At the Foot of the Cross: The Violent Legacy of a Theological Symbol

Fred Laceda

N.T. Wright asks why the Cross became the enduring symbol of Christianity especially if we consider its original purpose as Rome’s mechanism to literally quash dissent. In a typical Wright fashion his answer comes in a form of weaving together seemingly disparate theological threads to create a coherent metanarrative. The finished product is a comprehensive and learned theology which most Christians would agree with. What is lacking in such a theological appropriation and remembering of the Cross is the road it travelled from a violent symbol to a symbol of redemption. This road, contrary to our Christian bubble, is accompanied by antagonism, exclusion, and violent hatred. Let me tell that part of the story.

But what if there is another mechanism at play in the rise of the Cross as an enduring symbol to captivate Christians making it the most important expression of their faith? To get a glimpse of this is to go beyond the surface and look at the underside of a coherent discourse; Foucault’s genealogy is certainly capable of excavating buried ‘subjugated knowledges’ like this. Another is Girard’s scapegoat mechanism; an important moment in that process is what Girard calls a meconnaissance roughly translated in English as “misunderstanding” or “misrecognition” by the participants involved in the ritualized violence.

To get a grip of this mechanism is to understand the “othering” done by Christians throughout history. These others go by the name of Jews, Pagans, Gentiles, Romans, infidels, Moors, witch, and heretics. These “others” signify a certain point in the history of Christian conflict. What remains constant, however, as an enduring other are the Jews. The Jews function as the primal other in the collective imagination of Christians and through its theological discourse. This is especially true in our remembering of Jesus’ tragic death on the Cross.

Going back to Girard’s theory every scapegoat mechanism needs a sacrificial victim — either a group or an individual — for the collective murder to get moving. The purpose of the victim is to lay the blame, impute the guilt, and provide the source of conflict. In Girard’s view it was the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and the death of Jesus in particular that provided the breaking point from the archaic sacrificial violence.

What is not accounted for by Girard and his followers, and the likes of N.T. Wright, is the violent role of the dominant memory of the Cross, i.e., blaming the Jews. Thus every recalling of the salvific role of the Cross brings with it the collective hatred and resentment on the Jews. Even if we agree with Girard that Christianity exposed the violent structure of sacrificial mechanism, Christianity through a misrecognition, perpetrated another act of violence in the form of anti-Semitism. As we ponder the meaning of the Cross of Christ, may we lay to rest the violent side of such memory and remembering!