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. 

 

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

Yes, you should have a crucifix on your wall

A friend told me that a friend of her, a priest who was an exorcist, had cleansed a house of demons not long ago. The priest noticed and remarked that there were no crucifixes hung anywhere on the walls, even though the family was Catholic.

No crosses, no icons, no devotional pictures, no holy cards, no tin Sacred Hearts, no dried-up palm branches stuffed behind a family photo. No Bible, decorative or otherwise. But especially, no crucifix.

I only heard his comment second-hand, so I’m not sure if there was any follow-up, or how much importance he attached to it. Still, he thought it was worth remarking on, and so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Why should we hang crucifixes in our house, if not to ward off demons?

Well, warding off demons isn’t actually a bad motivation. The cross, and specifically the crucifix, does have a certain amount of power just because of what it is, and (just purely speculating as a layman), I can imagine an unclean spirit at very least feeling uncomfortable around it, and less willing to settle in.

But of course, the crucifix isn’t a magic charm or a lucky horseshoe. What I can more easily imagine is an unclean spirit feeling uncomfortable in the kind of house where a crucifix is not only hung, but noticed and revered.

But let’s say you hung up a crucifix, and that was the end of it. You did it because you always had one growing up, or because you wanted to make your grandmother happy, or because it just looks pretty. You don’t especially revere it or even notice it after a while. Is it still worthwhile?

I think so. Simply hanging a crucifix on the wall where everyone can see it will likely feel like an act of courage and loyalty in this aggressively secular, post-Christian time. It’s not easy to buck the culture.

But if your house has no crucifix or other holy images on display, and especially if you’re resistant to the idea of making that happen, you could ask yourself why. If your reason is purely aesthetic, that’s an easy problem to solve.

No matter how carefully curated the decor of your house, there is a crucifix for your tastes. In the course of two thousand years old, Christianity has reached every culture and continent, and that means there are crucifixes rendered in every conceivable style. That’s kind of a feature of the cross: It’s never going to be irrelevant, anywhere or at any time.

But that’s just aesthetics. Maybe your antipathy goes a little deeper, and you’re afraid people will think you’re some kind of fanatic — or worse, they’ll see you as some kind of pervert or enabler. Maybe you don’t hang a crucifix because you don’t want to be associated with the ugliness that is so often the face of the Catholic Church today.

 
Well, that is actually the point of the cross. It is ugly. It is shameful. It is painfully public.
 

It shows innocence betrayed, and it shows someone suffering for crimes he did not commit. It shows humanity’s darkest hour. It is therefore especially appropriate to display when the corporate Church has let its flock down so horribly.

I’ll just say it: Refusing to hang a crucifix because you don’t want to be associated with thing like that is dangerously close to rejecting Jesus. 

If you can’t be publicly Catholic when being Catholic looks bad, then what’s the point? The way Jesus found himself on the cross in the first place is because he decided to hang around with the likes of us. He chose to associate himself with a whole race of perverts, enablers, cowards, narcissists, predators, liars, cheats, and thugs, and this is where it got him.
 

This is where it got us: A few breaths away from the Beatific Vision, by way of the cross.

And that’s really the main issue. Putting a crucifix on the wall of your home is not primarily for the benefit of any visitors who might see it. It’s for yourself. It’s so you can look at it in peace and prosperity and remember how ephemeral worldly peace and prosperity are.

And it’s so you can look at it in terrible, painful times and see that pain is never empty and meaningless because is full of the company of Christ. And it’s so you can remember that the cross, that instrument of torture, is occupied — not by you, but by the one who took your place for no good reason at all except that he loves you.

The crucifix isn’t a lucky charm that chases away bogeymen. It’s something much stranger: It’s the disrupter of every fakery, and the answer that makes a mockery out of every foolish question. But it hangs so quietly, willing to be ignored.

Let’s not.

 

 

 

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A version of this essay was first published in the Catholic Weekly in 2019.

In defense of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Nobody:
Me: Sure, as a Jewish Catholic who has a reputation for resisting pop Catholic trends, I’d love to tell you what I think about The Passion of the Christ.

Here, I will focus on two criticisms: Its ultra violence, and its antisemitism; and why I think it’s worth watching. I don’t know, I felt like getting yelled at.

It it gratuitously violent?

Yes and no. No doubt some viewers reveled in the sadistic violence and graphic gore; but I’m also quite sure others came for the gore and saw more than they bargained for. But I don’t think the violence was just a hook to trick gore-happy viewers into an edifying movie. It was also a way to express how unanswerably outrageous the crucifixion, the murder of God, really was.

