It’s been bejeweled, bedazzled and bedecked with trim. It adorns the walls of homes and offices, perches atop steeples, hangs from rearview mirrors. The Cross has been etched into rings, fashioned into charms, made into diamond-encrusted pendants. Once an instrument of torture and execution, it has made its way into popular culture, reduced to a fashion statement and trendy symbol.
To Christians of El Salvador, however, the Cross means something wild, profound, even dangerous.
A friend and fellow pastor recently returned from El Salvador as a member of a study and mission team. One evening, before a revival service I was preaching at his church, he shared the story of the “Subversive Cross,” a symbol of hope and empowerment during a bloody civil war that rocked the country for over a decade.
The simple white cross was the brainchild of Bishop Medardo Gomez, who pastors Resurrection Lutheran Church in the capital city of San Salvador. In the fall of 1989, Bishop Gomez led his congregation in a service of reconciliation, inviting them to write the sins of the nation on the cross and pray for peace and forgiveness. The people came forward, marking the cross with such phrases as “unjust deaths,” “violation of human rights,” “abuse of power,” “attacks against the church.”
Weeks later, government forces raided the church, seeking Gomez–but he had fled to safety after being tipped off. Soldiers seized the cross and took it away, where it was locked behind the bars of a prison cell. Interrogators pointed to it when they grilled detainees, branding it as evidence of the “seditious” activities of their opponents.
Months later, Gomez returned with a supportive team of North American pastors and a U.S. ambassador. The President of El Salvador relented and returned the “Subversive Cross,” where it rightfully hangs to this day at Resurrection Church.
I find it ironic that an instrument that was used to crucify subversives has become a symbol of subversion. I am not arguing, as many have, that Jesus came as a social activist. He didn’t wield protest signs or lead solidarity marches. Yet His Cross represents a life that nonviolently challenged the status quo, confronted oppressive religion and demonstrated compassion toward the forgotten masses. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Jesus is no draughtsman of political blueprints, he is the one who vanquished evil through suffering…the cross is the only justification for the precept of non-violence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable men to obey that precept.”
In a 2006 Palm Sunday message to youth, Pope Benedict XVI voiced similar thoughts when he said, “The new weapon that Jesus places in our hands is the Cross – a sign of reconciliation, of forgiveness, a sign of love that is stronger than death. Every time we make the Sign of the Cross we should remember not to confront injustice with other injustice or violence with other violence: let us remember that we can only overcome evil with good and never by paying evil back with evil.“
Good Friday is a bracing reminder of the power of the Cross. It not only brings to mind our individual salvation, but that God used this cruel device to disarm the “rulers and authorities” of this and every age (Col 2:15).
With this in mind, let’s lift high the Cross, the terrible symbol that judges sin, that beautiful sign of God’s gentle, confrontational love.