The Bavarian government is bringing in a law saying that all public buildings must display an image of an electric chair or guillotine on their walls as a cultural symbol of being Bavarian. It will become law tomorrow and is widely opposed, mainly by theologians.
Only kidding. It’s not electric chairs or guillotines, of course; it is something much more horrible than that, a combination of a rack, a scaffold and some grisly bits from a Tudor torture chamber – the cross. Some Bavarians, mostly those who worry about an influx of Muslim migrants into their land, are resorting to this act of putting up a crucifix “as a cultural object” on all government buildings. Why? To keep away vampires? There is so much wrong with this kreuzpflicht or “crucifix obligation” that it is hard to know where to start.
Catholic and Protestant theologians have had a good go at saying why this is a terrible idea, but Markus Söder of the CSU (the C stands for Christian, apparently) is pushing ahead with it. It is identity politics, and the same ridiculous fear that Viktor Orban is prey to and seeks to stir up in Hungary by quotes such as “What sort of Europe do we want to have? Parallel societies? Muslim communities living together with the Christian community?” The Bavarian CSU are insistent that the cross is not a religious symbol, but a cultural one. Does this go for the “Christian” in the Christian Social Union, too? So how, one might ask, does a means of execution serve as a cultural symbol for the southern state of a modern democratic republic? Why not a large glass of Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen? Just as Bavarian, and less theologically suspect.
Meanwhile, across the planet in South Carolina, a Baptist Church is asking an artist to remove a statue of Jesus from the front of their church. They want to take Jesus from the front of the church. Mmmm. Apparently, some people think it is too Catholic. It is not a crucifix (which many protestants dislike because it doesn’t portray Jesus as sufficiently resurrected, one suspects); it is just a slightly larger than life size sculpture of Jesus, hands outstretched towards the community the church is serving, with a set of very tasteful friezes depicting his works in the gospels – perhaps the sort of things that passers-by might reasonably imagine the congregation engaged in during the week. In fact the one thing that might be in the church leadership’s favour, in asking the artist to remove it, is that the image of Jesus is pretty scary, and might frighten people away. Anyway, the artist, one Delbert Baker Jr., has “respectfully declined” to take the statue down. What might ensue is anybody’s guess: the idea of a group of Baptist congregants taking hammers and cold chisels to the statue comes to mind (headline: “Christians attack Jesus”), or somebody coming at the dead of night to detach it from the wall and whispering the immortal words: “What are we gonna do with Jesus?” – a question that has been resonating down the millennia as some of the more important words a human being should utter.
The answer is, of course, wrap him up carefully, ship him to Europe and put it on the wall in the foyer of the CSU headquarters in Munich. Better than a crucifix, and better than beer.
Belying the humour of course, is the serious aspect of how we have all distorted Jesus and his great work of salvation into our own image.
We want the cross, but not as a brutal instrument of death that deals with our inner person in its ongoing rebellion against the love of God or as a slayer of the injustice and war that is in the world.
We want Jesus, but not too publicly and not where he will actually do anything that changes our lives much. And certainly we don’t want him advertising to the world that his followers, just like him, are going to do wonderful works of grace and mercy in their communities.
And anything that will dilute our identity as “Christians” (whether this is defined against members of our own faith, as in Lexington, South Carolina; or culturally defined against Muslim immigrants as in Hungary and Bavaria) must be resisted at all costs, we think. Identity trumps everything (sorry for the pun). Except it doesn’t.
Jesus was the messiah, but never had a messiah complex. He was persecuted, and never had a persecution complex. He was his Father’s son, a Jew (but not overly precious about it), he was male (but that never stopped him treating women with counter-cultural honour) and he was young (but respected his elders and spoke kindly to the occupying military and instructed his followers to love them). He knew who he was, and was secure because of what his Father had given him. He didn’t take his security from his age, his gender, his culture or his ethnicity. He took it from his Dad who loved him and spoke to him every day.
Paul got this. He knew where his identity was:
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3: 3-9, NIV)