Last night I swiped into a fascinating Twitter conversation that illustrates the divide in American Christianity in an stark way. The context: Rev. Jim Wallis appeared on CNN criticizing Evangelicals for embracing the divisive and hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump, and a Twitter user derided him for advocating a stance that would get American Christians “slaughtered” by Muslims. Then came this exchange:
Putting aside the absurd sensationalism of the premise (are American Christians in imminent danger of being “slaughtered” by anyone?), these two tweets say much about the deep rifts in popular Christianity, and illuminate a fundamental question about the entire Christian endeavor.
“Take Up Your Cross”: Winning Or Losing?
These tweets represent two very different understandings of the phrase “take up your cross,” and two distinct visions of what Christianity is all about. The major difference between these two postures is how they understand Jesus. In the first, Jesus calls his followers to suffering and self-sacrifice; “Take up your cross” is an invitation to vulnerability and even to death. In the second, Jesus secures religious freedom for his followers so they can seize the day and claim victory; “Take up your cross” is a euphemism for winning the day.
In addition to being overly masculine and suspiciously self-interested, the second posture is based on a dubious reading of the Jesus story. In the tweeter’s (Calvinistic?) understanding, Jesus’ entire mission was to intentionally die in order to make forgiveness possible for his followers. This was a cool (and manly) thing for Jesus to do, and it frees us up to do more important things, like putting up border walls and arming ourselves. This is the extreme conservative vision of a Jesus who died to set us free, then gets out of our way so we can secure and defend that freedom. Is this Christianity?
On the other hand, is Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross” really just an invitation to abandon life and embrace mortality? Are persecution and death really something noble and good in themselves, and is Christianity little more than a death cult for people who reject the world? Who could embrace such a calling?
What Did Jesus Really Mean By “Take Up Your Cross”?
The saying in question appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, the version in Mark most likely being the earliest:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35 ESV)
That is the ESV version, familiar to many. Here’s is N.T. Wright’s translation of the same verses, which I think illuminates the passage in helpful ways:
He called the crowd to him, with his disciples. “If any of you want to come the way I’m going,” he said, “you must say no to your own selves, pick up your cross, and follow me. Yes: if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me and the message you’ll save it.” (Mark 8:34-35, KNT, emphasis added)
This is a hard saying. In fact, it’s harder than some have assumed, not realizing that “take up your cross” hadn’t yet acquired its modern euphemistic meaning of “bear a burden” or “deal with a personal problem.” Jesus is definitely saying, “Follow me and be ready to die.” But in context, like everything we observe about the life and teaching of Jesus in the gospels, it’s not about blind belief or cold imitation, it’s about following a path or a way of life. If you lose your life because of the message - the “gospel” – it is not lost or wasted. And what is the gospel of Jesus? It’s the Kingdom of God, the healing invasion of peace and empathy and forgiveness into a world consumed by conflict and broken by hate.
This gospel does not fetishize death and persecution as if they were noble in their own right (though this has happened in Christian history). Rather, they are seen as inevitable when the narrow path of peace and forgiveness crosses the many roads and byways of politics-as-usual. Jesus doesn’t ask us to recreate the circumstances of his execution or to imitate the effective “manliness” of a divine rescue plan. Jesus invites us to follow – in selfless humility – a way of life that will necessarily risk persecution because it does not play at the world’s games of class, division, accusation, and power.
Jesus risked death not to be manly or to take some noble last stand, but because he shone in a world where advocacy and forgiveness are met with suspicion and loathing, where peace and justice are threats to the status quo. Jesus dares us to die for what is right, because it is right; to live for the other, not for the self; and to expose corrupt power instead of fighting for it. This is why Jesus died, a willing victim of sinful powers and bloodthirsty empire on behalf of those with no voice.
And while we’re on the subject, Jesus didn’t simply make forgiveness “possible” in some hypothetical, religious sense in some distant spiritual future. He proclaimed it as a clear and present fact from the platform of his own death, a victim’s death. He is both our rescuer and our example. Forgiveness and compassion, at great personal risk even to the point of death, that is the way of the Christian. That is the gospel.