A season of promise and the lie of a crossless grace


This is the Easter season, post Resurrection, on the other side of the cross. And while some Americans shout "Make America Great Again," most of the American church has liturgically moved into the season of Easter promises, failing entirely to notice the significance of Easter's cross. By the cross here, I do not mean that harmless ornament that adorns most Christian places of worship, or the jewelry piece that folks like to hang as an accessory on their neck. Neither do I mean that symbol of a pious faith that too many Christians believe grants them the right to claim they have been justified by grace through faith, while failing to confront their sin and all that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth reveals about the state of our world and our way of life today.

No. When I claim that the church has moved into the season of promises without taking notice of the cross, what I mean is that the common narrative of salvation in Christ unjustly allows the cross to become almost entirely absent of any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, rather than shaping us in costly discipleship, this version of the cross merely represents an empty "cheap grace." To use John Wesley's words, we operate with a form religion, but we are entirely without its power.

What the church needs today, especially the church in America, is a recognition of the power of the cross that refuses to let us forget the "crucified peoples of history," as the Salvadorian martyr Ignacio Ellacuría called them, or the "crucified earth," as Kurt Vonnegut would put it.

In other words, what American Christianity needs is to come face-to-face with the Crucified. As James Cone put it, in his prophetic, provocative, call to repentance titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree,

Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a 'recrucified' black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

Cone aims to remind us that the cross and the lynching tree should be seen together. That the cross of Christ should force us to see that God identifies with those who suffer, especially those who suffer at the hands of other human beings---especially when that suffering is sanctioned by systems of power. And I would add that this too extends beyond human suffering, even to the rest of creation that suffers at the hands of humanity's desire to play god, wielding forces of power that encourage injustice and ways of reasoning that aim to legitimate it.

Coming face-to-face with the cross of Christ is the boldfaced reminder to the church that we cannot expect our relationships with God to bring salvation, our faith to yield fruit, or our Christian claims to truth to bring us closer to the promises of God so long as we ignore the suffering of others, both human and nonhuman. We cannot expect to enjoy any kind of salvation  from God whatsoever so long as we refuse as individuals or a society to own up to our own complicity with injustice and beg to be empowered by God's Spirit to put in place concrete steps that bring healing, wholeness, and restoration. Either the gospel calls us to repent (to metanoia - not just to feel guilty, but to actually dedicate ourselves to the work to making things different) for the suffering done by the work of our own hands, or our faith is based on a crossless grace, a grace that has nothing to do with Jesus, a grace that is nothing more than a lie, powerless to bring about the promises of God.

The church in America has been bamboozled. Instead of triumphantly claiming that America can somehow "be great again," as if our history was something other than what it actually is, the source of mass suffering, what America needs is a church filled with repentant peoples crying out to God for mercy.

Oh the cross I see Looks more like a lynching tree Like a suffering humanity Strung up by its neck, hands and feet But Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh the cross I see Looks plain like this world to me Some claim that it's fair and free Like their precious democracy But Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh the blood is running down Upon the weeping wailing ground With every body that breaks the earth is shakes You see Jesus is dying upon that tree

The cross I see Looks like this devil economy Folks dotting i's and crossing t's Trampling the poor for prosperity But Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh the blood is running down Upon the weeping wailing ground With every body that breaks the earth is shakes You see Jesus is dying upon that tree

Mercy, Mercy, Oh my God have mercy on me Mercy, Mercy, Oh my God have mercy on me

For the mothers and their daughters For the sons who have lost their fathers For the vagrants and the refugees For the children who have become commodities For the homeless seeking daily bread Begging pocket change needing to be fed For the immigrant working endless days Exploited on a promise with no pay raise For the prisoner locked inside his cell Counting those days as he rots in hell For the victims of this wretched war And for the movement that we’ll just keep marching for

[From Steve Schallert's "He Was Numbered Among the Lawless"]