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Oh, The Traumatic Cross!

For the past few years, I have found solace in the rhythms of the Anglican church year. I adore Advent, which is like Lent, but fun. And by the time Lent itself comes around, I’m feeling ready to embrace the ashes and the ritual of fasting that mark the season. I’m not giving anything up for Lent this season, mostly because my baby is due Holy Week and I feel like I’ve been fasting for nine months already. No need to go overboard.

But I do want to have a focused experience of Lent this year. I’m lighting the candles on our wreath (almost) each night. I’m reading Walter Brueggemann’s little book called Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No To The Culture Of Now. I also wanted to come before God with a simple question, a short thought to focus my prayers, perhaps a mantra, if you will.

I considered what I ought to pointedly devote my spiritual life to these few weeks, and as I reflected on what I’ve voluntarily given up for God in Lenten seasons past,  I realized that I wanted to know what God fasted from on my behalf.

To what extent, I wanted to know, has God inconvenienced Godself for me?

You can say this is a silly question, with ready answers that can roll of your tongue as you look at me with twisted eyebrows. The Incarnation. The poverty of Jesus. His death on the Cross. “This is Christianity 101” you tell me.

I realized it was a silly question, too. The Cross was the first thing that came to my mind as well. That dying on a splintering tree trunk thing was certainly inconvenient.

And yet.

I was startled to realize that when I gazed into the face of Jesus on the Cross, I did not feel gratitude, or joy, or reverence, or even something negative, like horror or disgust.

I felt nothing. The Cross, to my surprise, was not enough for me.

Why? How could that possibly be? I was an evangelical for over ten years–if there’s anything I know, other than my sword drills, it’s the importance of the Cross. I’ve seen the picture of the Cross acting as the bridge between the opposing cliff on which God and I stood, separated by a chasm of sin. I’ve sung “O! The Wonderful Cross” thousands of times. The Cross has always been everything to me–the proof of God’s love for people, the seal of God’s victory over darkness, the central image that answers all my questions about what is expected of my behavior in life.

And now, it doesn’t even answer a simple question: Does God ever give up anything for me?

I was listening to my new favorite podcast, On Being, and Krista Tippett was interviewing Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who researches trauma. Dr. van der Kolk shared an anecdote about stories survivors of trauma tell. Some patients, after World War Two, told a devastating story about the trauma of the war in 1945, but an uplifting one by 1990. They had survived and adjusted. Others, however, told the same story in 1990 as they had in 1945–and they were the ones still suffering under the burden of the trauma.

In that moment, I realized that what I need is a new story about the Cross.

The reason the Cross cannot, for me, be evidence of God’s willingness to be inconvenienced on my behalf is because the story that I tell myself is that the Cross is my fault. This is basic evangelical theology: Jesus died for our sins. God would never have had to get on up there if it weren’t for my flaws, my weakness, my mistakes. What everyone in my old church wanted me to get, to understand deep in my bones, is that I killed Jesus. And I am supposed to be happy now, because he was punished so I wouldn’t have to be. Hooray.

So when I look at the Cross, I don’t see God’s love. I see my guilt–and this is by design. And not only that, but I myself am on the Cross, because God’s punishment there should have been my own. The fault is mine, and I also suffer the consequences–if I’m a good Christian who lets herself identify with Christ so that I can attain to the resurrection. I am the nails and I am the blood.

Intellectually, I realize that this is all an atonement theory called “penal substitutionary atonement”, which is the easiest theory to reject on philosophical grounds and is not thoroughly supported by the biblical record. It’s the first atonement theory I rejected in seminary, back when I was presented with the options scholars have come up with to explain the Cross throughout the centuries. Few modern scholars support it. It turns out my head knows that this is not a good way to explain the Cross, or what happened on it, or what it was for.

I guess my heart just hasn’t really caught on.

I need a new story of the Cross. And I’m not saying that I need to find a new atonement theory in a book written by a straight white guy (possibly alive, probably dead) and intellectually agree with it. I need to feel a new story, to de-traumatize the Cross. Ironically, evangelicals say the Cross is something that “takes away shame”, but every single way they talk about the Cross heaps on more shame than I can bear.

Being responsible for the death of God is too much for me. I am left with open-mouthed disbelief that there are still people who aren’t traumatized by that burden of responsibility. I don’t care that they say that it was for love, or that glory and resurrection came on Easter Sunday. You can’t expect me to take seriously the idea that I killed Jesus–and I did take it seriously–and then also expect me to walk around with a healthy soul.

So here’s to new stories. Hopefully ones that give life.


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