Gibson is far from the first to depict the passion and death of Jesus in grotesquely heightened terms, because if we have a hard time grasping the spiritual horror of what happened, we can at least feel the corporeal horror, and go from there. It’s not necessary to depict the crucifixion this graphically, but it’s not illegitimate or inherently inappropriate; and it does have a purpose other than to feed viewer’s blood lust.

For instance: After the notorious interminable scourging scene comes a heart-stopping aerial view of Jesus’ blood splattered all over the courtyard. An impossible amount of blood. Pilate’s wife comes out with a stack of fresh linens and tremblingly offers them to Mary and Mary Magdalene, and the two climb down on their knees and begin to carefully mop up every drop. An impossible task. That scene is responsible for a permanent change in my thinking, transforming the phrase “precious blood” from a pious nicety into a central reality that changed how I approach the Eucharist.

The violence may simply be too much for many viewers. But I didn’t see any violence that was there simply for the sake of showing violence. It was an ordeal to watch, and it was supposed to be.

Is the movie antisemitic? 

I mean? No, but actually yes. Yes and no. Mostly. . . . (heaven help me) no.

Mel Gibson assuredly is antisemitic. After an outcry, he did cut a “blood oath” scene from the original version; but declined to meet with the ADL, basically saying: Look, I hope you get over this not-being-Catholic thing someday. Newsflash: The man is an asshole. But my policy is to evaluate works of art on their own merits as much as I can.

Most accusations of antisemitism in the movie seem to fall into two categories: Things that were probably intentional, but which the average viewer (which I am) wouldn’t pick up on; and things which you can interpret according to your own baggage.

In the first category, intentional but missable, includes details like the sign on the cross. Sr. Rose Pacatte at NRO says:

That Gibson was making a conscious choice to reject and negate Judaism is indisputable when we see the sign on the cross. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is written only in ecclesial Latin and Aramaic. He rejects the Greek as detailed in John 19:20, and Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire at that time. Thus, according to Adlerstein, Gibson creates “a tension between Aramaic/Hebrew; he does not create a bond but severs it.”

and

One [viewer] mentioned the tear that fell from the cross and the earthquake, which is significant because the scene shows the destruction of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death, but the destruction did not happen until A.D. 70. According to Gomez, this scene points to a “replacement theology,” upholding the mistaken medieval idea that Christianity (Ecclesia) has replaced Judaism (Synagoga). The brokenness visible in the temple evokes the brokenness of Synagoga. In other words, it’s a “dig” at Judaism that does not appear to be there by accident.

I just plain didn’t notice the historical discrepancies, so if these details were attempts at antisemitism, they failed.

It’s harder to deny that Gibson portrays the Jews using offensive stereotypes, and shows the apostles as some sort of “high Jews” or “white Jews” by portraying them as separate from the others.

But . . . the Jews who crucified Jesus were the bad guys, and the ones who didn’t betray him did make themselves separate. I understand the dangers of feeding stereotypes, but how is a moviemaker supposed to portray evil without signaling to the viewer that it is evil? You tell me. The High Priests were concerned mainly with retaining power; Judas did sell out Jesus for money; the Jews who insisted on Jesus’ execution did reduce their faith to a bunch of ritualistic formalities which were threatened by his new commandment. These evils portrayed are what Jesus came to get rid of. To refuse to depict them would be to refuse to depict what actually happened. There isn’t a lot of nuance in character among the Jews who condemned Jesus because it’s not that kind of movie. The good guys don’t show a lot of nuance, either.

The question is, does the movie say “These men did something evil” or “These Jews did evil Jew things”? This is why I say it depends what you bring to the movie. If you’re an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see that the Jews killed him because Jews are bad. If you’re not an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see what kind of people rejected Jesus: Those who want power. Those who want money. Those who value order over truth. Those who are cowards. Those who are cruel.

So Mel Gibson and his pals may be saying, “This is what Jews are like,” but I don’t think that’s what the movie is saying, unless you’re specifically looking to hear that message. It’s the same with the Gospels themselves. If you read the Gospels shallowly, you’ll think they’re a story about how the Jews betrayed Christ. God knows many have read the Gospels this way! But if you read the Gospels with an open heart, you’ll see it’s a story about how we all betrayed Christ. So the movie gives you what you’re ready to get from it. It would be easy to watch the movie in 2019 and recognize, for instance, the College of Cardinals among the crowd of grasping, preening, vicious high priests willing to sacrifice an innocent victim to retain their power.

