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At the recent Festival of Faith & Writing here at Calvin College and Seminary, I had the great privilege of interviewing pastor and author Fleming Rutledge on her recent award-winning book The Crucifixion. I highly recommend the book. It is definitely Rutledge’s magnum opus after a life of literary output–the text plus notes run to nearly 670 pages. Throughout Rutledge is insistent that we simply cannot forget about the shame, the ignominy, the accursedness of a death on a cross. No other form of death for Jesus would have succeeded in dealing with the realities of sin and evil than this kind of death.
It is also true that no other event in all of Scripture makes plain God’s penchant for using surprising means to attain his salvific ends. All along God had taken the low roads, chosen the least likely folks. To start a whole new nation? How about picking a pair of childless senior citizens? Need a spokesperson for your people Israel? Choose the one who stutters. And on and on it goes with God until finally even the prophets foresee that when God’s Chosen One shows up, it will be more like a shoot emerging from a dead stump than the arrival of some flashy military or political figure. It will be the one from whom people would just as soon hide their faces than the beautiful people gracing glossy magazine covers. And indeed, when the Son of God advents into our time and space, he’s just another baby born to poverty-stricken parents and who gets laid in a goat’s feed trough for his first crib.
But the cross crystallizes this M.O. of God. It also brings into focus just how bad sin is, how deeply entrenched evil is, and how seriously we need to take that realm of what the Apostle Paul calls “the powers and principalities” of this age. It takes a bloody instrument of execution even for God’s own Son to start taking all of those dark forces head on.
We forget, of course. The cross long ago lost its raw power to offend, to shock, to sicken. Crosses are now earrings, necklaces, steeple decorations, bulletin cover art. The lines are clean, the blood and the gore long ago squirted away. But what happened to Jesus on that cross must never fade away finally for the church. We lose too much. We forget even the very nature of the Gospel we are called to embody and to proclaim.
In one searing passage in her book, Rutledge recalls the terrible death of the gay man Matthew Shepard. Rutledge writes, “Perhaps we can gain further understanding [of the cross] by examining a horrific incident that occurred in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 and soon became emblematic of the ongoing struggle against the persecution of homosexuals. A young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was beaten within an inch of his life by two other men and was then tied to a fence and abandoned. Eighteen hours later, in near-freezing weather, a passerby discovered the comatose figure and for a moment mistook it for a scarecrow. Matthew Shepard died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. The particular cruelty of this death left people groping for words. He was tied up and left dangling ‘like an animal’ said one spokesperson, recalling the Old West practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to intruders. The emphasis here is on the de-humanization of the victim; declaring another person less than human is the well-attested first step toward eliminating that person or group of people. The phrase ‘like an animal’ is therefore apt. The strongest of all statements, however was this [as written by someone in the New York Times]: ‘There is an incredible symbolism in being tied to a fence. People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion’” (p. 80).
This is what happened to our Savior Jesus. He was stripped of his very humanity so that, in the paradox of the cross, our own humanity could somehow be restored to us.
This is the “weak power” Paul liked to ponder in his letters (cf. especially 1 Corinthians 1). The Gospel always comes this way and the cross is supposed to be our constant reminder of that. But . . . we forget.
This past week the news has featured some disheartening things that tie in with the church forgetting that we don’t serve our Lord best when we grab worldly power or its perks or its accouterments. A high profile megachurch pastor has stepped down amid multiple allegations of sexually inappropriate speech and sometimes touches. That saddens but what troubles me even more is that most of the alleged encounters happened on the pastor’s private yacht, private jet, and in expensive overseas hotel suites paid for by his church. Whatever did or did not happen between this pastor and those women, the fact that these trappings of the rich and powerful were somehow mixed in with ministry works against the humble weakness of a cross-based message.
