27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
When I was twelve or so I learned how to tie a hangman’s nose. I don’t know why it interested me. Perhaps it was due to the westerns I had watched on TV. Perhaps it was because my cousin, who showed it to me, invested it with a certain emotional energy – it was ‘cool’. Perhaps it’s just because the knot itself was an interesting puzzle. As a white boy in the California suburbs it had no other meaning to me. It did not speak of terrorism, of the brutal realities of Jim Crow segregation, of the violence we would come to see thanks to Bull Connor and his dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. The knot had the vague numinous power of something associated with death, but it did not fill me with the fear of lynching for failing to respect the strict social requirements of the dominant culture. It is only later that I learned that this knot was a symbol of terror and oppression.
Such was the cross in Roman hands. It was an instrument of subjugation, a brutal demonstration of power and the consequences of challenging that power. Any sign of resistance on the part of a slave towards his master, any rebellion against the social order, was answered with this bloody instrument.
We wear crosses of gold and silver, now, adorned sometimes with precious jewels. We put them on bumper stickers and doorknockers and give them as wedding gifts for a new couple to put on their living room wall. Imagine giving a newly married African American couple in the 1950’s a hangman’s noose for their wall.
The cross has been robbed of its power. For the generation threatened with crucifixion in the arena, fed to the lions, or used as the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder for mass entertainment – for this generation the meaning of the cross was quite clear. They had taken the symbol of oppression and used it as a symbol of liberation. They took the instrument of Roman dominion and used it to proclaim God’s dominion. The symbol of Rome’s power became a witness to the ultimate triumph of the reign of God.
To take up the cross was to endure the hostility of the world for the sake of the world to come, the world God was creating, the world where all imperial powers are thrown down, all injustice overthrown, where debts are released and prisoner’s freed, where neighbors are loved and bread is shared, where the honored are not those who rule but those who serve.
Those who live in “the real world” mock the “starry-eyed dreamers.” But Jesus was not a dreamer. He saw the world clearly. He knew his fate. Yet all the might of imperial Rome could not silence his witness that a world in which the Spirit of God governed was coming – indeed, was already present. Sins were forgiven, the sick healed, the scattered gathered, the dead raised. Bread was already being shared, the light shining, a new creation dawning.
Those who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps must be clear-eyed, too. It’s not a requirement to give up everything to follow him; it’s just a fact. You can’t hold on to a dying world and participate in a new one. You can’t hold on to hate and follow love. You can’t hold on to fear and follow faith. You can’t hold on to wealth, power and privilege and follow hope, mercy and service.
The dying world doesn’t go away easily. Hate and fear, violence and shame abound in us and around us. And the dying world resists the birth of the new. Always. But the new is come. And those who would be disciples should recognize that we are not on a pilgrimage to the old Jerusalem (after which we all go home to our same old lives); we are on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem, the city God creates, the world God governs, the community where the fruits of the Spirit reign: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.