It’s also hard to make the case that the movie blames only the Jews for Jesus’ suffering, when the gleeful sadism on display is clearly a Roman thing. When Caiphas sees the scourging, he winces and turns away.

However, it’s weirdly pro-Pontius Pilate, which bothers me a lot. Pilate is a cultivated man who’s been assigned to a fractious backwater, and he has Jesus tortured and executed with great reluctance, to keep the mob at bay. That’s in the Gospel, as far as it goes. But the movie adds a scene where Pilate basically tells Jesus, “Look, I feel really bad about this” and Jesus basically says, “Hey, I see who you’re working with here. Don’t worry about it.” That scene is inexcusable, and makes the biggest case that the movie is antisemitic.

So, with these issues, why watch it?

It’s so freaking interesting. So outlandish and bold, but somehow never heavy-handed. Do you know how difficult it is to make a movie with a scene like the scourging scene and have people remember other scenes besides that one?

Gibson doesn’t take the easy way out in any scene. It’s a long movie, but the pacing is great (the scenes that feel long are meant to feel long). Herod is crazy, and weird, and sad. Judas devolving is so terrifying. Veronica is so appealing. The moment with Simon of Cyrene is gripping. Satan is scary as shit. Some people think it was just dropped in for spooky-ookiness, but Steve Greydanus says:

At certain points this androgynous figure is depicted in opposition to the Virgin Mary — but never more arrestingly so than before the pillar, where there is a kind of anti-Marian vision that I will not describe, except to say that it is so bizarre and grotesque, yet ultimately meaningless, that it seems to come straight from hell.

Works for me. I have never seen a depiction of Satan that works better.

Filming it in foreign languages was brilliant. Brilliant. When you’ve been a christian for a long time, it is so very hard to hear the familiar words of the Gospel as new. And it is so very ticklish to figure out what accent you should speak in when you’re playing Jesus! The solution? Put it in words that almost no one understands, and let subtitles, with their layer of psychological remove, work their magic. Or just let the visuals speak for themselves.

Best of all is Mary. Her face and the way she carries herself, and the way everyone keeps coming to her for help. This Mary was a major revelation for me, and helped me see a warmth and strength that’s missing from . . . really most depictions of Mary in art of any kind.  When Jesus is in prison and she comes to find him, you’re so glad they have each other.

And then the resurrection scene. (I had a little larf to myself when IMDB sequestered a plot synopsis that described this scene, warning that it included a spoiler. Boo!) It’s not corny. It’s not lame. It’s glorious, and terrifying, and it redeems everything you have endured during the rest of the movie.

Must you see this movie? Of course not. There is no movie a Catholic must see. If we’re not required to believe in Fatima, not required to pray the rosary, not even required to be literate to be practicing Catholics with a genuine relationship with God, then we can certainly make our way to heaven without having seen The Passion of the Christ (or Unplanned, or Fireproof, or God’s Not Dead, or Here Be Dragons, etc. etc. etc.). Movies are just movies, and you don’t have to come up with some particular reason to dispense yourself from seeing them.

But Passion is different from other movies that Catholics tend to guilt each other into watching. It doesn’t just carry a Positive Message that We Should Support; it’s a great work of art, and because of this, it at least can be tremendously powerful spiritually. Good for Lent; good for a Lenten retreat.

If you’re going to show it to anyone, know your audience. As described above, it could fuel antisemitism in those susceptible to antisemitism. But it doesn’t automatically deliver that message; and it could genuinely spur true spiritual growth.

It’s not for kids, for goodness’ sake. It’s not for people who can’t endure violent movies. Don’t make anyone watch it. But if you can stand some gore, and if you are yearning to feel more engaged in a story that has become stale with retelling, then don’t be scared away from this movie, thinking it’s just torture porn or propaganda. It is an ordeal, but a worthwhile one; and as a work of art, it’s a great.

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P.S.
I deliberately didn’t read Steve Greydanus’ reviews of the movie until after I finished writing. I don’t always agree with Greydanus, but he gives lots of illuminating analysis here.

Mary who stays

My daughter is drawing at church. She handily sketches in a crucifix: Top, bottom, one arm, then the other. She’s drawn it many times, over and over. Lately, she’s adding more detail, and at first I didn’t know what it was– some kind of ghost, a formless lump.

Then I saw it was Mary, swathed with robes and veils. Jesus on the cross is sharp and angular, and he turns his face up to the heavens in his agony; but Mary’s head is down, almost crushed into the ground as she bows under the great grief of his innocent suffering. She is utterly helpless. She can’t rescue the child she brought into the world.

