Burying enmity: the language of the Cross

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
29 Mar 2013

The crucifixion of Jesus has long been a key aspect of Christian faith, and crosses can be found in many churches. Yet how this is presented in the New Testament may seem baffling, even off-putting, to many today. How can someone’s death save others, and from what? Is this emphasis macabre?

For instance, according to the author of Colossians, in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (1 Col 19-22).

Yet perhaps some of these concepts are not as unfamiliar as they might at first appear, having echoes in modern culture.

Death-marked love

For example, William Shakespeare’s famous play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ remains very popular, with film versions that have been widely viewed. It has also inspired other dramas. Its appeal to modern audiences despite the old-fashioned language is in part because so many can still relate to a tale of a forbidden but powerful love between young people from rival families, gangs, communities or nations.

Romeo is part of the Montague family, Juliet a Capulet, so that they are supposed to be enemies. In addition both are part of a patriarchal order in which they are expected to go along with the commands of the most powerful in their families, who each have sizeable numbers of followers. Instead they fall in love and secretly marry.

To quote the prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage

This sets the scene: a feud in which neighbours are locked in a cycle of violence finally brought to an end through the love between, and death of, two young people. The lead characters in this drama are naive and imperfect, but they are innocent of creating the dynamic of tit-for-tat killings and wounding, a spilling of blood that leaves those involved morally as well as physically unclean.

The love between them, and their refusal to behave in the expected ways, end in tragedy for them, yet bring this seemingly unstoppable conflict to an end. The rebellious lovers, “Poor sacrifices of our enmity” as one of the fathers describes them to the other near the end, have reconciled their hostile and estranged families and brought peace to the town.

Destructive patterns and life-giving resistance

Now as in the past, it is all too common for communities and societies to conform to destructive patterns. Group rivalry, extremist nationalism and communal tension cause huge damage. So do exploitation of the poor, oppression of women and scapegoating of minorities, sometimes to the point where their survival is threatened.

Those who resist systems of domination and destruction, disturbing the status quo, can quickly become targets of others’ wrath. The Gospels describe Jesus’ concern for the marginalised and run-ins with the political and religious authorities, who collude in his brutal death. Despite the risks he neither gives up his commitment to ushering in the kingdom of heaven where all are fed and welcomed, nor seeks to retaliate, instead praying for his killers.

His death is not the end. Unlike the blood spilled in the feud at the centre of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the shedding of his blood undermines, rather than perpetuates, the old ways of violence and destruction. After the cross comes the empty tomb, and his followers are invited to enter his risen life, no longer in bondage to death-dealing systems.

From a Christian perspective, this has a cosmic dimension: Christ’s death and resurrection are pivotal.

The church, and indeed other radical movements for social and spiritual change, have fallen short through the centuries, sometimes distorting their message beyond recognition. Yet insights continue to emerge, while hatred and injustice is challenged and humans and communities transformed.

This is sometimes painful, involving recognising where we have gone badly wrong, as leading citizens of Verona did at the end of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. For instance, many of us live in places where ritual animal sacrifice is rare. But as sociologist and theologian René Girard has pointed out, scapegoating and the symbolic sacrifice of victims are all too common in human societies. In Christ’s sacrifice, the true horror is exposed and the hope of a different way of life revealed.

Much has been written about the meaning of the cross, a subject on which Christians hold varying views. There are many who know far more about the theological issues than I would claim to.

I would however suggest that it is worth reflecting on, maybe grappling with, the language about Christ’s death and resurrection used in the New Testament, rather than rejecting it too readily. It may be awkward, but it runs deeper than both our piety and our scepticism.

Meanwhile, in sometimes subtle ways, God is at work as ancient grudges are forgiven and as enmity and indifference give way to costly love.

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© Savitri Hensman is, among other things, an established Christian commentator on religion, theology, welfare and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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