Unsettling Signs

Natural to the life of faith is the crisis of faith. To the outsider looking in, it might seem that spaces adorned with ancient symbols of belief -- crosses, baptismal fonts, Byzantine icons, Romanesque Madonnas -- are prime ground for certainty. And for some, it is. For me, it isn't. If anything, Christianity's most sacred sites provoke rich questions and crises. One Sunday, I was approached by two black children who couldn't have been more than 13 years of age. "How do you do that thing?", one of them asked. "What thing?", I retorted. "You know. That thing where you move your hand from your forehead to your heart." "Oh yes. The Sign of the Cross." And with that, I briskly walked them through that ancient form of body prayer, tracing the sign from the forehead to the center of the chest, across to the left shoulder and across the chest to the right shoulder. "Thank you," they said. And then my heart sank.

Three days before this encounter, Eric Garner had been choked to death by officers of the New York Police Department. Since Mr. Garner's death was still fresh on my mind, I cringed while walking the two kids through that ancient prayer. Who could assure me that one of them would not be the next casualty in the long queue of black lives lost to police brutality or vigilantism? As if the children weren't already marked from birth by their brown skin, I was teaching them to mark themselves with the sign of a first century Roman torture device. The conflation of symbols in that moment was almost too much to bear. And yet, I was invited into one of the paradoxes of contemporary and ancient Christian faith: finding life on the path toward death on a cross with Jesus.

It is difficult to sit in church Sunday after Sunday and not see the death of Jesus Christ in the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, Tanisha Anderson and Antonio Martin. As prayers and creeds are recited and hymnody is voiced, I am forced to confront the reality that the very Jesus whom Christians laud and magnify is the same Jesus being eviscerated on the streets of the United States of America. This reality, therefore, makes it incumbent upon the people who proclaim Jesus in prose, poetry, liturgy and music to live in solidarity with the very bodies of suffering he so readily inhabits. To ignore the parallels between the arc of Jesus' Passion and public ministry and the present-day lynchings of black people is to live in utter denial of a crucial element of his identity as the Incarnate God. To pretend as if Jesus would be born in New York City and not Ferguson, Missouri is to trample upon the significance of his birth at lowly Bethlehem.

At the heart of the Christian message is a vulnerable God taking on fragile human flesh as an impoverished baby born to an unwed teenage mother. It is a Christ who hosts lavish parties on the margins of Roman imperial power. It is a Spirit who possesses a fledgling band of illiterate Galileans to turn the world upside down with a message of resurrection. It is a couple of black children inquiring about "that thing," that cross, that Jesus who hangs there, whose crucified life traces our own bodies every time we make that most ancient sign. A Christianity that can embrace Christ's vulnerability is a Christianity that is not panicking about its own decline or increasing irrelevance. It is a Christianity that makes a habit of being honest about the ways is it complicit in systems of white supremacy, racism and anti-blackness. While it might be convenient to shirk difficult conversations about race, religion, and politics -- reserving the discussions for "them" -- it is not wise to miss this moment. It is time to emerge from caverns of comfort in order to confront constellations of oppression, faithfully laboring for the liberation of all people.

To make the Sign of the Cross is to say that in Christ, God knows what it means to be oppressed to the point of death and that oppression of any form obscures the image of God within us. And the cross, designed as an instrument of imperial torture, can be made beautiful in its own time. It holds redemptive potential. And so do you and I. And so does Ferguson, Missouri. Redemption does not always necessarily take the shape of a cross. Sometimes it takes the shape of a lively protest, a lengthy town hall meeting, or a difficult conversation about our national history. In whatever way redemption comes, know that the work of love that the arc of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection invite us into is not an easy one. But it is worth it. O, it is worth it.