At Wheaton College last week a number of evangelical leaders gathered to lament the church’s recent sacrifice of so much Gospel integrity in order to gain access to the highest reaches of political power in the U.S. Fuller Seminary President Mark Labberton’s speech was released and at one point Labberton said, “In much of the last century, American evangelicalism has had a complex relationship with power. On one hand, it has felt itself marginalized and repudiated, defeated and silenced. On the other, it has often seemed to seek—even fawn over—worldly power, mimicking in the church forms of power evident in our culture. (I remember being at a conference where it was announced we should all be back after dinner for ‘an evening of star-studded worship.’) An evangelical dance with political power has been going on from the time of Billy Graham, through the Moral Majority and the religious right, to the Tea Party, and most recently with the white evangelical vote . . . A Faustian pact between evangelicals and power—even when claimed on behalf of the kingdom—cannot be entered in the name of Jesus Christ without betraying the abdication of power inherent in the incarnation. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . . .’ (John 3:16) Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.”
Labberton is right at how at variance this lust for power is with the incarnation. Fleming Rutledge would remind us that the real variance is in one of the most important things that incarnation made possible: the crucifixion of God’s own Son.
I know it is Eastertide right now but I think for all of us–starting with myself–sustained meditations on the meaning of that horrid cross is perhaps what we need.
Excellent, as usual, especially in this Resurrection season when we talk about the Power of the Resurrection, and as we approach Pentecost, when, as the Lord Jesus says, You shall receive power . . . .”
Sometimes I wonder whether nowadays the concept of of the cross would be more suitably symbolized by the noose. Can you imagine the offense at wearing that symbol as jewelry?!
That offense could well result in the losing of a job!
Exactly. As Neal Plantinga has said, what would you think if at the mall you saw a young woman wearing a necklace with an electric chair pendant? You’d be scandalized, shocked, flummoxed as to what would explain this. THAT is the reaction the cross as a symbol of hope should elicit.
If I, as a white man, were to wear a lynching rope emblem, I would be labeled either as a KKK sympathizer or else as a racially-insensitive tone-deaf white liberal, blithely identifying with Black suffering and injustice. It’s worth noting that the early Christians did not use the cross as a symbol, but a fish. The cross, as I have heard it, did not become THE Christian symbol until Constantine adopted it for, well, ambiguous political reasons.
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…” 1 Cor 1:27
Abuse of power is a two way street. The Matthew Shepard story is most likely a fabrication used for political purposes and the Tea Party was oppressed out of existence. We’re in the world, not of it – which means we have to learn to exercise our power in the world appropriately. Getting rolled by scoundrels is not biblical. Neither is relying exclusively on Trump. That said, I’ll vote for that fool again.
Amen, Matt. And, come August 9, you and I will again not see each other at the Global Leadership Summit.
Your arrogance in claiming that the true story of Matthew Shepard is a fabrication is breathtaking and bewildering. I cannot even imagine what is behind such an accusation of false witness by Rev. Rutledge or by me in quoting her. The story was widely reported at the time, including in the October 13, 1998, New York Times story quoted by Rutledge in her book. Whether the motive of the killers was all about homosexuality or was a mixed bag of motives does not for one second mitigate the horror of what they did to Mr. Shepard or the primary point of the use of this story by Rutledge that the ignominy of his death in being tied to a fence and left to die mirrors what crucifixion was once meant to do.
I am starting to wonder if there is ANYTHING folks like me at The Twelve can write that will not be attacked on some level by people like you.
Thank you for putting words to my thoughts, Scott.
Simply Google “Matthew Shepherd story” to see the controversy over the original accounting of what may have actually happened. It’s not cut and dried.
So he wasn’t brutally beaten? Was not tied to a fence and left to die? Did not die of his injuries 5 days later? Whether his killers were anti-gay, high on meth, involved in a drug deal, or some combination of all those things was not the point of the analogy. Your and others’s jumping on that example because you think the point of Rutledge’s or my mentioning it was primarily to advance some pro-gay agenda only displays the filter through which you are reading things, not the point of my blog. The point was about someone’s horrifically quite literally hanging someone up to die. Like crucifixions were in the Roman world. I would have thought that was clear enough. Obviously not.
