The cross is meant to be co-opted

When Rod Dreher announced he and his wife were divorcing, the first thing I should have done was pray for them. Instead, I braced myself for the nasty comments that I knew would follow his announcement. And they did follow, as Dreher himself predicted they would.

Dreher has plenty of ill-wishers, and not undeservedly. Despite his large audience and capable mind, he’s not a careful man, and tends to bounce from panic to panic, often resting only in exasperating self-indulgence that’s frustrating even to people who agree with some of his views. And some of the things he believes are appalling.

Still, I guess my corner of the internet is somewhat sheltered, because I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of delight that followed the news. This wasn’t a case of just desserts, like a bad boss getting fired himself, or a thief having his own possessions stolen. It was a man whose ideas people disagreed with announcing that he had been struggling for nine years to save his marriage, and had finally failed, and it was partially his fault. To respond to such news with glee is to pull hell down on your head. 

One comment in particular stood out, because it presented itself as correcting his christianity. A woman jeered at him for using an image from The Passion as the header image for the essay where he briefly describes his suffering. Dreher was, in fact, in Jerusalem as he wrote that column, and had been praying at Golgotha during Holy Week, so it would be almost unnatural if an image of the crucifixion hadn’t suggested itself to him as a natural illustration for intense personal pain. But this commenter excoriated him for comparing himself to Jesus. She said it was typical self-aggrandizement for him to co-opt the imagery of the cross for his own suffering.

But that is the point of the cross. 

That is why the execution of our savior was public. That is why it was done in the middle of the day, in front of crowd, on top of the hill: So everyone could see, and so everyone would know that Jesus wept and bled and lost the strength of his limbs just like us.  Just like anyone who had ever suffered until that day, and just like anyone who ever would suffer. That’s the point. The cross is meant to be co-opted. That’s what it’s for. 

I think that the woman who scoffed at Rod Dreher probably didn’t have a lot of theological thoughts in her head, and mainly just didn’t like Rod Dreher, and wouldn’t have sympathy for anything he did or said. It is, perhaps, fairly common to think of christianity mainly as a sort of overarching philosophy that describes social services that should be available to other people, and it doesn’t even occur to many that it’s ever meant to be personal to each of us.

In any case, it’s quite common for people who are more fair-minded, and who don’t reflexively kick people who are already down, to do a sort of defensive gate-keeping when it comes to suffering: To say that this or that isn’t real suffering, or that it isn’t authentic or worthy or profound enough to call itself actual suffering. That it’s something lesser, something we should be embarrassed to admit we struggle with.

Well, there is suffering, and there is suffering. I remember hearing how a friend of the family was sitting by the bedside of her dying husband. She had spent the last few months increasingly at his bedside in between her own jobs, wondering how she would care for their many children if he didn’t pull through. His roommate had the TV on, tuned to a televangelist channel, and the notorious Tammy Faye was on screen, weeping into the camera as usual, her gummy mascara bleeding into the neck of her expensive silk blouse as she begged for money for Jesus. A nurse came into the room and brushed past the widow-to-be, looked dolefully up at the TV, and asked the family plaintively, “Aww, why’s Tammy crying?” 

So there is suffering, and there is suffering. This is true. There is such a thing as taking an impartial look at another human’s life and saying, “No, it’s not that bad.” Not as bad as what happened to Jesus. 

And I remember some thoughtful, painful conversations around the painting “Mama,” which shows a Pieta where the dead Jesus closely resembles George Floyd. The artist, Kelly Latimore, told the NYT that he “always responds ‘yes’ when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.”

The artist goes on to say:

“It’s not an either-or scenario. Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”

I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. There is suffering, and there is suffering, and it’s worth having respectful conversations about just how firmly to draw the line between our suffering and Jesus’. It is one thing to say that he is like us, and another to say that we are like him. 

What I do know is that Jesus is like is in all things but sin, but for many of us, this never feels real until we suffer. That’s where we meet Jesus, and know him, and recognize him, and feel his aid: In suffering. Sometimes that’s the only place we meet him.

And so it’s a very serious thing when fellow Christians want to take that commonality away, on the grounds that we’re not worthy to count ourselves that close to Christ, or to feel that we have so much in common with him. 

Because that, too, is the point: We’re not worthy. That’s why he came for us. Our unworthiness to have anything in common with God is the very reason why we need a savior. 

There is suffering, and there is suffering, but there is only one man who suffered for the purpose of public consumption, as it were. No, not as it were: Literally. Catholics, at very least, should be used to this idea. 

Jesus’ suffering is universal; it is for everyone. And at the same time, it is personal. It is for each of us as individuals, and it means what it must in our specific lives. The cross is for us to use, to co-opt, to identify with, to look to, to cling to, to use however we can so we do not fall into the netherworld. That is what it’s for. As long as it is sincere, it is fair game. 

The suffering of other people, though — yes, even the suffering of pundits we don’t like — is not for us to judge, and certainly not for us to use, certainly not for our own amusement or for clout on Twitter. Be careful, friends. As much as the cross is there for us to use, other people’s suffering is very much not for us to use. Very much not. 


A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 10, 2022.

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14 thoughts on “The cross is meant to be co-opted”

  1. I wonder if one reason Rod travels much, in addition to researching for his books and speaking, is to get away from an unpleasant domestic life. Or is he compulsively restless?