In her grief, she is almost unrecognizable, and why not? Why should she be her same self, since the crucifixion is so outrageous? It never should have happened. How could it possibly have happened? This is God we’re talking about; actual God, that than which nothing greater can be thought, and here he hangs, bleeding dry.  Ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by some thugs wielding a hammer.

Never mind the veil in the temple, it should have been the entire planet, the whole fabric of the universe that was ripped in two when he died. I don’t know how the world was held together through the crucifixion. How did everything not come apart?

I do know. It was held together through Mary, who stayed.

Under the intolerable weight of the suffering of her son, she was helpless, almost crushed. But she didn’t leave. There was nothing she could do, but she stood by and let it happen to her with him. Sometimes this is the only action of love: To stand by and not leave.

The suffering of innocents is what tears people away from the Church, away from God: When we have to stand by and watch the innocent suffer, and no one will rescue them. It tears us apart. This is why the abuse crisis has been the breaking point for so many people: The Church was supposed to be where children were safe, but instead it was where there they were ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by thugs wielding a crosier.

It is not tolerable.

But it is nothing new.

The split, the rift, the gap, the unravelling: This has been the story of man since we left Eden. God the Father made His children for wholeness and delight, and what did they do but leave, tear themselves away from him; tear each other apart. Even when there is no ill will, this is the duality of the human experience of love since the Fall: We always live through love and loss at the same time. Never love without loss. From the moment we give birth, we prepare our children to leave us. From the moment we marry, we take on the burden of preparing our spouses for death. This is nothing new.

But Mary is something new. She holds in her heart the making and the unmaking of her beloved, and she does not come apart. She is strong enough to make the son of God and strong enough to stand by and watch him unmade, and still she does not leave. She is steadfast like no other.

Our sorrows are the first part of the story. The long story, the whole story, is that the world is all knit back together again in the womb of Mary. If Penelope wove and then unravelled a shroud, over and over again while she waited for the king to return home, then Mary weaves . . . what should we call it? The swaddling clothes that somehow bind up eternal life itself. And every day, death tries to unravel it, and every night she knits life back up again, day after day, over and over again. She does not leave her island. She is waiting for the king to return.

There are times when we all flee from the foot of the cross. It is too crushing. It hurts too much to be so helpless. We are perhaps willing to suffer, ourselves. But how willing are we to stand by and watch the ones we love suffer? That is the thing that feels intolerable.

But leaving the foot of the cross leaves the world unravelled. Running away from injustice, and staying away, leaves injustice as the final word. If we want to meet Jesus, we must meet him in suffering, in injustice, on this island world at the foot of the intolerable. That’s where he is right now. That is where love is. There is nowhere else, no other place but this temporal island called suffering. We will not be here forever, but we need to be here ready to meet him. To try to escape is to leave the world unravelled.

I can hear that I sound like I’m saying, “Don’t leave the Church, or you will betray the world and betray God.” I am not. I know I have said things that sound like that, and I am sorry. I don’t know what I would do if it had been one of my children abused. I don’t know what I would do if I were a reporter or a district attorney who talked to hundreds and hundreds of victims. When I do write about how the Church has betrayed the innocent, there always comes a time when I close my computer and put my head down and cry. But this is not my life’s work. If it were, I don’t know what I would do.

I am only thinking of Mary, and how glad I am that she didn’t leave.

Jesus was crucified for our sins, and Mary stayed at the foot of the cross for our sorrows. She stayed there for us, waiting on that island called suffering and death. She stays with us still. With her son she will make the world whole again; and then there will be love without loss.

 

The Virgin In Sorrow by Simon Marmion. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons

 

When Lent teaches us what it means to be abandoned

They say that God never answers “no” to a prayer. His only answers are “yes,” “not yet” or “something better.” I believe this, in theory, but in practice, “not yet” feels much worse than you would expect. You understand the justification for waiting: If we force events that are not ready, things may go terribly wrong, and who will be there to save you then?

But that does not make the pain any less. There is no escape. You still have to labor the long way.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo by Nicolae Rosu on Unsplash

How to deal with the mixed metaphor of Christ?

Sometimes Christ says, “I am the way,” and when you try to follow Him, you find yourself alone in the world. Sometimes He says, “I will give you rest,” and when you accept, then the real work begins. Sometimes Christ says, “I am love,” and when you go to Him, the first thing you feel is a terrible pain.

Then what? What are we supposed to do then, when we are repelled or confused or hurt by these unexpected “mixed metaphors” of our encounters with a Christ who is all things?

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo By Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons