In the shadow of two million coronavirus deaths worldwide (and counting) and the reverberations of an angst-ridden election and insurrection, self-examination and repentance prove essential this Lent, even for Christians who don’t observe it.
Lent draws us nearer to the Cross with practices like self-examination and repentance. This year, Lent calls our attention to specific sins such as nationalism, supremacy, conspiracy, and celebrity. These words denote the exploitation of power and its destruction of deeply held values in our country. They present a pernicious enticement to Christians who eschew the Cross.
In our anxiety, we can bypass the Cross in a rush toward resurrection. Protestants note how our crosses hang vacant to signify God’s finished work and final victory. But our sure salvation in Christ is not permission to do as we please. Crosses must still be carried (Mark 8:34). To participate in Christ’s resurrection requires we share in his sufferings and become like him in his death (Phil. 3:10–11).
Grace is less a goal of the gospel than a goad to spur us on toward cross-shaped obedience. “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:2). The Cross serves as a shot in the arm, injecting us with courage and conviction to live lives of goodness, compassion, sacrifice, and love. At the same time, the Cross that assures our salvation continually indicts us for our failures, forcing us to return and rely on the grace it provides.
The Cross is God’s victory over death. But victory has been swallowed up by those who distort the cross as a symbol of conquest. Throughout history, we’ve misused the cross to sanction hostility toward perceived enemies and others, from the Crusades to Jim Crow and the Klan, to the Capitol steps this January. Contemporary churches hide crosses out of concern for offense or irrelevancy.
Other churches gild crosses to showcase the prosperous Christian life. But hiding and gilding only give church leaders center stage, all polished and proud, and confuse fame and fortune for righteousness. Supremacy and celebrity take hold. Formerly sinners humbled by grace, we easily warp into do-it-yourself saints who don’t need grace anymore. And once we stop needing grace, we stop giving it too.
The only cure is crucifixion—the reason Jesus calls us to carry our own crosses and the reality experienced by Paul (Gal. 2:20). But this is a difficult teaching for Christians accustomed to power, many of whom embrace the victorious Cross as validation. They downplay, and even scorn, the Cross that crucifies our ongoing failures and refusals to love sacrificially as Christ loved us (John 15:12–13).
Nonwhite Christians, historically bereft of power and abused by it, embrace a Cross that has always meant victory through death, be that dying to old sinful selves, for the sake of righteousness, or as the extreme expression of love. Jesus came to earth as the Suffering Servant. Suffering-servant Christianity has stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s fixation with power. As Albert J. Raboteau rightly noted:
African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but—as black Christians know all too well—humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer.
This is not “liberal” Christianity; this is biblical Christianity. The Cross bears its strange fruit in an inexplicable capacity to rise above hatred, prejudice, and injustice with genuine love and joy. True for Christians of color, but true for white Christians too. Lent commenced on Ash Wednesday with a call to confess and be crucified. The liturgy of penitence—“pride, hypocrisy, our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people”—feels more real with all that has happened this past year.
The forgiveness is real too. In the Cross we rediscover the grace to rise up and ask, “How am I avoiding Christlike humiliation, suffering, and rejection? How am I rejecting, humiliating, and causing suffering for others? What in me must be confessed and crucified so that Christ may live through me?”
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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