Growing up in the Mennonite Church, I heard over and over that we must “take up our cross” and follow Jesus; we should be willing to suffer harm rather than defend ourselves against violence; we should love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us.
More recently, I have struggled with these messages. I fear that this emphasis on suffering love has too often led to passivity in the face of evil. It can encourage victims of violence and evil to simply “bear their cross” rather than seek safety and justice. It can glorify sacrifice and even death, rather than promote the life and wholeness which God intends for us. This is especially true for women who over the generations have been told to bear a “cross” of abuse from husbands or boyfriends.
So what did Jesus mean by urging us to take up our “cross”? What should we do in the face of evil and violence? As I have pondered these questions, I would like to offer the following thoughts:
Taking up the cross does not mean meek submission to evil.
Jesus was not passive in the face of injustice and violence. Rather, he was assertive and active. That is why he was crucified. His actions and preaching threatened the ruling authorities and their control over the people. Thus, the cross did not result from timidity, but from resistance to evil.
Jesus invites us to also seek ways of opposing injustice and wrong. Too often, we think there are only two responses to evil: either meek submission or aggressive retaliation. But we can seek other ways to respond, ways which respect both ourselves and the other, while also avoiding harm and stopping the violence.
Sometimes this might mean leaving an oppressive or violent situation, such as when the children of Israel left Egypt or early Christians tried to avoid persecution. Similarly, Anabaptists fled persecution and war, African-Americans escaped from slavery, and women have left dangerous and oppressive relationships.
At other times, one can be more assertive, actively challenging abusive people and oppressive systems. For example, women in the U.S. worked tirelessly for the right to vote, the people of India pressured the British government for independence, and people of color continue to actively demand equity in our education, economic and criminal justice systems.
Tragically, there are times when there is no way out, no way to avoid evil and death. This too is the meaning of the cross, the terrible reality that too many people suffer and die and God does not step in to stop it. Far too often, sin appears to have the upper hand, the last word.
Nevertheless, suffering itself is not redemptive.
Suffering is not God’s will, not for anyone. Indeed, by raising Jesus from the dead, God declared an end to such violence, such abuse. God was not seeking death, but life! Further, the resurrection affirmed that it was not Jesus who disobeyed or violated God’s will, but rather those who tried to silence him, those who sought to punish him.
Why then did God allow the crucifixion? If God could raise Jesus from the dead, why not prevent it in the first place? Indeed, if suffering is not God’s will, why is there so much death and evil all around us? Unfortunately, there are no simple answers.
One might say that God allows the laws of nature to operate without actively intervening. Or that God permits evil as a consequence of human free will. Much as a loving parent desperately wants a child to choose well, but cannot always make it so, God allows us to choose wrong as well as right.
No matter how we answer these questions, I believe we can seek and know God’s love. We can trust God’s desire for us to grow and learn and heal. We can rely on God’s promise to be with us even through the darkest times. And this is what redeems us. It is not suffering, but rather God’s love which has the power to bring good out of distress, joy out of pain, resurrection out of death.
Still, God does not guarantee our safety.
God desires that we be safe and whole, yet does not always intervene, does not always rescue us from danger. There is a profound paradox here. Choosing life may involve risks. We may feel called to leave what is familiar and face the unknown. We may feel led to challenge evil and its power over ourselves or others. Yet, we will need to weigh the risks of seeking change. How do we know when we are choosing life, and not death?
Again, there are no simple answers and we will need to keep assessing the steps we take. Are these steps life-giving, or do they reinforce the powers of death? Do they honor and encourage God’s spirit within me, or do they destroy that which is precious and good? And do they help all involved to become more accountable, responsible human beings? Certainly, we will need much prayer and imagination, as well as other spiritual and community resources to help us with these questions.
Finally, God does not excuse sin or evil.
Jesus urged repentance and change, not only in our beliefs and attitudes, but also in our actions and relationships with others. He urged people to take responsibility for their behavior, change their ways and follow him.
Too often the church has commanded love and grace from its weaker members, yet has been unwilling to demand accountability from those in positions of power. Interestingly, Jesus did just the opposite. Although he expected repentance from everyone, his strongest words were for religious leaders who abused their power and exploited others.
We who claim to follow him – and especially church leaders – must also find ways to urge repentance and accountability from those who abuse and mistreat others. We need to learn more about the dynamics of power, forgiveness and reconciliation. And just as Jesus did, we must emphasize deeds over words.
So what does it mean to “bear the cross”? Truly, there are no simple answers. Still, let us affirm that this is not a call toward simple submission and death. Rather, it is an invitation to life, and faith in God’s love and justice. May God grant us much wisdom, courage and grace as we follow this way.
Based on Psalm 70
Be pleased, O God, to deliver us.
O God, make haste to help us.
Let those who destroy life be put to shame and confusion.
Let those who hurt others be turned back and brought to dishonor.
Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!” turn back because of their shame.
But let all who seek you, rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation say “God is great!”
But we are poor and needy; hasten to us, O God!”
You are our help and our deliverer;
O God, do not delay!
By Linda Gehman Peachey, Women’s Advocacy Director, MCC US, October 2005.