The politics of the cross

Elaine Storkey writes: As we reflect on the significance of the Cross this Easter, in the forceful political atmosphere of our times, its own political dimension hits us afresh. Like each of us, Jesus was born into a political context; he lived and died experiencing its pressures, posturing, and power-mongering.  Politics is wrapped up in the gospel accounts of Jesus, from his birth to his execution: even the central symbol of Christianity, the Cross itself, carries with it profoundly political overtones.  So it seems important to consider what crucial implications all this has for our faith.

The Politics of the Cross of Imperial Rome

For the Romans and for those nations under Roman occupation, the Cross was the Roman fear-machine. It announced their power, supremacy, control and dominion. It was there to deter critics, to eradicate rebellion and insurrection. It operated to reinforce the Roman law and to strengthen its power over all dissidents. As the symbol of their authority over life and death, it reflected the military force and might of a world power that could crush all that stood against it. The awful prospect of crucifixion would make anyone think twice about raising a voice against the Roman overlords, or disobeying in any way the Emperor or his minions. In the violent reign during Christ’s infancy two thousand revolutionaries were strung up on the Cross to die in prolonged thirst and agony.  They were seen, simply, as enemies of Imperial Rome.

In bringing Jesus to Pilate, the religious leaders were making an astute political move. The Romans could operate their law, and eliminate someone they wanted out of the way. Representing the political authority of Rome, Pilate held the power to determine whether those who appear before him lived or died.  Implementing the law was not always an easy task, however,  and he clearly did not like the position in which he had been placed by those who brought Jesus to him.  He distrusted the arguments and the evidence offered by the religious accusers. They had already decided that Jesus is guilty, yet of what?

So Pilate’s task was to find out if Jesus did pose the threat that the Jewish leaders suggested. His question to Jesus was obviously meant to see how ‘political’ Jesus was. ‘They tell me that you are the King of Jews. Is that true?’ Jesus’s response, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ has often been taken by the Church to signify that he was not political at all. This is not, however, the way Pilate understood it. Pilate had absorbed what Jesus was saying, and concluded, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus did have a kingdom: a place of rule and obedience, but one unlike other kingdoms of this world.

Yet Pilate feared the uprising, and the consequences for his own office, and gave in to the crowd. He knew he had been compromised in his exercise of Roman justice. His wife confirmed what he probably already knew; that Jesus was guilty of no crime, political or otherwise.  Washing his hands of the affair might well be an appropriate public statement, but it was still an abnegation of responsible leadership. The only time he stood his ground was in the dispute over the inscription on the cross given in three languages: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ The political implications were not lost on Jesus’s accusers. ‘Don’t write ‘King of the Jews,’ they ordered Pilate, ‘but “he said he was king of the Jews.”’ Pilate had been bullied enough. ‘What I have written, I have written.’

The crucifixion of Jesus was thus instigated by politically motivated religious leaders who feared the diminution of their control and was implemented by an imperial with access to the military might of world domination. Jesus was put to death because he embodied a politics that threatened both the religious instigators and the Roman implementers.

Jesus’ Politics of the Cross

In refusing to capitulate to fear, to fight on terms they establish or build up a power-base through self-aggrandizement, Jesus stands in complete contrast to the politics of the world. Through his death on their cross of execution, Jesus refuses their political values and inaugurates his new earthly kingdom. In St John’s account of the confrontation with Pilate, Jesus points out that if his kingdom had been of this world, his guards would have fought and prevented his arrest. (In fact, Jesus had already known of his betrayal, and did not resist arrest by the armed guard, but rebuked Peter for resorting to violence, and healed the servant’s ear). Yet the kingdom he points to is not a vague ‘spiritual’ entity, which has nothing to do with the world and offers no challenge to it.  Rather, as NT Wright insists, Jesus’s kingdom does not derive from this world, but it is designed for this world.  Jesus’s politics of the Cross offers the ultimate model and directive for a radical alternative. It refuses to return evil for evil. It turns the other cheek, gives without receiving, embraces powerlessness, works for justice, suffers for others, and forgives the enemy. Christ’s is the politics of the kingdom of God –one  which longs to heal this world and whose justice is aimed at restoration, not destruction. This politics is where forgiveness rules the day and where revenge has no place.  For us, it is the politics of the kingship of Christ.

Prophecies and Preparation

The Hebrew Scriptures had already shown us something of the politics of this new Kingdom. In those passages, often referred to as the Servant Songs, the prophet Isaiah had depicted a leader who would bring justice to the nations. He would be a light to the Gentiles and the islands would put their hope in him. His rule would extend way beyond the shores of Israel. He would be gentle not overbearing: he would not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering flax. He would act wisely, uphold fairness but he would also suffer for the sins of others. Yet God would ensure that his rule would be vindicated, and many would find, in his servant leadership, hope and healing.

The Gospels also take up the prophetic vision of the kingdom, where these values prevail. As the baby grows in her womb, his mother, Mary, sings her own prophetic song – revealing that the proud would be thwarted, the powerful brought down from their thrones, the rich sent away empty, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things.  His uncle Zechariah prophesies that his own son will be prepare the way for this new kingdom, where light will come upon those in darkness, and people will be guided into the path of peace.  And aged Simeon and Anna receive their own glimpse of the revelation as they it as they hold the baby in their arms and praise God in the temple.

Yet there was nothing automatic about the fulfilment of these prophecies. Jesus himself had to choose his own politics of the Cross over the options that the world offered.  From the very beginning of his ministry, when he spent those long weeks alone in the wilderness, Jesus had to count the cost of resisting the short-cut, and committing himself to the radical vision. The three temptations from Satan depicted the power that could be his, without the suffering, isolation and torture of betrayal and death. In his hunger and physical weakness, the politics of the world were set before him. ‘Why continue with this discipline of fasting? Just assert your status; you can turn stones into bread!’  Jesus refused. The second temptation again dismissed the difficult, demanding path ahead of Jesus. ‘All the kingdoms can be yours just by serving me!’ Jesus again refused. The third temptation offered a much easier route to the defeat of death, ‘Just throw yourself down from the temple pinnacle and the angels will come and protect you.’ Jesus refused this also. In effect, the temptations offered a short-cut to power, glory and splendour without the betrayal, denial, isolation of Gethsemene, and the agony of the Cross. All the world’s brilliance and might, in the gift of Satan, were laid before him.

At the same time, in these temptations, Jesus was also being offered things that were key to his kingdom objectives and political vision – the means to feed the hungry, the authority to end wars and the defeat of death itself.  Satan knows his stuff. But Jesus also knew that God’s kingdom could never come into existence using power unlocked by the devil. That way was cheap and idolatrous. It was also built on a lie, offering assumptions that food comes without labour, peace comes through violence, love comes through self-interest.  It opened up justification for the oppression and exploitation of other people. In the politics of Jesus, the reign of God is not to be from a golden throne gained through alliance with demonic or worldly forces, but from a wooden cross. Christ does not join the world in its sin and lust for power, but dies for us, so we might be reconciled to God.  Christ’s Kingdom politics stems therefore from obedience and commitment to God’s will, from dying to self and following the ethics of service and neighbour-love.  In wonderful biblical metaphors we see these principles displayed in the depiction of Christ’s atoning work:  forgiveness, redemption, substitution, victory, healing, ransom, sacrifice, resurrection.  They all reinforce the central message of Jesus’ politics: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  And the message for human beings, and communities, is to ‘repent and believe the Good News.’ Only that makes a life of non-violent, self-giving possible in a violent world.

The Church and the Politics of the Cross: 1) Failure

The church has not been very impressive in its response to the politics of the Cross.  Across the centuries we have made many mistakes. It has often bought into the world’s mindset, driven by lust for power into violently  controlling the lives of others. And as Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, “When the Church tries to embody the rule of God in the forms of earthly power it may achieve that power, but it is no longer a sign of the kingdom.” Elsewhere, we have simply been tunnel-visioned and ineffective, caught up in churchy agendas, moralism and legalism. We have hunted down sinners and pronounced anathemas. We have become bogged down in doctrinal debate, over-excited about disagreements over transubstantiation, the filioque clause inerrancy, millennialism, baptism, predestination or, currently, the eternal subordination of the Son- (largely construed to keep women out of church leadership). We’ve spiritualised and individualised the faith, so that the Gospel becomes largely about me, my walk with God and my spiritual experiences. And when we’ve become disillusioned with all of these, we have escaped into our own alliance with secularism, finding the world’s laisser faire inclusion far more attractive than the wingeing narrowness of the church’s exclusions. We constantly straddle two dangers. We fail to engage with our culture, and end up talking largely to ourselves answering questions no-one else is asking. Or we so absorb our culture’s values and lifestyles that we lose our distinctiveness and fail to be the prophetic carriers of the truth of God’s kingdom.

2) Faithfulness

Yet there are traditions within the church whose acceptance of the Politics of the Cross has been well developed. They have seen how the Gospel of Christ deconstructs the barbarism of most of human history, challenging empires, autocracy and control, and commending instead the gentle rule of Christ. They have understood that we wrestle not just against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in this dark world, and against spiritual wickedness in high places. They have recognized that for the kingdom of God to grow, we need the armour described by St Paul in Ephesians- truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the ‘sword’ of the Spirit.

