The Healthy Church: Embodying the Cross in Perilous Times

Michael J. Gorman

The whole history of Christianity, and the history of the world, would have followed a different course if it had not been that again and again the theology of the cross became a theology of glory, and that the church of the cross became a church of glory.
—Theologian Emil Brunner, The Mediator, 1927

The cross is “the signature of the one who is risen.”
—Biblical theologian Ernst Käsemann, Perspectives on Paul, 1969

America is Rome, now and for the foreseeable future.
—Political scientist Ronald Dworkin, 1999

American Christians are living in perilous times. I do not refer to terrorism, or to some alleged clash of civilizations, but to the grave temptation at this moment in world history to turn the theology of the cross into a theology of glory, of worldly power—particularly American power. That would be an apostasy, as the Letter to the Hebrews warns, from which restoration might indeed be impossible.

Nevertheless, there are political and spiritual leaders (sometimes themselves at the pinnacle of power) who are seducing the church into thinking that Jesus spells power: personal power, economic power, and especially military power. Of course this is not the first time in world or Christian history that such power has been associated with Jesus and his cross. The word “crusade” may currently be banished from public discourse, but it underlies much public sentiment and even more political policy.

These bold claims need demonstration, more than this brief essay can provide. But I hope to show at least in a preliminary way how the quotations cited above provide for us the hermeneutical lens through which we must now perceive ourselves as the church in the US and thereby begin again to embody the cross. I will take the quotations in reverse order.

American Idol: The Reality of Empire

There is growing sentiment across the American intellectual spectrum—from voices like N. Chomsky, C. West, J. Wallis, R. Bellah, and even G. Will—that the US is becoming an empire with a zealous, misguided messianic mission of world hegemony, forced conversion to American interests, and unilateral preemptive war against those who resist. It is difficult to interpret The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002), recent foreign policy, or the presence of US military bases in more than 100 countries in any other way. It is not that American imperialism and messianism are new creations of the current administration (as Captain America and the Crusade against Evil, by R. Jewett and J.S. Lawrence [Eerdmans, 2003], clearly demonstrates). But the breadth and depth of the vision, its infiltration among Christians, and its evangelical character, as articulated by the current president, are arguably greater and more dangerous than ever. The dangerous religiosity of G.W. Bush’s war rhetoric that began at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, was soon placed in the context of a greater theo-political vision (cf. The National Security Strategy). The Washington Post immediately and correctly noted that “Bush Shifts Strategy from Deterrence to Dominance” and that the plan “gives the US a nearly messianic role in making the world ‘not just safer but better.’” Like Rome of old, the current administration plans to save the world through peace and economic prosperity, but also through war and unrivaled military power. In fact, The New York Times rightly suggested that the document seemed like something issued by a Roman emperor or Napoleon. The heart of Bush’s “War Cry from the Pulpit” (as a headline in The Washington Post described it) in September 2001 has become the watchword of his entire crusading presidency: “[O]ur responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil…. [W]e ask almighty God to watch over our nation, and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come…. And may He always guide our country. God bless America” (emphasis added). A local church has joined the imperial crusade; its sign has no witty proverb and announces no services; it merely reads, “May God Bless the U.S.A. and Our Troops Everywhere.”

It is providential that NT scholars have recently been stressing the imperial context of the earliest churches and of the correspondingly counter-imperial character of the gospel in many of its first-century incarnations—whether living congregations or written Gospels and letters. We now know that to be Christian was, and therefore ought always to be, inherently opposed to the very soul of empire: domination. Jesus himself says that every imperial system is based on domination. He continues, “But it is not so among you,” where cruciform service is the antithesis of empire and the norm of life together (Mark 10:35-45).

In theory, then, we ought to have the resources—the entire NT!—both to name and to resist imperialism, especially when it is cloaked in the language of peace, security, and the divine will (as it was also in Rome) for the good of the world. Indeed, I have often said that most Western Christians cannot really understand the NT because we have never been the opponents of, and thus the suffering victims of, the status quo. Now, however, we are in a position to identify with the NT communities as never before, as those who live under an empire but, because of the gospel, cannot support many of its core values or policies. We may finally understand what Paul and Matthew and John the Seer clearly perceived: that the confession of Jesus as the crucified Messiah and Lord means that all other claims to lordship are false and idolatrous.

