Ignorance of major world religions comes in many forms today, but Lawrence Swaim’s particular version is still stunning. It is almost as if Swaim skimmed pop or even comic books on Christian theology and early church history and fashioned a reckless rant from their raw materials. Of the many historically and argumentatively strange things in his essay, his call for Christians to get rid of the symbol of the cross is the most bizarre. Getting rid of the cross is tantamount to getting rid of Jesus—which is to say, of Christianity itself. Many self-proclaimed progressives may want Christianity to go away, but realists know that this will not happen anytime soon. So, for the time being, let at least this much be understood: If Christianity is here at all, it will have to do with Jesus of Nazareth. And if it has to do with Jesus of Nazareth, it will have to do with the symbol of the cross.
Serious historians dispute many things about Jesus’s life, but the one thing they all acknowledge is that he was killed on a Roman cross. Even the ancient Roman historian Tacitus knew this. The founder of the abominable Christians, said Tacitus, “suffered the extreme penalty … under one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” As Tacitus knows, the cross of Jesus is a historical fact. Banishing it from our understanding of Christianity falsifies the truth of history and thereby ruptures the continuity with Jesus of Nazareth as he really lived and died. Jesus without a cross is, quite frankly, someone else. No more could we speak truly of Abraham Lincoln or his legacy without mentioning his assassination. On this point, the past is not so pliable as our contemporary sensibilities may wish: no cross, no Jesus. To talk meaningfully about Jesus at all is to speak clearly of his earthly end—execution on the cross.
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