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Ever since the militia of what is now called the “Islamic State” became a constant news topic, we have been battered by images of their fighters’ brutality. Among the disturbing videos and photos of their blood rage one practice sticks out particularly for its anachronism: crucifixion. I’m not in the mood of analyzing the asymmetrical media war between the IS and the US. I want to talk about how these images have confirmed in me a sense of unease with the Christian symbolism of crosses and crucifixion.
The cross as religious and cultic symbol is actually much older than Christianity. It has represented the Tree of Life, Fire, the Sun, the Four Elements etc. It’s been used in many different cultures and there’s nothing to argue about those.
But the Christian cross doesn’t originate from some blurry cultural past. It marks a very specific event, at a specific time and place: The public execution of Yeshua of Nasrath by the Roman military government in Jerusalem in about 28 CE, of course. And because of its historical context, this event had a specific meaning that everybody at that time who walked by understood. It was the Roman Empire’s way of letting its colonized subjects know: This is what happens if you protest against our authority. You’ll end up spiked to a piece of wood, naked and helpless. You’ll be mocked, spat and stared at, to die as slowly and painfully as possible, and you’ll be finally eaten by birds and dogs until nothing is left of you. We are in control – don’t you ever forget that.
Only Rome had the authority to crucify. It was considered to be such a cruel and shameful punishment that Latin citizens were reprieved from it. The cross was reserved for the enemies of state from the colonies, for slaves and brigands who dared to rebel against the imperial rule. Each crucifixion was a PR statement. The unequivocal psychological impact of its sight terrified the people. It was about showing power.
The more I study about these historical circumstances the stronger my understanding of the cross as a symbol of state terror becomes. And I wonder: Is this an appropriate symbol for my faith? Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable with crosses dangling on people’s necks, erected on altars, glowing on church buildings at night, printed as logos of charities? Many treat the cross with the same reverence as an idol. Yes, the cross does remind me of my savior – but I imagine the horror he had to experience dying on that thing. I see in it a symbol of deep injustice.
Christians will argue that Christ has turned the cross into a symbol of positive religious ideas such as atonement, salvation and hope, and that this can be interpreted as triumph over its meaning of death and imperialism. The cross is a powerful sign of unity of Christian faiths. I understand these argument and their appeal.
But when I look at the current photos from Iraq and Syria, all the theological rebranding falls apart. Young men – often Christians – strung to lampposts or wooden scaffolds, dying on market squares, signboards around their necks. Pedestrians snapping Instagram pics of their agony. The IS executioners turn public spaces into killing sites. They understand what Rome understood: This intimidates anybody who disagrees. Crosses and crucifixions along other harrowing acts like stoning and gunshots in the neck belong to the aesthetic of violence which they eviscerate. I was deeply shocked by these images from the first time I saw them on CNN. They bear no resemblance to the cosmetic Jesuses peacefully hanging from church walls.
The IS propaganda reveals the true nature of the cross. It’s a cruel instrument of death, invented by cruel people, no better than the guillotine or the electric chair. There is nothing beautiful, nothing triumphant or glorious about it, as Christian art wants us to believe. For centuries after Yeshua’s death, when the cross continued to traumatize people across the Roman Empire, Christians hardly used it as their sign, because they knew what it represented.
There is debate on how Yeshua’s cross – or let’s just say “execution pole”- actually looked. That is not the matter of discussion here. What counts is the idea that a religion approves a torture device as its logo. The ease with which believers today accept, even worship the cross image not only reveals historical oblivion but also how much theology has deviated from Yeshua’s original message to the extent that many Christians support the death penalty, torture and imperialism.
For me, I cannot consider this imagery to represent my religious values. There are plenty of other Christian symbols that are much better than the cross, I think. Animal symbols such as Fish, Lamb, Dove. Alpha and Omega. Bread. Wine. The images that Jesus himself used: Light and Salt. The Pearl, or the Vine Stock. The Good Shepherd. Many churches and Christian organizations use these. They have a longer tradition than the cross and are more appealing to people of other faiths. They express affirming ideas that are directly connected to Yeshua’s teaching about the Reign of God. But perhaps that’s just me feeling this way.