If you want to write about the power of the cross to offend and how we’ve turned it into a trinket, I’m listening. If you want to tell me about the trappings of the world and how they can take down the life’s work of a pastor (or any of us), I’m listening. And believe it or not, I even listen when you groan about politics – I can learn from you and I need to be checked as much as the next guy. But so do you. Your writing, which is quite good, walks a fine line between genuine concern and slander. This is a Journal of Reformed Thought, which means that despite all appearances, Marty Wondaal is your brother and a real person that loves Jesus and his fellow man. When Jesus was crucified, I believe that Marty and I were there driving in the nails. But I do not accept the implication that in some way we were there at the Matthew Shepard incident (The Guardian 10/24/14 – The truth behind America’s most famous gay-hate murder). That is the work of opportunists who are quite willing to throw me under the bus to get their way. If you keep running with them I believe that someday they’ll do the same to you.
Thanks, Scott, for sharing Rutledge’s powerful book delineating the shame, disgrace, and public contempt of the cross. I doubt, as you say, that no other event makes so plain God’s penchant for surprising means to achieve his salvation. This is no more plain than the salvific benefit of Matthew Shepherd’s terrible death. If you wanted a plain explanation for achieving God’s salvation or victory over sin, you would look, not to the cross, but to the glorious return of Christ, as described in the Bible. For those who wear shiny silver and gold crosses from the neck or ears, they only want to show the ultimate beauty of the cross, not it’s disgrace or shame. I think you misunderstand such jewelry and testimony.
The apostle Paul had it right in 1 Corinthians 1:18, when he mentioned the foolishness of the cross. To anyone of sound reason and common sense, the crucifixion cross of Christ, makes little sense. To suggest that the cross is the means of substitutionary atonement for the saved, leaves the secularist wondering who the fool really is. There is no doubt in my mind that God is a good and gracious God, but the shameful and contemptible cross? Hmm! Thanks, Scott.
I am not sure I understand your point here but insofar as I can figure out what you are getting at, I am quite certain you are biblically and theologically incorrect on a point or two. Or maybe I am missing your meaning. In any event, the cross is the means of salvation, the place where Christ took upon himself all the curse of sin and evil, where Christ met the powers head on. If you read Rutledge, you will see her affirmation of the traditional teaching that it is not merely Christ’s death that saves us but specifically his death on the cursed tree of the cross. Jesus’ death would not be salvific in dealing with evil/sin had he been run over by a chariot or suffered a heart attack. To quote Rutledge from p. 102 of her book: “Paul [in Galatians 3] makes a typically audacious move in quoting Deut. 21:23 . . . For Paul it is not God but the curse of the Law that condemned Jesus. In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the Enemy–to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23, 7:8-11). This was his warfare. This is one of the most important reasons–perhaps the most important–that Jesus was crucified for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.”
The cross IS foolishness to those who are perishing, Paul writes in 1 Cor. 1, but to those given by grace the eyes of faith, it is both the wisdom and the power of God.
And I was not per se trying to insult those who place a cross atop a steeple or honor the Gospel by wearing a cross necklace but was merely stating that the commonplace sighting of the cross these days in such places makes us forget that in the Roman world, a cross was a terror, the most dreaded form of capital punishment imaginable. Save for the power of God at work on Jesus’ cross, there was never anything good about a cross. We forget that at times, which was my point. And it is a perfect example of God’s Gospel and salvation coming in surprising forms, forms that to the world seem certain to be incapable of doing anything at all.
Thanks, Scott, for the reply. You realize, of course, that although most reading this publication are Christians, not all are. And certainly not all are Reformed. And you even have a few skeptics (at least one) from a Reformed background, reading these articles. I like to push the envelope, to point out some of the variety of legitimate views there might be for those who read and enjoy this website. You may point out that I may be off base on a couple of my points either biblically or theologically. That might be true if I were making points from within your own Reformed Biblical viewpoint. Many of my points were made from outside of such a viewpoint and even from outside a Biblical viewpoint altogether. The secularist, basically could care less what the Bible teaches, just as you could care less what the Buddhist or the Koran teaches. The secularist cares more about what is reasonable and makes common sense. The Christian cares more about what the Bible teaches. That’s Paul’s basic point in regard to the “foolishness of the gospel.”
