The Foolishness of the Cross
Westcott House Chapel, 14th January 2020
Psalm 45; Amos 2; 1 Cor. 1.18-end
Reading St Paul in the era of Donald Trump isn’t always fun. On the surface, Paul’s championing of foolishness over wisdom can at times sound a little like the idiocy which apparently passes for modern politics. ‘Where is the debater of this age?’; ‘I destroy the wisdom of the wise’; ‘I have all the words’; ‘Who needs experts?’.
Left at the idea that the Cross is just God’s sneering rejection of wisdom, it’s hard not to sense some dangerous parallels with a kind of post-truth quackery. And, in any case, simply fashioning out of Christ’s death a weapon with which to beat everyone else betrays the whole point of that by which St Paul found himself captivated. That doesn’t take the foolishness of the Cross seriously enough.
We’re rather used to seeing and wearing cruciform images, but the Cross is not a badge of membership or divine backing. Donald Trump does not have God ‘on his side’, but nor do we; the Cross is the consequence of a society that has sides, and thus the emblem of God’s rejection in and of a world in which teams, tribes, principalities and powers are deemed wise and necessary.
The Cross is a cypher of bone-crushing imperial power and the voiceless agony of its victims; to dare to see Calvary as a place of epiphany is to hold ‘that in a society where non-citizens can be painfully and fairly casually slaughtered, God is not a citizen’.
The Cross illuminates the violence of empire, beginning with the empires of our own hearts, which are just desperate to cling to comfortable patterns of belonging and righteousness, subverting truth to tribal security, with cosmically tragic effect. And so the Cross is the most subversively ‘irreligious’ symbol we possess; it is also the most truthful.
The lectionary this evening invites us to examine something of this through the striking words of the Prophet Amos, thundering away against the nations. Amos, the Judean, preaches to the Northern Kingdom, and one can almost imagine the self-satisfied cries of outrage, ala Trump rally, as all those barbaric foreigners over there are denounced for their wickedness: Damascus, Gaza and Philistia, Tyre and Phoenicia – the world’s number one terrorists, really.
And then, horror of horrors, Amos’ circling ark of judgement turns to Israel, which, despite sharing the Prophet’s Yahwist faith, is complicit in terrible treatment of the most vulnerable: ‘they trample on the heads of ordinary people and push the poor out of their path’ (vv.6-7). Israel’s establishment, please note, is not atheistic, despite its occasional dabbling in Canaanite eccentricity; rather, Israel has, in the name of the very same Yahweh, fashioned a sacred order which excludes, which makes of Yahweh an emblem for exclusive membership and scapegoat.
Amos does something very simple in tonight’s passage. He reminds Israel that it is Yahweh, not they themselves, who gave them their identity (v.9). What in fact holds the people of Israel in being is the gracious act of God, the gift ex nihilo by which creaturely life is made for boundless love. And such infinite gratuity admits no economy of zero sum; it subverts every attempt to prop up a moral order on the silence of the oppressed; it demythologises every sacred order which is premised upon exclusion, because God’s love is the beauty of the infinite which draws us beyond competition and resentment into the fathomless bliss and unity for which we were made.
And that’s what is in fact most real – all the stuff about necessary violence, oppression, exclusion and the ‘way of the world’ is all an elaborate lie.
This, of course, is the most destabilising truth possible for human hierarchies; so destabilising, in fact, that it nearly always provokes the powerful to lynch the truth-teller. And, sure enough, the rulers of Israel will soon enough find an excuse to deflect attention away from the matter of truth, and to clobber Amos on other grounds: he’s a Judean, an outsider, and he really ought to shut up and go home. The ‘religious’ establishment displaces the category of truth with the category of belonging, masking verity with the smoke of tribalism.
And, somewhere in the haze, that deadly rationality of Caiaphas may be heard: ‘It is better that one should be destroyed than the whole nation perish’ (Jn 11.50).
Speaking love’s truth in a violent world always brings violence from a world which cannot bear to believe that the truth is love. We’ve arrived at the Cross.
So, what would it mean to cling to the foolishness of the Cross and thus to boast in the crucified Lord, as Paul suggests? Certainly, it doesn’t mean fashioning one more category of exclusive membership: the righteous versus the rest. Rather, the Cross ‘offers us the dynamic of subversion from within of all human goodness, including our own’. In clinging to the folly of a crucified God, learning to identify that place of hopelessness with hope for the world, we begin to perceive, however dimly, that the Christian life gets going where God is released from being an instrument of our own sacrificial exclusions, our own tribalisms, our own defensive justice. Kneeling before the Cross, we allow our cherished notions of belonging, of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, to break. We stumble into an awareness of our own complicity in the very forces which nailed Love incarnate to a tree, just as, meeting the Risen Lord, we are simply given the gift of love again, to remake, renew, regrow, repent.
The Cross in fact helps us to see that ours is a God of mercy, not sacrifice, in an ultimate sense; foolishness indeed to a perishing world premised upon competition and death; but stay there at the foot of the Cross, and even a sinner such as this one might just glimpse from time to time, that there spring up the seeds of unimaginable, indestructible life.
Taylor Wilton-Morgan, 3rd year Norwich Diocese Ordinand