The Cross in a Culture of Self-Promotion

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

If the cross were to happen today, not on Golgotha, but in our own locale, would we take selfies? Instead of a hill, would we display the cross on the far more prominent vista of social media?  It’s an abhorrent juxtaposition, but it may not be so far from reality. After all, the reason the Romans chose a hill for their display of gory power was for its visibility--“we don’t want you to miss this”.

Of course one of the many ironies of the cross is that God didn’t want anyone to miss it either. In the very moment when human hubris combined with human power to kill God, God Himself subverts such tyranny through the death of a suffering servant. Human victory is undermined by Divine loss, human power is subverted by humble failure, and human justice is mocked through holy righteousness. We learn, God’s power is made known through weakness. What was designed as a spectacle of Roman and Jewish-elite propaganda became a revealing exposure of human depravity and fear.

It was, of course, all good theatre. At least, that was the idea. The Romans, experts at manipulation and revisionist history were using the cross as a tool that narrates their power and control. Fear and hopelessness were the messages of the cross, and a seditious rabbi’s claim to be God, advancing a new kingdom, was only another opportunity for Roman self-promotion.

We are not Romans. And yet, we are no better either. Our culture works very hard at convincing us that power and control are key virtues that require nourishment. We like power and control because we constantly search for our own relevance. Henri Nouwen once commented that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to turn stones into bread was really a temptation about being relevant. “Use your power, otherwise why do you have it?” But Jesus didn’t give into this temptation to be relevant. But we do, and we want to.

It was partially our need to be relevant that lead to the cross. Jesus’ enemies felt threatened by Jesus’ fame, and gospel writers often narrate small but important details about their thoughts, “but when they saw the crowds…” We self-promote because we need to know we matter. And we are searching for relevance because sin has severed us from God. Sin’s distancing of us from God can be seen in the first narrative of the bible. Adam and Eve, having eaten forbidden fruit, feel an excess of shame and fear. Tempted by the desire to be relevant, to self-promote, to “be like God,” they eat death upon themselves. Is it any surprise then, that the very next narrative in Genesis is that of two brothers, one of whom is jealous and angry at the other, which leads him to murder? Feeling irrelevant when God accepts Abel’s gift over his own, Cain reveals the raw spirit that lives in us all, a spirit that if given the chance yells, like so many others, “crucify him!”

Today our irrelevance is supposedly inoculated by self-promotion. At least, that is culture’s prescription for our alienation. So we post, tweet, snap, comment, text, object, debate, promote, edit, filter, copy, paste, invoke, share, picket, protest, march, identify, transition, nip, tuck, buy, sell, list, friend, defriend, comment, tag, fund, film, pin, chat and note. And we are in control of it all. We can brand ourselves. We choose the pictures to post, the comments to make, the edits to design and the characters to tweet. Is it any wonder that in such a virtual world of power we are encouraged to self-promote as a means to seek after happiness? We always assume popularity equates to happiness.

In contrast, stands the cross. It cannot be sanitized and its tool as human-power has been utterly unmasked as being the very power of God. In the midst of a world of spinning narratives, flashy videos and artistic edits, the cross stands as a “No!” to human self-promotion. Instead, the very means by which we tried to rid ourselves of God became the means by which God condemned humanity to utter failure and at the same time the means by which God saved humanity from its own culpability. The cross is human hate and fear undermined by Divine love and grace.

Would we take a selfie of the cross? Of course we would, because, wanting to be relevant, we’d want to make sure the rest of the world knew we were there, there on that hill where human “justice” was supposedly done. It is only when we step back a bit that we see that the real justice done on the cross was the justice of God, the righteousness of God. That is why the cross stands in the midst of our alienation and calls us to come to it and die. But relevant people don’t want to die. Death means irrelevance, and that is what we are running from.

Perhaps now you see the scandal of the cross? How could this message of the cross ever have any possibility of saving the world? When every human person is disgusted by it, and the irrelevance it offers through death, how can this be God’s plan? St. Paul will teach, with an argument all Christians should grasp, that the irrelevance of the cross is the very power of God. That is to say, the fact that people do get saved through this stupid message of the cross proves it is the power of God! (See I Corinthians 1-2). If the cross were a human attempt to gain a following, it would be the worst attempt ever, since the cross offers us that which we most hate, abhor and fear. Yet, because it is the power of God, people still get saved through this irrelevant, foolish gospel.

Now, if we believed that the message of the cross was really the power of God, perhaps—just perhaps—we would feel less afraid of sharing it for fear it would make us irrelevant to our peers, and instead we would trust that, having been given the words of life, God will do the work of revival. After all, there is another irony in the cross. By risking the irrelevance of our peers for the sake of the cross, we find the relevance of the gospel is ours, and that the power of God, the power to bring the dead to life, that is a power we have been given to share in the proclamation of the Word. The cross says, “Come to me and die, embrace your irrelevance,” but then offers behind the veneer of foolishness the very wisdom of God. In the depths of the cross we hear, “You have been bought with a price…. fear not… therefore there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Utter nonsense. And yet… such a message, such foolishness, saves…   

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC