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

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

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence