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The misapplication of the theology of the cross

The misapplication of the theology of the cross

I imagine many of you heard or preached sermons yesterday about Jesus’ invitation to pick up one’s cross and follow him. Whenever I listen to this passage from Mark’s gospel, I am reminded how dangerous it is. I think about all of the times that I picked up the wrong cross, and what it cost me to do so. I think about all of the people who theologize their victimization by assuming that being beaten or cheated or deprived of basic human needs is their “cross to bear.” Applied to the wrong situations, the theology of the cross is an invitation to pointless human suffering.

And not only is it easy to misapply, we are frequently urged to misapply it, to “bear with”, to “offer up”, to endure suffering that we should not endure by people who claim to speak for God.

What if, as a corrective to generations of preaching aimed at our selfishness and self-absorption, we spent a little time as a church trying to figure out how we can best determine what God expects from us in the ways of self-sacrifice, with some particular attention to the ways in which our willingness to sacrifice is used against us, and the ways in which people who have power assign crosses to those who do not.

I’d love to hear what kinds of sermons people heard or preached yesterday, and what role, if any, the misapplication of the theology of the cross played in your own meditation.


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Jamie McMahon

Our sermon did indeed touch on a similar theme, and in conversation with the preacher afterwards, I extended it to one of my least favorite phrases in the church: “God won’t give me anything I can’t handle” or, perhaps more dangerously, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” The idea of God having a ledger of challenges and pain to give out in a seeming arbitrary manner, e.g. “Oh, Jamie can handle his grandmother getting Alzheimer’s, let’s give that one to him.” is extremely disturbing to me. And yet I hear it frequently, even in the Episcopal Church where I would have thought our reasoned theology would have done some work to counteract it.

Yejide Peters

I am not convinced that our particular part of the Church Universal needs to stop discussing the personal realities of the cross created by “generations of preaching aimed at our selfishness and self-absorption”. Unlike some of our more pietistic Catholic and Protestant sisters and brothers, I do not hear the language of the cross in the lexicon of most Episcopalians.

While your remedy is a welcome salve in churches where personal salvation is the primary impulse of religious engagement, I think our church needs to pay greater attention to the cross in both its personal and communal aspects. A place to start might be Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross and it’s antithesis, cheap grace.

Bill Dilworth

I think it’s very interesting that taking up one’s cross is associated with oppression and violence; I’d never heard that before. If the phrase (or the idea of “offering it up”) suggested any one thing to me, it was illness.

Sarah Flynn

The preacher examined the word ‘deny’ and found that the Greek original has the meaning of forgetting, in this case, forgetting one’s self. She made the text read that one is to forget oneself in the service of Christ, something possible when we love so much that which may require our own life that we freely give it to save that which we love. A newsstory recently spoke of a father who pulled his young son out of the way of a speeding auto and used his own body to protect his son. It cost him his life, but he saved his son’s life in the process.

Rebecca Wilson

This bad theology of the cross can turn deadly for women when mixed with bad theology of marriage. Women living with domestic violence too often get told that the abuse is their “cross to bear” and that they are bad Christians if they fight back or leave the marriage. Mujeres Latinas in Accion specifically mentions this theology as a barrier to abused Latinas seeking help:

Something like 25% of women in this country have experienced domestic violence. The church needs to get smart about how the misapplied theology of the cross has been used to keep them quiet about it.

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