The shame of the Cross

We know too well what pure hatred looks like.

We don’t have to look to history to see it. The town of Bucha is only 27 km west of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

A few weeks ago, as Russian forces drew back from Bucha, they left in their trail a truly appalling scene. According to the BBC, at least 500 civilian corpses have been discovered, many of them with their hands tied and showing evidence of torture. The relatives of the victims were left to find the mutilated remains of their loved ones lying in and around their homes or buried hastily in mass graves.

It was shocking; but sadly, in the annals of war and military occupation, not surprising. What war criminals and torturers seek to do is not just exert their physical dominance over their victims but dehumanise them. They deconstruct the humanity of others. They subject them to disgrace and shame, pulling apart not just their bodies but attempting to rob them of their dignity and honour. They know that suffering is far more than the experience of physical pain: it is the loss of a sense of your self – your personal wholeness and integrity – that makes suffering what it is. Shame is arguably the most intense of all hurts.

Now, lest we are tempted to think only Russians are capable of this kind of behaviour, let us not forget that amid our own pride in Australia’s history, there are also episodes of equal horror and contempt for the humanity of others, both on this land and overseas.

Shame is arguably the most intense of all hurts.

But torturers and abusers have a strange and perverse wisdom. They know that shame is something we can experience as both victims and as perpetrators. We can do things of which we are ashamed; but we can have things done to us that also cause us shame, even though we are not guilty of the thing done to us. I have a friend who committed a minor crime for which he was rightly punished by a court – and of which he is ashamed. But because he has a rather unusual name, his shame has been kept fresh for him every time someone searches for him on Google. The shame never seems to go away.

But I’ve also spoken to victims of abuse who cannot shake the feelings of shame that they feel, even though they are in every sense the victim and completely innocent. It’s the sense that something has happened that has belittled me – whether I did it to myself or not.

Jesus’ executioners set out to strip him of his humanity and his personhood – to utterly shame him. The squad of soldiers were only doing their jobs, we might say, but knew exactly what to do as an occupying force to enforce the dominance of Rome. Having been condemned to death, Jesus is not quickly and humanely killed but the opposite. He is first flogged, and then he is ridiculed. The execution squad clearly get a huge laugh out of the victim they’ve been given.

And their sarcasm is biting. They dress him in a purple robe; they put a crown on his head, not of gold but of thorns. They call him ‘King of the Jews’. They bow before him in a mock show of deference. ‘Thinks he’s a king, does he? We’ll show him! This so-called king rules no one, commands no one, owns nothing. He claims to be a somebody; let’s remind him that he’s a nobody.’

And then they took him out to be hung up in public so that his shame was there for all to see. This is the king of the Jews on his ‘throne’ – a throne made of two rough pieces of wood, on to which he is nailed.

As the American writer, Fleming Rutledge, says: ‘degradation was the whole point of crucifixion’. That it was excruciatingly painful was only part of it. It was a very public gesture of hatred and contempt. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: ‘the meaning of the cross lies not only in physical suffering but especially in rejection and shame’. Isaiah saw the ugliness and shame of the cross centuries before Jesus:

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

The cross is a deeply distasteful and ugly scene, if you think about it – and was intended to be so by those who used it. For centuries we’ve forgotten this because we are used to associating the cross with divine love and hope and because we’ve made it into pretty jewellery or used it on national flags.

The cross is a deeply distasteful and ugly scene.

But I’ve noticed that as our culture becomes more post-Christian, we are starting to see again just how brutal and shameful the cross is, and how strange it is as a symbol of God’s greatest love. We may need to issue trigger warnings for Good Friday – and perhaps rightly so.

So: the cross looks a lot like yet another deconstruction of a human being by other human beings; another example of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, just as we continue to see in our own times.

And we may say, well, we remember one act of brutality, one shamed individual; but we may number others by their million. And yes – it is proof that human beings have that evil and ghastly power over other human beings, but we could multiply examples from any epoch, couldn’t we? Is that then the only lesson of the cross – that human beings are skilled and passionate haters?

But there’s another layer to this story.

One of the things about God is that he loves irony – and it’s impossible not to read it in the scene of Jesus with the death squad. Because in their very sarcasm, they were speaking the truth. They mocked him as king, and yet that is exactly what he was. They meant the crown of thorns as a bitter and nasty sign of what Jesus wasn’t, but that circlet of briars turned out to be a brilliant pointer to who Jesus is – the king who rules by dying for the sake of his people.

In this act of utter hatred, God displays the depths of his love.

For this very moment of the most extreme godlessness in human history – the most awful desecration – was actually the moment of God’s most intense presence. In this act of utter hatred, God displays the depths of his love. Though they intended this day for evil, God intended it for good. He has wrested the authorship of history from the hands of human beings.

The distasteful scene becomes beautiful. This vile deed is turned into the ultimate good. The worst that you and I can do does not outflank or outwit or overpower the love of the eternal and holy God.

Why? Because here at the cross, when we say ‘no’ to God, God says ‘yes’ to us. The cross is a terrible and ugly symbol of how hellish we are – and how deeply we shame and disgrace one another. But because God himself was in Jesus Christ bearing our shame and disgrace, the cross becomes something beautiful – not a sign of shame, but of honour, not of hate, but of love.

They tried to humiliate Jesus, but instead, we find here his humble love.

John in his letter says this: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 5: God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

So, yes: this is love. And that love means that we can come to Jesus Christ with all our shame, whether we’ve shamed ourselves or been shamed by others, and know the truth of God’s promise from Isaiah 45:17 – ‘whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’.

For as the letter to the Hebrews says: It was for the joy that was set before him Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)