjust system. Could carrying a cross as a follower of Jesus be a way of turning the other cheek, of claiming dignity and pointing out the evil of the system?

I know, this is not what we have been taught. I know that we have been taught that we are to suffer with Jesus. I know that we have been taught that following Jesus means embracing death with hope of life on the other side. But what if this is another one of Jesus’ paradoxes. What if by carrying the cross we are actually pointing to life?

Remember Emma Sulkowicz? Did she carry her mattress around because she was asking to be sexually assaulted ? Did she carry her mattress because she wanted to relive the horror of rape? No, she carried her mattress because she wanted other people to see and remember the injustice of a system where her voice and lived experience were not believed or taken seriously. She carried her mattress to protest the violence she suffered.

What if Jesus is not asking us to suffer and be a martyr with him? What if Jesus is asking his followers to engage in endurance performance art, in mass protest of a system that is a death machine? If we think of the cross as “personal,” if Jesus is our “personal Lord and Savior,” the suffering is solitary. But if we remember the cross is part of an unjust system of oppression, we flip the meaning. We carry our crosses not in suffering but in resistance.

Think of the Dreamers. They live in fear of arrest and deportation to countries they do not know. And yet, working together, they step into the thing they fear the most. They expose themselves to arrest in order to point out the injustice of a broken immigration system. Twenty-Five Dreamers are en route from New York to the Capital. They walk hundreds of miles not to cross the border but to make their voices heard in the halls of power. And as Dreamers risk arrest and walk to protest injustice, they spread hope and possibility. (Our congregation and San Mateo Church are invited to help house and feed eleven of these Dreamers tomorrow night. Let me know if you would like to help carry the cross in this way.

Think of the teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who are making their voices heard. They could each decide that this trauma and gun violence is their “cross to bear.” But instead, many are joining together, showing their scars and trauma to the world. And in telling their stories, they invite and encourage, they give permission to other teens across the country to expose their fears and wounds as well.  Now adults and government officials and even corporations hear their pain and their ideas for change.

Of course in all of these examples there is risk, great risk. Threats from those in power, reliving the trauma, violence, arrest, prison, death. These are all real risks. Jesus knows this all to well. And he calls us to a higher understanding of what life is in a “faithless and corrupt generation.” He says we lose our lives when we attempt to protect ourselves, alone, in our homes, preserving ourselves for existence in an unjust, racist, violent, patriarchal society. We save our lives by joining together to speak truth in the face of lies, by living justly in the midst of injustice, by carrying the cross even when it is not ours.

Jesus calls us to take up the cross, not so we can suffer but so we can expose injustice. We take up the cross, not as an act of resignation and assistance in our own death. Jesus invites us to take up the cross as an act of protest and resistance with companions in the struggle. By naming and claiming the trauma, we live into health. By risking arrest, we live into new freedom. By exposing the lie of death, we choose life.

It is a strange kind of covenant we are called to live into. It seems backwards and paradoxical and full of risk. And it is a covenant that we do not make with God alone. We make this covenant with God – and the people of God. We carry the cross together as we follow the Jesus Way. And together we create space for the inbreaking of the reign of God.