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

Giles Fraser
Saturday 07 April 2012 19:26 BST

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

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