The real outrage is the murder in our souls
Hobart’s upside-down crosses remind us of the saviour who turned everything upside down
It’s not Christians who should be offended by the upside-down crosses installed in Hobart as part of the Dark Mofo festival associated with the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).
The cross is a gigantic “up-yours” to the smug and self-satisfied, the complacently over-privileged and those who cling to power. If the cross – whatever way up – is a blasphemy, it is against our belief that we don’t need God and can do it alone.
Turning it upside down may help us to see it for what it originally meant.
The cross has become such an ordinary and domesticated symbol in Western culture that it has become a kind of opposite of itself. It’s been painted on shields and used as a talisman of war. It’s been displayed on national flags and displayed as a sign of triumph and aggression. It’s been set on fire as a symbol of racial superiority. It’s been painted on elitist and exclusive cultural institutions.
The man who was crucified delighted in turning things upside down.
And yet it’s the badge that reminds us of a crucified saviour, put to death in the most disgraceful way conceivable. He was crushed by the sheer power of the Roman state, with ruthless efficiency. Two thousand years ago, the cross was a symbol not of pride but of deep shame and even disgust. Even the apostle Paul called it “foolish” and “weak”.
But the man who was crucified delighted in turning things upside down. Jesus once said “the first will be last, the last first”, and “the one who wants to save their life will lose it”. He called the poor blessed, and the mournful happy, and the hungry satisfied.
He said the best leaders were those who acted like slaves. And he said that to be a slave for others was what he had come for. His language is often shocking, because he knew how spiritually complacent people had become.
We haven’t heard any comment from the installation’s artists, Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney from CPS Productions. But commenting on some reactions from Christian leaders, Leigh Carmichael, the creative director of Dark Mofo, said provocation was “part of Mona’s DNA”. The Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, came out in apparent support of the installation, saying his government had “no intention to suppress and indeed censor its [MONA’s] courageous creativity”.
David Walsh, MONA’s founder, went a bit further, saying: “…St Peter was crucified upside down. Why? Because he didn’t want to be like Jesus. So maybe all the churches that have up the right way crosses are blasphemers.”
You can’t have it both ways, of course. You can’t deliberately provoke a reaction (and think yourself “courageous” for doing so) and then pretend not to know what’s going on when people are provoked.
Lit up blood-red, they remind us that even supposedly civilised human beings can be murderous.
Provocation is exactly what was intended, and it’s good for ticket sales. But also, by getting offended, some Christian leaders are playing right into the hands of the provocateurs.
Are the upside-down crosses really that subversive and provocative? Not if it is just a poke in the eye to some religious groups (who shouldn’t be so sensitive). That’s just adolescent rock-throwing, to be honest.
The beauty of turning the cross upside down is that it should remind us of our own potential for ugliness.
But if we read the crosses as a threat to our worship of money, our naked self-belief, and our moral complacency, then they really are outrageous. Lit up blood-red, they remind us that even supposedly civilised human beings can be murderous.
We have a nasty habit of killing people who challenge us. The beauty of turning the cross upside down is that it should remind us of our own potential for ugliness.
Rev Dr Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church Darling Point and is the author of My God, My God – Is it Possible to Believe Anymore?