To many, maybe most, Christians, what you point out in your article is true. For you, and others, it is true because the Bible teaches such. But as Paul might point out, the teachings (especially salvific teachings) of the Bible are less than reasonable to the secularist, so they discount them as foolishness. The secularist discounts those teachings because they don’t stack up to the good common sense that God has given to humans.
The secularist might point out to the Christian, that if God can simply speak this world and universe into being (a Bible teaching) then why would he create such a complicated scheme of salvation, when he can simply declare the forgiveness of all people by his spoken word? And why in the name of common sense would he choose only the elect (his chosen ones) for salvation and not everyone? So, Scott, it’s really pretty easy to see why the Christian gospel (and even this article) doesn’t make much sense (I’m being gracious) to the secularist.
Thanks for this thoughtful reply and I do regard you and Marty and others as brothers/sisters in Christ. I guess I remain flummoxed in how the Shepard analogy is getting read and received and I guess my only explanation is that you or others were sure it was only to advance some pro-gay agenda and so was meant to implicate anyone less sure about such things as being complicit in the Shepard murder. Nothing can be farther from the truth and perhaps my own tone-deafness to people’s hyper-sensitivity to this may explain why I could never in a million years have guessed you would suggest that I was making some sick “were you there” analogy between Christ Jesus and Matthew Shepard. Of course not! The public brutality and humiliation and violence of what those murderers did was meant ONLY to be a modern day raw example of what crucifixions were all about in Jesus’ time. I was making no connection between Christ and Matthew S. beyond using the sickening humiliation of what happened to Matthew as a way to shake us back into remembering what we sometimes forget: the cross was such a horror for the Son of God. Maybe if the analogy had been only about a dead coyote nailed to a fence I could have saved all this trouble. Maybe I should have gone with lynched black men from the South across the 20th century. Or would that have made it sound like I was accusing someone of being racist? Years ago Neal Plantinga used the story from a Nazi concentration camp about how the Nazi guards stripped a rabbi nude (allowing him to keep only the yarmulke on his head), made him stand on a table, and then preach the sermon he had prepared for the synagogue for the next Sabbath. Plantinga made the analogy between that kind of public stripping and humiliation to what the Romans did to Jesus. Had I used that would a sensible person reading my blog feel accused of being anti-Semitic and complicit in the Holocaust? “Were you there when they stripped the rabbi . . .?” I think not. The public, horrific , humanity-stripping ignominy of that murder in Wyoming was the only intended point of contact. I am pretty sure that was fairly clear on a fair reading of the piece but I hope this comment makes it crystal clear.
Thanks, Scott, for your clarifications. Point well taken. I didn’t mean to discredit you example. It was a good one, as were the others. I was just suggesting that there was controversy over the Matthew Shepherd example. Keep up the good work.
I’m content with your explanation and thank you for the clarification. I will try and read you more charitably going forward.
Thank you for this post and the Twelve Blog.
The comparision of the Matthew Shepherd is fitting in the gruesome and brutal nature of the torture and murder. This should shock and mortify us if there be any common grace within us and drive us to love, inclusion, preservation and building up of all humanity. We are madated to work for thier redepmtion as God gifts us to include us in his plan and work of redemption.
Where the comparision falls down for me is that Matthew Shepherd’s torture and death were criminal (extra-judicial) and required and those responsible received human jucidical punishment. The scandal of the cross is that it had to be judicial, government-sanctioned, societally-approved otherwise “the iniquity of us all” would not have been upon him.
To me, the truth that is not the brutality of Chist’s death that saves us, but its substitutionary nature was lost here within and in the adjoining comments.