  2. I concur wholeheartedly with this post, except for that puzzling second paragraph. Mr. Dreher has many ill-wishers, not undeservedly? Really? Do any of us deserve ill-wishers, on a human level? But what really brought me up short was the last sentence – what things does Dreher believe that are “appalling”? Appalling is a strong word. To me it connotes something shocking, beyond the pale, that no decent person could possibly countenance. I’ve been reading Mr. Dreher for years (and Ms. Fisher too, for that matter), and have no idea what these “appalling” beliefs might be. I can imagine an unbeliever finding Christian beliefs appalling – you know, the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection and all that malarkey. But for one Christian to ascribe appalling beliefs to another Christian, when both affirm the Nicene Creed – that’s a puzzle. (I assume Ms. Fisher was not referring to Mr. Dreher’s Orthodoxy, which entails a denial of the primacy of the See of Rome. As a Catholic, I would view that as wrong or misguided, or perhaps even schismatic, but hardly appalling.) Ms. Fisher is usually such a careful writer that I can only surmise that in this one instance she allowed herself to be carried away by her feelings.

    1. Thank you; I am a careful writer. Look up his views on Viktor Orban. Look up what he said about George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor.

  3. I don’t follow him but know of him. He appears to be an “over-sharer,” but also points out that when he is upset, he writes. Too bad so much of our lives is taken over by finding fault with others.

  4. I used to laugh at Tammy Faye. Seeing “Through the eyes of Tammy Faye” helped me to understand her a little better. She was detached from reality in some ways because her reality was so painful. I suppose that’s why she could s honestly empathize with gay men when the very thought would have scared the wits out of most Christians.

    I have avoided Dreher and couldn’t quote you a single idea or thought that has come out of his mouth. My brain just filters it out.

    It is troubling to hear about someone who is thousands of miles from their family, who is living and breathing the trappings of the ancient Church when their children are suffering thousands of miles away. I never thought in a million years that “orthodoxy” would become so romanticized/fetishized. Evil can be brilliant.

  5. I thought the way Rod Dreher announced it was appropriate, having been in his shoes.

    I remember when a Catholic blog friend of mine announced her divorce a few years ago while citing some of the brokenness on her part that contributed to the downfall of her marriage. Some of the most hateful Catholics I’ve encountered online decided it would be a lovely idea to dogpile on her and criticize her for every piece of brokenness that existed in her life and in her then-former marriage. Such people made me retreat farther from the banks of the Tiber because I would never want to be associated with THEM.

    It was also why I announced my divorce in a very quiet blog post, turned off comments, and took a week off from posting. I never formally announced it on Facebook until I changed my status to “divorced” when it was finalized. The stress from making the decision quite literally did almost kill me, and I didn’t need people discussing the intimate details and being “Monday morning quarterbacks” about what I could have done differently or how I was sinning against God by divorcing my ex. (Believe me, I got plenty of that from my former father-in-law.)

  6. The vast majority of people I saw who were gleeful about the situation were self-proclaimed, liberals and progressives who hate Dreher for his views on social issues. I read a lot of conservative folks and most of their reactions were sympathetic and prayerful.most of their reactions were sympathetic and prayerful.

    1. What does this prove? Are you claiming conservatives never make fun of the suffering of people they consider their culture war enemies?

  7. Thank you for this post and I agree with you. I heard about the divorce, I guess through Catholic friends that were alluding to the fact that conversion to Orthodoxy was a sign he was looking for an easier way out if needed and revealing some schadenfreude.
    However, I do think it is problematic for a middle-aged man who is a public figure to publicly lament the dissolution of his marriage. Its sort of like saying to all the young women reading, hey I’m available! And odds are he will get together with some young, bright admirerer. I know absolutely nothing about his wife, but she will most likely spend her life attending to the needs of the children – he mentions children. I don’t know how old they are, but if older, at least focused on the children. So I guess that feels like an injustice to me and prevents me from feeling that he deserves mercy, which is my problem also I guess

    1. That strikes me as an odd take. Most people I know who divorce are bruised and not ready to date. It seems uncharitable to attribute his need to make a statement about his divorce (as a public figure) about getting women.

      I also find it odd that you think his wife has been solely taking care of their college aged kids. You can easily access information on his wife. Why assume a stereotype?

    2. I feel like he was trying to get ahead of it; a public announcement is a way of controlling how and when people find out about something. And given his public persona, people were GOING to find out about it. Better to hear from the horse’s mouth than from a secondhand channel. It doesn’t strike me as a “available” posting at all.

    3. Why is he not allowed to lament the dissolution of his marriage? He is being honest about what happened while putting rumors to rest and also making it clear that he isn’t going to give details out of respect for his wife and children. It’s the mature way to have handled it.

    4. It was Mr Dreher’s wife who sought the divorce, according to him, after a long period of trying to make their marriage ‘work’. He tried to avoid divorce himself because, as he hints, he was hanging on too hard and too long. (As a Catholic I don’t think this is possible but those were not the rules he and his wife lived by.)

      This does not mean, of course, that he was blameless in the failure of their marriage, but it does suggest that he was not looking for an escape that would allow him access to women. Most men who want other women advertise their longings more discretely.

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