The Cross in Contemporary Culture

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As Easter approaches, and millions of Christians around the globe prepare to celebrate one of their most important religious holidays, we take a look at the symbol at the center of it all: the cross. A defining symbol of the Christian faith, the cross is recognized globally as a sign of love, loss, salvation and gratitude, and is depicted in churches and in art around the world. In The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, Professor Robin Jensen examines the two thousand year history of the cross as an idea and artifact—from the graphic images of the crucifixion in the late Middle Ages, to the rejection of imagery during the Protestant Reformation, up to the more recent discovery of the so-called “Ground Zero Cross” in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. As Jensen notes, “The cross’s story is neither simple nor straightforward. Whether as sign, artifact, instrument, or character, the cross has been cast into a myriad of roles.” What role does the cross play today? In the extract below, Jensen concludes her study with a look at the cross in contemporary culture.

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The CrossBoth ubiquitous and tenacious, the cross turns up in the most mundane contexts. Roadside crosses set up by private citizens compete with advertising billboards and mark the sites of traffic casualties—a sobering reminder of the death toll on highways. Shrines with crosses fill the landscape in some parts of the world. A hill in northern Lithuania, completely covered with votive crosses and crucifixes is a testimony to the persistence of Catholic Christianity in this former Soviet-occupied country. The subject of an extraordinarily popular cult, pilgrims flock to this place, climbing the hill on their knees and praying the stations of the cross. At the other end of the spectrum, gaudy rhinestone crosses turn up on denim jeans, handbags, or leather jackets—a fashion trend that may have little to do with religion.

Crosses in the public square can be perceived as communicating Christian triumphalism or religious intolerance. The fiery crosses of the Ku Klux Klan are an extreme example of the symbol being used to terrorize victims, incite racial hatred, and widely regarded as an emblem of hate-based terrorism, especially (although not exclusively) against African Americans. Klan spokespersons have argued, however, that the lighted cross (versus the “burning cross”) is not intended as an act of desecration but rather as a show of allegiance to Christ. This intimidating symbol may have been borrowed from the fiery crosses burned by Scottish clansmen, used to rouse their countrymen to repel the English armies during the Jacobite rising. Its sympathetic portrayal in D. W Griffith’s 1915 epic film, The Birth of a Nation, may have encouraged the Klan’s embrace of the figure. Despite the Klan’s justification of its use, recent Supreme Court decisions have judged the display of a burning cross to be a hate crime rather than an instance of freedom of expression when expressly used to intimidate or if motivated by racial, religious, or gender bias. James Cone’s important work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, looks at the conflicted connections between the two powerful images of the cross and the tree, noting that some African Americans may find the cross to be a symbol of God’s solidarity with their suffering against the terrifying history of racial violence, perpetrated upon the “lynching tree.”

Jews objected to the placement of crosses at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in the 1980s, as they evoked painful memories of both ancient and modern persecution. Although the large cross at Auschwitz was originally set up for a convent of Carmelite nuns, and the subsequent placement of smaller crosses may have been intended to commemorate the death of Christians—including many Christian Roma—at that camp, Jews perceived their installation as profoundly disrespectful and demanded their removal. Conversely, the Chinese government’s removal of crosses from the exteriors of Chinese Christian churches, ostensibly only enforcing zoning ordinances, arguably has a different motivation. Journalists have reported that the authorities are targeting Christian churches because they regard their display of religious affiliation too excessive or “overly popular.”

Feminist critique of the cross as a symbol has been a hallmark of modern theology, as writers have argued that the image of the crucifixion has been used as a justification for abuse and even violence against women and marginalized peoples. The argument focuses on the way that the traditional Christian emphasis on Christ’s suffering has been used to encourage meek and submissive self-sacrifice (especially of women) or simply to validate and even glorify suffering more generally. Some even take the position that the cross and the medieval atonement theory that lauded it are sadomasochistic. A more widespread view among feminist theologians is that Christian theology has been suffused with patriarchal values and often used to oppress women and that Jesus’s admonition to “take up your cross” could be understood as a justification for tolerating abuse.

The idea that human guilt is absolved by a violent death, or that a loving God should require such propitiation, is abhorrent to many Christians. Others hold a different view and identify Jesus’s suffering with that of oppressed communities, a view that characterizes the work of certain liberation theologians and prompts a call to solidarity with those who suffer from poverty, injustice, or hate-based crimes. In addition, theologians have argued that to neglect the suffering of Christ is to deny his true humanity. Christ does not suffer because suffering is beneficial, justified, or even justifying, but because he fully participates in and has compassion for the inevitable suffering of human existence.

Perceiving Christ’s crucifixion as God’s identification with the suffering, abused, or oppressed has inspired artists to depict Christ as a martyred Russian Jew, a naked female, a battered African slave, a Nicaraguan peasant, or a freedom fighter. Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938) was painted shortly after Kristallnacht—the horrifying, widespread Nazi raid on German Jews. The painting shows a world swallowed up by violence, including the figure of Christ on the cross with a Jewish prayer shawl draped around his loins. Critics have condemned Edwina Sandys’s Christa (1975), an image that depicted Christ as a crucified female, for apparently denying that Jesus was a historic, human male. Her supporters commended the work for its implication that Christ, as God, transcends the particularity of gender, while as both divine and human, he truly experienced the totality of human experience, including physical, mental, and emotional torment. Some feminists have argued, however, that the image unintentionally reinforces violence against women and emphasizes the figure’s vulnerability and sexuality.

Other artists, eschewing traditional Eurocentric iconography, have incorporated distinctively ethnic symbols or figures into their representations of the crucifixion or cross. Showing Christ as African, Asian, or Central American underlines the universality of his humanity. The depiction of the Holy Spirit as a hummingbird rather than a dove on the Mexican cruz de ánimas is a modest but striking instance of using meaningful visual language for a particular culture. A more monumental example is the Totem Cross (1975), carved by First Nations artist Stanley Peters. Peters placed a thunderbird on the cross in place of a human male corpus. The artist chose the thunderbird to represent Christ because natives of the Northwest Coast believe the bird to be a messenger of the Great Spirit. In a letter to the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, Peters described his work:

God’s eyes watch from the four directions, from above and below, from both wings, saying that God is all around us at all times. All races, black and yellow, red and white, are represented in the four colours taken from nature and found in the earth-circle and all over Thunderbird. Christ-as-Thunderbird, in dying for us, restores happiness and understanding; he fills us with new dignity and great richness.

Piss Christ by Andres SerranoA number of contemporary artists have produced notably controversial depictions of the cross or crucifixion, and many of them have been accused of being intentionally insulting or blasphemous. Cosimo Cavallaro’s crucifix, My Sweet Lord (1985), sculpted entirely out of chocolate, was labeled as hate speech by the president of the Catholic League. Sarah Lucas’s Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003) was a crucifix made entirely from cigarettes. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), a large-format color photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, is a more famous (or infamous) example. Some viewers regarded Serrano’s work as a powerful—even sacramental—allusion to the life-giving and death-dealing aspects of human bodily fluids, especially at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. Others, including Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, called it abhorrent and sickening, and used the storm of indignation to challenge taxpayer support for artists. In many cases, the artists were not attempting to make religious statements, or even deliberately offensive ones. Rather, they chose a subject so deeply embedded in Western visual consciousness that it instantly communicated a powerful message, whether sacred or profane. To the extent that such a message might cause outrage actually confirms its continued power and relevance.

So long as Christians continue to ponder the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and to sing about it, wear images of it, or install it in their worship environments, the cross will never become irrelevant or trivial. Rather, the cross will continue to project significant valence, both positive and negative depending on where or when it turns up, how it is used, what it looks like, and who sees it.

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