The Permanent Presence of the Crucified Lord

Many Christians mistakenly treat the resurrection of Jesus simply as a transition in his life from suffering to glory. To do so has all kinds of serious theological and spiritual implications, for it does something the NT never does: separate the exalted Christ from the crucified Jesus. The continuity is found across the canon: from the symbolism of the risen Jesus’ having scars that Thomas can touch (John 20:24-29), to the experience of the crucified Christ living in believers (Gal 2:19-21), to the image of the exalted “lamb that was slain” (Rev 5). The words of E. Käsemann, cited above, are among the most profound and concise summations of this truth ever written: the cross is the signature of the one who is risen.

This claim has implications for both for our Christology and our theology, as well as for our discipleship and our politics (our life in the world). If Jesus is still the crucified Christ, then his power is still the power of the cross, the paradoxical power of weakness, and the current attempts to make him into a powerful, conquering figure are false. Whether uttered by self-proclaimed Christian military officers or by eschatological fanatics who write “novels” about the coming war of the Lamb, claims that Christ is working in the world to punish “evildoers” or “unbelievers” are blasphemous. Christ conquers only by the sword of his mouth, the word of the cross. Furthermore, since Jesus is the revelation of God, claims that “almighty God” (rather than Christ) is such a powerful, conquering, violent figure are also wrong. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is shaped like a cross, not a sword.

To believe in this God is to follow his Son in the way of the cross. To be sure, it is to experience a resurrection to new life, as Paul makes clear in Rom 6. But that “resurrection life” is, paradoxically, a life of daily death to self, to sin, and, yes, to the will to power, as Paul makes clear in every letter he writes. This life of death is a life of self-giving service to others. It is the cruciform life, the only life that is truly life-giving.

A Chance to Alter History

Many Christians, perhaps especially (though not only) evangelicals, believe that the cross is the source, but not the shape, of their salvation. Their supposed focus on the cross (“Lift High the Cross,” “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” etc.) is really quite limited in scope. They find Jesus to be a powerful ruler, and discipleship a kind of victory parade. It is no accident therefore that many American Christians sometimes practice and justify domination in the name of biblical faithfulness. But there can be no peaceful coexistence of domination, no matter how it is masked, with Christian discipleship. The cruciform life must take shape, therefore, in every dimension of our lives: in how we relate within our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our communities: local, national, and international. If it does, history will be positively affected as the saving reach of the exalted crucified One is extended. And if the opposite occurs, or continues to occur, history will also be impacted, and dangerously so.

I am haunted by the words of the great theologian E. Brunner at the head of this essay. There can be little doubt about the kind of crossroads at which we find ourselves. Imperialism and terrorism go hand-in-glove, as Rome and Palestine knew all too well 2,000 years ago. Our world will not be more peaceful, just, secure, or free if self-righteous imperialism, supported by Christians and (allegedly) their God, is the hallmark of the 21st century. Moreover, if the church continues to be co-opted by those in power, its ability to stand with God, with fellow Christians around the globe, and with the poor and oppressed will be seriously, if not completely, compromised.


This essay may sound like something of a jeremiad. I am nonetheless hopeful, for I believe that the word of the cross can generate reformation and life, even in the midst of empire. E. Käsemann once said that the word of the cross is always a polemical word. That is, it has an edge, an agenda. It did in the 16th century, and it does still today. In our context, the cross must create for us a hermeneutic of suspicion vis-à-vis all forms of power and violence, especially imperial power and violence. This will demand a major conversion on the part of many Christians, who are inclined to view American power as a divine blessing and support for it a divine mandate. In light of the power of the cross, both perspectives are false.

Our calling as the cruciform church today, however, is not simply to be critical. Our positive task as those who preach and live this word is relatively clear and simple, if demanding: 1) to proclaim the antithesis between empire and cross, in contrast to those who unite them, and thus to announce the true power of Christ’s cross and of our conformity to it, 2) to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and with it the end of all domination, and 3) to perform the story of the cross in our individual and corporate lives through deeds of generous compassion, love, hospitality, and forgiveness.

We should have no delusions about the possible costs of this simple but demanding way of life, or about the challenges of convincing American Christians that this, rather than the false gospel of righteous imperialism, is the way of God in the world. But I have no doubt that the NT is about to come to life among those who cling to the old rugged cross. As the ancient church said, crux est mundi medicina: the cross is the medicine of the world—and of the church.

Posted Mar 01, 2005