The Cross as a Central Christian Symbol of Injustice

Mary Daly and subsequent feminist theologians have raised questions about whether the cross glorifies suffering. But the answer, the author writes, is not to drop the symbol, but to reframe it as a symbol of contemporary injustice. In this painting, Women Offered #5, Janet McKenzie draws on crucifixion imagery to evoke the suffering of women in the face of oppression. Credit: Janet McKenzie.

In “The Death of Christianity,” Lawrence Swaim argues that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement “makes God out to be a vengeful, homicidal deity who can be satisfied only with the death of his son.” He eloquently elaborates how the doctrine of blood atonement is a product of Roman imperial power, injustice, and terrorism, and presents the cross as a sign of conquest that has shaped Christian identity and ecclesiastical might throughout the centuries. Urging us to embrace a counterstory of Jesus’s life, Swaim goes on to suggest that we replace the symbol of the cross with the image of “a woman holding a child.” Since the cross sends a message that violence can be redemptive, he argues, Christians must jettison the doctrine, story, and symbol of the cross.

I do not think that we should drop the symbol of the cross, either from the story of Jesus or as a central Christian symbol. We need the symbol of the cross as a public sign of imperial injustice and murder, a symbol that challenges state and ecclesiastical powers, and empowers victims. Hence, it is necessary to retell the story of Jesus in terms of justice and not just in terms of internalized love.

Feminist Debates on the Cross

What is not obvious at first glance is that Swaim’s argument adopts the critical debate on the the*logy of the cross that has taken place in feminist the*logy and studies in religion. (Please note that my use of an asterisk in “the*ology” is not a typo but rather a way to speak about G*d in neither masculine [theology] nor feminine [thealogy] gender terms.) To my knowledge, Mary Daly was the first feminist the*logian to point out the significance of the discourse on sin, cross, and salvation in Beyond God the Father:

The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of the victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus “who died for our sins,” his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.

Subsequent feminist christological discussions have underscored the problematic character of Christian beliefs in the cross and redemption. One example of this feminist the*logical discussion is Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse. In the introduction to this book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker argue that Christianity has been a primary force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. They write:

The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world, communicates the message that suffering is redemptive…. The child who suffers without even raising a voice is loaded with the hope of the world.

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