I know many of you have already seen this gift I received from my friend, Luke Cornish. It’s an image of a crucifixion, but not of the crucifixion of Jesus, of course. You don’t need to look too closely to see that it’s the crucifixion of Julian Assange.
I probably should have put it in a frame by now as I do treasure, but Luke is a graffiti artist, known (amongst other things) for doing graffiti art in the streets of Aleppo, shortly after its liberation by the Syrian Arab Army (with images of Dora the Explorer emblazoned across the walls of burnt out buildings) and then there was his amazing depiction of the head of Khaled al-Asaad that he spray-painted on to a metal door inside the Roman Amphitheater in Palmyra, shortly after Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded there by ISIS, and shortly before ISIS retook the area and blew up the amphitheater.
Luke has also done some more light-hearted works too, of course, including the depiction he did of me on the wall of the MLC building in Martin Place. Even so, his artworks always make a serious point, and the point he is making here is indeed a serious one.
Our brother, Julian, is indeed being crucified (in a very real sense) as we speak. While other prisoners (even those convicted of quite serious crimes) are being paroled at the moment and having their trials delayed, the prosecution in Julian’s extradition hearing is pushing ahead full-steam, and from what I hear from Julian’s father, the treatment Julian is receiving is simply sub-human.
Julian is locked in some sort of plastic box even while appearing in the courtroom, unable to communicate with his legal team. It’s as if he’s some super-villain with special powers, such that if they let him out of the box he may use those powers to melt the judge or put a death choke on the prosecuting attorney.
And why are they pushing ahead with the extradition hearing so relentlessly now while so many others cases are being rescheduled for later dates? The answer, of course, is because they know they can get away with it now – that nobody will mobilize to protest at the moment because nobody is allowed to mobilize.
And even if we could mobilize, who would be interested right now? There is only one item in the news at the moment and only one thing on everybody’s mind. It’s like when you have a toothache – you think about your tooth and you think about a dentist and there’s not much room left to think about anything else. Pain and fear have a way of making us look in on ourselves and narrow our horizons. Julian who?
And that’s what the cross was all about! I don’t mean that’s what the cross meant for the early church, but the Christians weren’t the ones who invented the cross, and they weren’t the first to use it as an icon either. Long before the cross became a symbol of faith for the Christ’s followers, it was a symbol of imperial power for Rome.
People look at Luke’s artwork and say he’s being blasphemous, as if Jesus of Nazareth were the only person ever to die on a cross. On the contrary, the Romans killed hundreds of thousands of people this way – anybody who stood up to them.
The cross was not only an efficient way of torturing someone to death. It was a way of making a public statement – ‘this is what will happen to you if you stand up against us.’ People would die slowly and painfully on their crosses, in full view of the public so that all might be suitably admonished.
The cross was Rome’s way of declaring to the world that ‘we are all-powerful’ and ‘you are nothing. We hold the power over life and death. Who are you to dare to question us?’
After the failed revolt of the slaves, led by Spartacus, in 73 BC, the Roman Empire crucified 6,000 slaves and put their tortured bodies on public display over a two-hundred kilometer stretch of the Via Apia.
They didn’t post these crosses in some remote field of execution, tastefully out of the sight of civilised society. They lined the highway with the tortured and dying bodies of those who raised their hands against the Empire so that everybody would see. – so that everybody would get the message!
Of course, that was a long time ago, I hear you say, and thankfully we don’t live in Ancient Rome anymore – let alone in occupied Judea, where Jesus spent His earthly life. Life is a lot easier now than it was then. Back then the Romans could stop you meeting for worship on the Sabbath if they chose to, and indeed, you couldn’t really even leave your house without risking being interrogated by an armed member of the occupying forces, asking you where you were going and what business you had being out of doors!
Perhaps things haven’t changed that much? Indeed, when you look about the world, Greece seems to have collapsed, Rome is in deep trouble, and everyone’s worried about what the Persians are up to (in Iran). Welcome back to Biblical times!
Ok, I am exaggerating in order to make the point, but I do think that our current crisis in the midst of this virus pandemic should at least give us one clear insight into the mindset and culture of Jesus’ contemporaries in first-century Judea.
We are now in a society where there is really only one news item and one thing on everybody’s minds. It governs our thoughts and our conversations and our decisions for the future and it governs our prayers. Next time you read the New Testament and find yourself asking, “why were all Jesus’ contemporaries so obsessed with political liberation from the Romans?”, remember what this feels like.
They weren’t free to worship. They weren’t walk the streets except under the ever-watchful eyes of the Roman military. Their entire lives were circumscribed from morning to night by Roman rule and Roman law, and the people of Judea hated it! No wonder when Jesus came along speaking of ‘Good news for the poor’ and of the ‘liberation of the oppressed’ His contemporaries could only see His good news in terms of the end of Imperial oppression.
What is amazing about the New Testament church is that it started to proclaim a message of liberation and hope, not after Rome had fallen but during that same period where Rome still had the power of life and death over them! And what is even more amazing, in some ways, is that Christ’s followers took as their symbol the cross – Rome’s own weapon of mass destruction, and the symbol of their Imperial power!
