Giles Fraser: The cross is a symbol of cruelty, not a club badge

Share
Related Topics

How did an instrument of Roman torture end up becoming a club badge for pious Christians? The cross was supposed to inspire terror, and those crucified made into a public spectacle of Roman imperial power. Crucifixion sent a message: we, the Romans, are in control. Defy us and die a horrible death.

In his Easter sermon, the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Keith O'Brien, has called on Christians to wear the cross as a piece of jewellery and as a mark of their faith. This comes in response to recent high-profile court cases involving the public display of religious jewellery that have led some religious leaders to insist that faith is being marginalised in public life.

I can't see why a person should be banned from wearing a cross if they want, or indeed a Star of David or an Allah pendent (a common practice frowned upon by Islam). My issue with the wearing of a cross is not that people should be forbidden to do so, but that they would want to.

A better symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. It is not the murder of Jesus that makes Christianity distinctive, but His rising from the dead, through which God demonstrates the limited power of Roman execution. Love is stronger than death and fear, for which the cross was propaganda. But an empty tomb does not lend itself to a piece of jewellery.

The story of how a symbol of suffering and political domination became domesticated as a religious fashion accessory turns on perhaps the most audacious rebranding exercise in western history. You don't have to be Ian Paisley to observe that it was the Romans who crucified Jesus and the Romans who went on to turn their imperial headquarters into the very centre of western Christianity. After the conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine in 312, the fact that Roman soldiers killed Jesus was something of an embarrassment. It was a vision of the cross that led to Constantine's conversion.

According to the historian Eusebius, on the night before the battle of Milvian Bridge, the emperor had a vision of a cross of light under which was written "in this sign conquer". From then on, the cross would appear on imperial shields and merchandise. Thus the cross came to be appropriated for almost the opposite purpose for which it was intended. The cross of the Gospels tells the story of God being in charge and Jesus being the true king. The Roman cross borrows the kingship of Jesus to return it once again to the emperor. It is astonishing how few people noticed.

For some, the cross is a symbol of human salvation and has nothing to do with politics. This is both theologically mistaken and politically naive. It is theologically mistaken because salvation comes about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those theologies that think all the work of salvation is done on the cross where Jesus pays the price of human sin leave the resurrection stranded with no real work to do. And it is politically naive because the Gospel story makes it clear that Jesus was crucified as a threat to the authority of the empire.

So, no Cardinal O'Brien, I won't be wearing a little gold cross as a nice piece of jewellery or as a pledge of church allegiance. The cross is something dark and terrifying. Only by recognising this do we get to appreciate the measure of the victory that Christians celebrate today.

Giles Fraser is former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and newly appointed priest of St Mary's, Newington, south London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Supporters of New Democracy wave Greek flags during Antonis Samaras pre-election speech.  

Greece elections: Where does power lie? This is the question that ties the UK to Athens

Steve Richards
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project