Simcha Fisher: The cross is meant to be co-opted

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Image: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

When Rod Dreher announced he and his wife were divorcing, the first thing I should have done was pray for them. Instead, I braced myself for the nasty comments that I knew would follow his announcement. And they did follow, as Dreher himself predicted they would.

Dreher has plenty of ill-wishers, and not undeservedly. Despite his large audience, he’s not a careful man, and tends to bounce from panic to panic, resting only in exasperating self-indulgence that’s frustrating even to people who agree with some of his views; and he’s downright repugnant to those who find his views appalling. And some of the things he believes are appalling.

Still, I guess my corner of the internet is somewhat sheltered, because I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of delight that followed the news. This wasn’t a case of just desserts, like a bad boss getting fired himself, or a thief having his own possessions stolen. It was a man whose ideas people disagreed with announcing that he had been struggling for nine years to save his marriage, and had finally failed, and it was partially his fault. To respond to such news with glee is to pull hell down on your head.

One comment in particular stood out, because it presented itself as correcting his Christianity. A woman jeered at him for using an image from The Passion as the header image for the essay where he briefly describes his suffering.

Dreher is, in fact, in Jerusalem as he writes, and had been praying at Golgotha during Holy Week, so it would be almost unnatural if an image of the crucifixion hadn’t suggested itself to him as a natural illustration for intense personal pain. But this commenter excoriated him for comparing himself to Jesus. She said it was typical self-aggrandisement for him to co-opt the imagery of the cross for his own suffering.

But that is the point of the cross.

Rod Dreher in Sydney. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

That is why the execution of our saviour was public. That is why it was done in the middle of the day, in front of crowd, on top of the hill: So everyone could see, and so everyone would know that Jesus wept and bled and lost the strength of his limbs just like us. Just like anyone who had ever suffered until that day, and just like anyone who ever would suffer. That’s the point. The cross is meant to be co-opted. That’s what it’s for.

I think that the woman who scoffed at Rod Dreher probably didn’t have a lot of theological thoughts in her head, and mainly just didn’t like Rod Dreher, and wouldn’t have sympathy for anything he did or said. But it’s pretty common for people who are more fair-minded, and who don’t reflexively kick people who are already down, to do a sort of defensive gate-keeping when it comes to suffering: To say that this or that isn’t real suffering, or that it isn’t authentic or worthy or profound enough to call itself actual suffering. That it’s something lesser, something we should be embarrassed to admit we struggle with.

Well, there is suffering, and there is suffering. I remember hearing how a friend of the family was sitting by the bedside of her dying husband. His roommate had the TV on, tuned to a televangelist channel, and the notorious Tammy Faye was on, weeping into the camera as usual, her gummy mascara bleeding into the neck of her expensive silk blouse as she begged for money for Jesus.

A nurse came into the room and brushed past the widow-to-be as she sat and waited for her husband to die, wondering how she would care for her large family of young children when he was gone. The nurse looked dolefully up at the TV, and said in a plaintive voice, “Aw, why’s Tammy crying?”

So there is suffering, and there is suffering. This is true.

In suffering is sometimes the only place we meet Christ. Photo: CNS, Nancy Wiechec

And I remember some thoughtful, painful conversations around the painting “Mama,” which shows a Pieta where the dead Jesus closely resembles George Floyd. The artist, Kelly Latimore, told The New York Times that he “always responds ‘yes’ when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.”

The artist goes on to say:

“It’s not an either-or scenario. Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”

I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. There is suffering, and there is suffering, and it’s worth having respectful conversations about just how firmly to draw the line between our suffering and Jesus’.

What I do know is that Jesus is like us in all things but sin, but for many of us, this never feels real until we suffer. That’s where we meet Jesus, and know him, and recognise him, and feel his aid: In suffering. Sometimes that’s the only place we meet him.

And so it’s a very serious thing when fellow Christians want to take that commonality away, on the grounds that we’re not worthy to count ourselves that close to Christ, or to feel that we have so much in common with him.

Because that, too, is the point: We’re not worthy. That’s why he came for us. Our unworthiness to have anything in common with God is the very reason why we need a savior.

There is suffering, and there is suffering, but there is only one man who suffered for the purpose of public consumption, as it were. Jesus’ suffering is universal; it is for everyone. And at the same time, it is personal. It is for each of us as individuals, and it means what it must in our specific lives. The cross is for us to use, to co-opt, to identify with, to look to, to cling to, to use however we can so we do not fall into the netherworld. That is what it’s for.

The suffering of other people, though — yes, even the suffering of pundits we don’t like — is not for us to judge, and certainly not for us to use, certainly not for our own amusement. Be careful, friends.