This past Monday hundreds of Episcopalian bishops, clergy and lay people challenged the U.S. culture of violence by prayerfully enacting the Stations of the Cross in the streets of Washington, D.C. Drawing on what for Christians is a solemn ritual depicting Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion, a procession of 400 members of the Episcopal Church — including 20 bishops — called on the nation and its leadership to confront the violence that permeates U.S. society.
The two and a half hour procession, held toward the beginning of what is termed Holy Week by the Christian community, was organized by the Episcopal bishops of Connecticut, who were moved to action by the school shooting in Newtown this past December where 20 school children were killed. But while this horrific event motivated Monday’s “Way of the Cross” in Washington, this witness had a larger purpose: to repent and call for the transformation of a pervasive climate that legitimates and sustains violence as a way of life.
“We are taking this Holy Week Witness to our nation’s capital,” the event program explained, “to say to our political leaders and to our country that we will no longer be silent while violence pervades our world, our society, our nation, our homes and ourselves. … The horrific slaughter of children and adults in the Sandy Hook section of Newtown in our home state, and the day-to-day shootings and deaths of and by our children and young people in cities and towns across our nation, call us to prayer and action and to work for peace.” As it starkly pointed out, 2,300 people in the U.S. have been killed by guns since the Newtown massacre.
The Stations of the Cross is a Christian devotion that reenacts the stages of Jesus’ final journey: his trial and sentencing; his being forced to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem; his stopping at several significant points along the way; his execution; and his burial. A ritual that developed slowly beginning in the early Middle Ages — its current form was not definitively institutionalized by the papacy until the 18th century — the Stations of the Cross integrates a complex set of meanings. It captures a root metaphor of the Christian tradition as a journey of spiritual transformation in which the faithful imaginatively unite with the suffering Christ. At the same time, it has come to symbolize the ambiguity of the tradition toward violence.
On the one hand, the cross represents a firm stand against violence. As many theologians and scripture scholars read it, the cross is the great symbolic condemnation of systems of violence and a definitive call to their end.
On the other, it has often functioned theologically and practically as a justification for those very same violence systems. Beginning with the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century C.E. under Emperor Constantine, the Roman Empire transformed the cross from a hellish type of execution — and, as scripture scholar Ched Myers puts it, a form “political theater of imperial triumph” mostly meted out to revolutionaries, rebellious slaves, and defeated enemy combatants — to a kind of religious iconography. There was a sudden proliferation of images of the cross. As historian Julien Ries reports, “The emperor had images in his own likeness made with the cross in his hand. From the year 314, the scaffold for execution was no longer designated by the word crux, but by patibulum. Constantine finally abolished crucifixion as a sentence. The cross was placed at the pinnacle of basilicas, on the emperor’s diadem and scepter, on coins, and on the doorsteps of Jewish dwellings.”
The net effect of this imperial Christianization was a shift from the strict pacifism practiced during Christianity’s first three centuries to theological positions — and practice — supporting empire and justifying violence. Eventually, the Constantinian turn was accommodated by theologies of the cross (called atonement theologies) holding that God required Jesus’ death to make amends for Adam’s (and humanity’s) sin. Whereas for some the cross signaled the end of violence, for others it became a justification of violence, which worked itself out concretely over the centuries in systemic anti-semitism, the “holy wars” of the Crusades, and support for violent economic, political and military domination systems.
In spite of its domestication for the purposes of empire, however, this symbol has not lost its subversive ability to challenge violence. Jesus journeyed to the capital to spread the news that every person matters — including poor people, the rejected, and, most scandalous of all, the enemy. He faced the lethal consequences for doing this with consistent nonviolent resolve, including his dramatic call to “put down your sword” after one of his disciples attacked one of those who had come to carry Jesus off. Despite chronic patterns of “sacred violence” designed to smother it, this directive — put down the sword and practice audacious, powerful and courageous nonviolence — has rung down through history.
Periodically, it catches fire. And periodically it goes public, like the action by hundreds of Episcopalians who processed in Washington this week and whose Way of the Cross was a deliberate call to dismantle systems of violence that seep into every part of our nation’s life.
They made this point by the choice of some of their “stations,” including the White House (“a place where many decisions have been made to commit and curb violence”); war memorials (“tangible reminders that the 20th century was one of the most violent”); and the National Museum of American History (whose “collections [serve] as a reminder of much that is great about the United States, while also showing us the ways that violence has been inextricably linked to our identity as a nation”).
Thirty years ago this week, the nonviolent action community I was part of at the time — Spirit Affinity Group — organized “The Way of the Nuclear Cross” on Good Friday at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. LLNL has designed 50 percent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and at the time was working on the MX missile. The event included a sunrise service across the street from the lab (during which three members of the group were confirmed into the Catholic Church) followed by a procession to the facility led by a group of us carrying the Nuclear Cross, a 400 pound mock-up of the MX missile. We eventually laid the “cross” in a nearby intersection and engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience. Eight people chained themselves to the missile, simulating a die-in. Two others laid in the roadway. Sixty-five others knelt in the crosswalks at the perimeter, blocking traffic. All of us were eventually arrested. A few of us spent Easter weekend in the local county jail.
As we had planned the action, Patricia Runo stressed the goal of somehow having the government “take back the nuclear cross.” After the last of us was detained, the Department of Energy brought out a bulldozer to drag away the missile (it ended up in the local landfill), an action that unwittingly met our objective of symbolic disarmament.
Many groups have dramatized the nonviolent potential of the stations, including the annual Good Friday Ways of the Cross for justice and peace taking place this Friday at the Nevada Test Site and in New York City, Chicago, and many other locations. Adapting religious symbolism for nonviolent change is, of course, not restricted to Christians. Spiritual visions, rituals and symbols have been lifted up and adapted in powerful ways for a more nonviolent world in Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Jain, indigenous and many other traditions and contexts, as religious scholar Roger Gottlieb’s many books — like Liberating Faith — demonstrate.
It is clear that we need a powerful nonviolence movement to tackle the monumental challenges we face. One of the hopeful dimensions of the pilgrimage that took place this week in Washington was that it highlighted the concrete issue of gun violence by situating it within the profound need to transform a broader culture of violence that makes this gun violence so thinkable and doable. Many steps will need to be taken, including the spiritual transformation directed at changing the way we think and act. We got a glimpse of this last Monday. Now, whatever our own faith or values, we can take some inspiration to follow suit.
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