Saturday, March 19, 2011

Remembering the Cross

After two thousands years, some of the meaning and shock value of the cross has worn off; it has become for many a comforting symbol of religious tradition, and for others a "red flag" reminding them of Christianity's failings. But if we could somehow transport ourselves back to the second century, and look at the cross with the eyes of Jesus' contemporaries, we would see how scandalous this image really is, and how astonishing it must have seemed to early believers. Imagine a noose or an electric chair as an object of worship! Why then put the Cross, that symbol of humanity's worst impulses, at the center of one's religious faith?

Before attempting to answer this question, it should be noted that Friends are not supposed to put any images in their worship space. Early Friends were so concerned about focusing on the "inward Cross" that meetinghouses were as austere as the cells of a desert hermit. But modern Friends occasionally deviate from this austerity by decorating their meeting space with flowers or other pretty objects. Unlike the cross, such images are in keeping with our comfortable, modern faith in natural goodness. These little bouquets are like the touching messages that one occasionally hears at meeting: "I went out for a walk in the woods today, and I felt close to God" or "If only we could convince people to be reasonable and loving, and to pray together, we could achieve world peace!"

These are "nice" sentiments. But early Quakers, like early Christians, knew better. They knew that peace has a price. "No Cross, No Crown," wrote Penn. Strip all ornaments from religion, he said, and stand naked before Truth. Before you can experience "that of God" in other, you have to face what George Fox called the "ocean of darkness."

There is no darker moment in the 20th century than the Holocaust. For this reason, I have made it a practice to take groups of students, including Quaker teenagers, to the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in downtown Los Angeles. This museum not only commemorates the Holocaust, but it also attempts to open our eyes and ears to the darkness of racism and bigotry in contemporary society. For instance, in the "hall of bigotry," you walk down a darkened corridor and hear voices whispering insults like "male chauvinist pig," "dago," "nigger" and finally, "Jew boy." Exhibits like these are intended to shock us into realizing what it feels like to be the victim of prejudice.

The museum also presents graphic reminders that the 20th century has been the era not just of scientific progress, but of that peculiarly modern form of mass murder known as genocide. Beginning with the mass slaughter of Armenians by Turks, our century has seen one blood bath after another: the holocaust of Jews, the mass exterminations by Pot Pol Communists, and most recently, "ethnic cleansing" in Serbia and Bosnia.

The vast numbers slaughtered during these acts of genocide can be mind-numbing, so the museum tries to "personalize" the victims. Before entering a reconstructed Nazi death camp, each visitor is given a "passport" with the name and life history of a single person who was killed. You can also go to computer terminals and hear videotaped testimonials of survivors.

Efficient though the Nazis were in their diabolic misuse of technology, they failed to obliterate the Jews or Jewish culture. The victims of the Holocaust live on in the memory banks of these high tech computers, and in our hearts.

The Cross serves a similar purpose, reminding us that at the very heart of human existence is suffering--the slaughter of innocence. If we stare long enough into what Fox called "ocean of darkness," we also see that those who have tried to exterminate the Truth have failed utterly, and always will.

This act of remembering the Cross, like that of remembering the Holocaust, can be painful as well as redemptive. It is disquieting to recall the complicity of so-called Christians who went along with the Nazi regime. But it is salutary to remember those who heeded the cries of the victims and were true followers of Christ. They are called by the Jews "the Righteous of all Nations." Among these were many Quakers. However, the figure who most caught my imagination was a Greek Orthodox archbishop who was asked by the Nazis to list all the Jews on his island. "Why should I?" he replied. "The Jews have lived here peacefully with us for centuries. We consider them Greeks." When the Nazis insisted, the Archbishop took a piece of paper and wrote down a single name: his own.

Remembering the Cross, like remembering the blood smeared on the doorposts of Jewish homes during Passover, is another way of remembering God. For the Moslem, the act of prayer is called dikr, remembering.

The more that I recall (literally, "call back") enlightened souls such as Jesus and Fox and Woolman and Lucretia Mott and countless others, the more present they seem to me. Paul spoke of being surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses" who cheered him on as he ran his spiritual race (Hebrews 12:1). Joanna Macy, a Buddhist psychologist, conducts a guided meditation in which she asks people to visualize a giant ball in which every act of kindness and self-sacrifice is stored. "Imagine this ball of merit as a reservoir of strength that you can draw from," she says. Sometimes, in my prayers, I can feel a host of friendly presences laying their hands on my shoulders. Remembering our spiritual fathers and mothers and their deeds of kindness and self-sacrifice can give us new life and new strength to do the work that we are called to do.

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