It seems almost perverse! Was it initially intended as a form of irony?
I remember when I was quite young, working with (what was then) the Sydney City Mission, and helping to staff the ‘Missionbeat’ van, where we would drive around the city, picking up homeless people and taking them to places of shelter.
One of the guys I was in regular contact with then who worked at the Salvation Army Men’s home used to have a fantastic tattoo of a rolling stone on his arm. He explained to me that, as a Christian, he didn’t think it right to focus on suffering, so he didn’t like the image of the cross. His focus was on resurrection and new life, and so the image of the rolling stone seemed far more spiritually appropriate to him.
He had a point! The question is, why hasn’t the church throughout history grasped that point? Why aren’t we all wearing images of rolling stones rather than crosses?
As I say, it could be the church’s sense of irony. Was the image of an empty cross (most especially) the church’s way of saying to Rome ‘is this the best you can do?’
I suspect that was part of the point – that the cross is itself an anti-imperialist parody. The Empire thinks it is all powerful, but it is not all-powerful. The principalities and powers did their worst to Jesus, and their worst was not bad enough!
This is indeed the central proclamation of the New Testament – that Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Empire nailed to a cross, came back! Rome’s weapon of mass destruction turned out to be not as destructive as it first appeared! If that was as terrible a torture and as terrifying a weapon that the Empire could come up with, perhaps there is nothing to fear! The cross can’t hurt you! Is that the message?
I don’t think that is exactly the message – that the cross can’t hurt you – as I think the Gospels go to great lengths to make clear that the cross did in fact hurt Jesus. It’s not as if Jesus sails through the experience of crucifixion unharmed. Jesus is tortured on the cross and it does kill him. It’s just that His story doesn’t end there!
Read through the Gospel of Mark. It’s been described as a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction! There is no by-passing the sufferings of Jesus, and no way of sanitizing them either.
I was brought up Protestant, of course, and our religious artwork rarely features much blood when it comes to depictions of Jesus. Contrast that with the artworks on display at St Paul of the Cross and St Brigid’s – our two local Catholic parishes. There’s blood everywhere! Jesus bleeds. Mary is always likewise depicted with a bleeding heart. It’s hard to find someone who isn’t bleeding!
In truth, I think Catholic artwork actually captures the culture of the New Testament far better than our sanitized Protestant alternatives. Read the Gospel accounts. There’s blood everywhere. Look at the central sacrament Jesus left us with. It’s all about blood. And then look around our world.
You don’t only have to look at battlefields in far-flung countries. One of the disturbing statistics I read recently was that lockdown procedures in Italy have led to a 34% increase in levels of domestic violence. I haven’t seen comparable figures from the local scene, but I have been told that whatever figures are coming in, they are likely being massively underreported.
Think about it – if your abusive spouse never leaves the house, are you more or less likely to be able to report what is going on to the police?
I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic about all this, but our world is awash in a sea of blood. There’s violence in the home just as there’s violence on the battlefield. We struggle, mentally and emotionally, to come to terms with it all and we do our best to rise above it but sometimes it’s just too much. We want to fight the Good Fight and be good rebels for the cause of Christ, but the principalities and powers are strong and so often they threaten to overwhelm us.
I know that not everybody experiences the cross in this way. There are some people who, whether for reasons of privilege or good fortune, seem somehow to avoid the pain and the fatigue and the bloodshed. There may indeed be a lot of people like that, and God bless them, but my key point here is that Jesus wasn’t one of them!
Jesus didn’t just die on a cross. Jesus lived the cross, and those disciples who came after Jesus – they took up their crosses, just as He told them to (Matthew 16:24), and followed their master down that same dangerous and painful path.
This is why, I believe, the cross became the symbol of the faith of the early church. It wasn’t just the way Jesus died. It was something they lived, and lived together. Even so, the great thing about the cross, in the light of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is that you realise that imperial power and human suffering don’t have the final word.
“If we suffer together, we shall reign together”, says the Apostle (2 Timothy 2:12). Those who endure the cross will ultimately experience the resurrection. When all seems dark and hope seems to have disappeared, know that Jesus has been there. Jesus has experienced that darkness. Jesus has suffered that darkness. Jesus is with us in that darkness, and ultimately, as He rises, so we will rise with Him!
Sisters and brother, the Good News of the Gospel is not simply that ‘He who was crucified has risen’. It is, I believe, even more importantly, that ‘He who is risen is the one who was crucified’.
Things are not good at the moment. I know that. We feel lonely, isolated, cut off. We miss our friends and our families. We miss our familiar lives. We yearn to find our way out of this dark tunnel and get back into the light. Perhaps this cross seems to be more than we can bear.
Don’t despair. Listen carefully and you will hear the sound of the stone being rolled back from the empty tomb. A new day is dawning. New life is on its way, for the one who was crucified is now risen – risen indeed – and this one who is now risen is indeed the one who was crucified!
Love’s redeeming work is done
Fought the fight, the battle won
Made like Him, like Him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 12th of April, 2020.