Had Jesus of Nazareth been executed in 18th century France, would Christians have chosen small gold guillotines to proudly display around their necks and in their churches? Had Jesus been sentenced to die by electrocution in the United States during the 20th century, would Christians have opted to honor him with little silver electric chairs? I wonder how Jesus would have viewed the symbol most widely associated with him. I sense he would have been more enthusiastic about a dove or a fish to help remind everyone of his life’s work of preaching peace and feeding people.
There is a certain brilliance to Christians having taken the instrument used to torture and kill Jesus and transforming it into their movement’s standard and a symbol of goodness rather than evil, victory rather than defeat. The marketing campaign to put a positive face on crucifixion has been wildly successful. When we look at a crucifix or a cross, our first thoughts are usually not, “What a horrible death that poor man must have gone through!” or “What a barbaric, inhumane way of killing someone!” We are so accustomed to seeing crucifixes and crosses in our society that we are more likely to have no reaction to them other than to identify the wearer as a Christian. Crucifixes and crosses are Christian ID cards… “Ah, he’s a Christian, she’s Catholic, that must be a Christian church.”
If we do happen to have a deeper reaction, it might be one of reverence or superstition. Catholics, in particular, tend to have an unusually close emotional attachment to their icons. At least within my Latin American and Italian cultures, men and women often kiss their crucifixes or crosses or clutch them tightly as they pray or seek to prevent something bad from happening. The irony of channeling faith and hope through an icon in the shape of an instrument used to torture and kill hundreds of thousands of people is lost on many Christians.
The irony would be less strange if the thoughts associated with the crucifix and the cross were not so exclusively tied to one person and one moment in time. If wearing these icons helped people empathize with the suffering of all those who have been victims of crucifixion throughout history, this might help fuel a new awareness of the pain of all victims of war, terrorism, torture, abuse, and neglect around the world. This may, in turn, inspire the kind of super-charged compassion that moves people to actively engage in fighting injustice and indifference everywhere. The challenge lies in expanding the meaning and association of the crucifix and the cross so that they encompass not one crucified man but all crucified people, both literally and metaphorically.
In addition to having assumed for most of my life that Jesus of Nazareth was the only person ever crucified, perhaps the main reason I was so awed by his crucifixion was that the depiction of this execution in the movies made it seem so inhumane that it took on the feel of something mythical or of another world. It was easy to take for granted that the crucifixion of Jesus had to have been a unique event, and that the reason the Romans came up such a punishment was somehow related to what I had learned as a child about the unique nature of Jesus.
While I had not worked everything out in my head, I believe that since Jesus claimed to be God, and that this was viewed as the ultimate sacrilege, the Jews and Romans had to devise a fitting punishment for the crime. When I was a child, before I learned of all the creatively gruesome ways people have up with to inflict pain on each other, I thought crucifixion was about as bad as it could get. It had to be, otherwise the explanation that Jesus suffered greater pain that anyone else in the history of the entire universe in order to prove God’s love for us would fall apart.
I recall the priests and nuns at my elementary school always talking a lot about the suffering of Jesus. In high school, I attended a military academy in Virginia sponsored by the Southern Baptists. The preacher at the chapel almost always included “suffering of Jesus” references in his sermons. I thought, “Man, it must’ve been really bad.” Of course, I was frequently reminded that there was no way to gauge the full extent of Jesus’ pain because so much of it had to do with him carrying “the weight of the world’s sins”. I was told that this was one of those “mysteries” that I need not bother trying to figure out. So I didn’t.