The cross. An instrument of torture. More importantly, a symbol of the power of the state, a warning to any and all who would dare challenge the empire. To its victims, therefore, the cross is a symbol of terror and defeat.
We have always lived in a world in which the powerful strive to impose their will. They might be nation-states, of course, but also corporations, ethnic groups, and abusive spouses and parents…the list goes on. Sometimes the weak fight back, and power clashes with power. Sometimes the weak give in, and domination by the powerful feeds on itself and grows.
But we have few examples in which true power comes through weakness. And when it does, the inspiration is often the cross of Jesus Christ.
In some stories, there is a bully, a victim, and a hero. The hero disguises himself as the victim, only to surprise and defeat the bully. But the gospel isn’t that kind of story. The hero doesn’t flash his power at the last second, to save himself and the victim. Rather, he allows himself to be tortured in the victim’s place.
That’s the power of love.
One of the songs that was popular when I was growing up was Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now is Love.” The tune was folksy; the lyrics preached “sweet love…not just for some, but for everyone.” In retrospect, it seems banal. But it was released smack dab in the middle of the 1960s, when amongst other problems, the United States was still embroiled in Vietnam. Some hoped then that free love might be the answer to the world’s problems. And given that the song has been covered over and over by other artists, it would seem that such a hope may still be alive and well.
DeShannon was right: the world does need love.
But what kind of love? There is nothing sweet or sentimental about crucifixion. The love that saves, the love that is strong enough to defeat domination and oppression, ironically, must walk the path of weakness itself.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not holding up victimhood as a moral good in its own right. I am not saying that victims should simply submit to domination and abuse in the hopes that this in itself will transform the abuser. Quite the contrary: as I suggested earlier, merely giving in to domination can make it worse.
What I am saying, however, is that our very understanding of what constitutes power and weakness is turned upside-down by the cross. The cross doesn’t represent the power of weakness per se; weakness still brings death. But in the cross, we see the power of love that is willing to accept weakness for the sake of the other, in the sure hope that the Father can and will bring life from death.
This is not a moral rule that victims must simply accept their status. And this is not some fire-meets-fire redefinition of power by which we love people into submission. No, God is the one with resurrection power; God is the one who transforms. Our job is to love sacrificially, with an eye toward how God wants to use us to demonstrate his character and build toward that resurrection future.
That’s the power of love. It’s what the world needs now, what it has always needed, and will continue to need until the Crucified One returns at last — this time with the kind of power the world understands.