I appreciate Lawrence Swaim’s arguments for jettisoning the cross as the central focus of Christianity. In my understanding, Jesus died the horrific and disgraceful death of a political criminal because he preached that “the last shall be first.” Those in power were so threatened by that message, and by how Jesus lived it out, that they had to kill him. If the cross as symbol has given anyone the idea that the violence that killed Jesus was good—or, worse, that it was God’s will—then I am all for abandoning that symbol.
I propose a new visual image to represent the heart of the Christian message: a group of human beings of varying races, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, sexual preferences, physical abilities and (dis)abilities, and economic classes. There should also be people of different religions, because Jesus’s message was one of radical inclusivity, not exclusivism of any sort, including religious. This gathering of people would symbolize the Beloved Community—a concept deeply embedded in Jesus’s message and, in our own time, picked up and utilized by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
I also suggest the addition of other beings to the gathering: a lion and a lamb, because the vision of peacefulness which Christians borrowed from Jewish scripture is the lion lying down with the lamb in the Peaceable Kingdom. To the humans, the lion, and the lamb, I would add a polar bear, a snow leopard, an endangered frog, a right whale, and a Kirtland’s sparrow. When the future survival of so many of the planet’s inhabitants is as fragile and tenuous as it is today, we must begin to include other beings in our Beloved Community. And when the anthropocentrism many have found in Christianity has led to widespread destruction of this vibrant and beautiful earth God created, we must expand our idea of community to include nonhumans as well as humans.
One way to dethrone the image of the crucifixion as central to Christian faith is to place renewed emphasis on the doctrine of creation. The earliest of Christian faith confessions—the Apostle’s Creed—begins with “I believe in God … Creator of Heaven and Earth.” Seeing all of earth and all earth beings as beloved creations of God can go a long way in calling Christians to a respect and reverence for the earth and all its creatures, human and nonhuman.
An enhanced understanding of the centrality of the doctrine of incarnation can also help. Seeing the incarnation as a symbolic statement of the closeness of the Creator to the created world (instead of seeing the incarnation as bridging a huge chasm) can encourage Christians to view animals, along with humans, to be “modes of divine presence,” in the words of environmental philosopher and Catholic priest Thomas Berry, So let’s replace that symbol of violence and death with an image of the Beloved Community—human and nonhuman—to represent the vivid restoration of creation Jesus came to accomplish!
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