Over recent centuries these developments have taken two directions. The Anabaptists have emphasised the radical difference of the Kingdom of God: its peacefulness and its eschewing of wealth and status. They have stood apart, turning their back on all the characteristics which infuse most of worldly  activity. They have constructed communities committed to working together, living disciplined and faithful lives of mutual service, growing food, making products, and seeking to experience the integrity and justice of Christ’s ways. In fellowship together, they have practiced a gentle, peaceable way of life, which offers nurture to the young and hospitality to the stranger. They distrust human power and have pulled back from it, taking seriously the nature of spiritual warfare, and fearing that involvement brings compromise. As a result they have been pushed out or simply left the organs of state.  The modern state, with its dominating tendencies is seen by them as a ‘counterfeit community’ and the community which God chooses to build is not a new society but the church. John Yoder argues that the historic Peace Churches came into being in societies which persecuted them and the concern of these churches was not to change the persecuting State into a better, more just one, but to maintain moral independence and refusal to conform. Christian participation in the Public Square is therefore not the focus, (although the writing of Anabaptists have greatly influenced Christian thinking for the Public Square.) Christians are called to form counter-cultural socio-political communities characterized by pacifism, socio-economic justice and equality, and an ethic of suffering non-resistance. Real change comes about when the church created through the work of the Spirit lives as an alternative politics to the politics of the lie.

For the broadly Reformed traditions, by contrast, the Politics of the Cross includes the politics of the state. They see in the doctrine of creation the notion that God intends the world to be ordered and structured, and the establishment of the State as a way of maintaining that order.  The State is significant again in the doctrine of sin, for it is given the responsibility of restraining evil. So the State is as much God’s institution as is the church or the family.  Rulers themselves, as Jesus reminded Pilate, derive their authority from God.

The Politics of the Cross held by these second traditions holds rulers and lawmakers to account. It urges the need to produce good governance, enact and implement fair laws, treat people with impartiality and respect, and uphold justice. It calls us also to protect the vulnerable, include the marginalised, and to speak for those who have no voices. Seeking the common good might mean involvement in public policy, addressing poverty and inequality, challenging exploitation, combating climate change, being involved in advocacy, peace and reconciliation, and resisting the proliferation of weapons of war. The kingdom of God extends beyond the church.  Through his death and resurrection, Christ’s kingship touches every part of life. As Abraham Kuyper insisted, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!’

Here, the responsibility of the Church is, more specifically, to draw people in worship, proclamation and prayer so they are enabled to see their calling beyond the worshipping community and be responsible citizens of the kingdom of God. It is also to exercise a prophetic ministry towards the State and society in speaking out against injustice or the violation of the vulnerable. In this, we all have a part to play. There is no shortage of issues on which work must be done. Whether we address the inequities of the arms trade and power of the industrial-military establishment in actively undermining world peace, as my husband is called to do, or expose the global issue of violence against women, and to seek its eradication (my own current calling), we work across denominational divides, and with those who share a common vision.

Alongside the different understandings and application of the Politics of the Cross, there is also fundamental agreement. And it is that we are to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling – not to work for it, for Christ has done that – but to work it out.  Politically economically and morally we are called to resist evil, combat the powers of destruction and oppression, and live as people redeemed by God.  And whatever our differences, a note of unity is sounded in the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus has far reaching implications for the way we live as members of Christ’s body.

For those who are members of the Church of England, the Politics of the Cross challenges us to work with others in living out a more radical vision of what it means to be part of the body of Christ. It points to the need for us to commit ourselves to care for the whole of creation, follow the way of peace, forgive those who offend us, embrace non-violence, provide for the homeless, work for the eradication of poverty, and share resources equitably. Sometimes we need not only to be counter-cultural but, in holding governments and institutions to account, counter-Establishment also, unafraid to move out of our allocated, functional place in society, and provide a prophetic voice. And as we take on these responsibilities more fully, recognizing our own failings, and allowing God’s broom to sweep us clean,  the power of the Cross might pervade much more of our lives and calling. We might even find that we in the churches can begin to take a lead in the building of a new social order, where people can glimpse the reality of resurrection, and where redemptive hope and justice rule.


Elaine Storkey is a writer and broadcaster. She is President of Fulcrum, and former President of Tearfund and Vice-President of Gloucester University. She is ambassador for Restored and a trustee of the Church of England Newspaper.


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5 thoughts on “The politics of the cross

  1. Well written and well said

    “For those who are members of the Church of England, the Politics of the Cross challenges us to work with others in living out a more radical vision of what it means to be part of the body of Christ…..”
    The problem today is too many don’t want to follow Jesus Christ but would rather dismiss bits they don’t like and selectively say they follow the rest. That is not really following Jesus Christ completely and fully.

    It is true that none of us are perfect at it but a follower of Jesus Christ also accepts admonishment and need of constant repentance as part of allowing Jesus to transform us. So we cannot stay as we are.

  2. It’s an excellent and challenging read. Thank you.

    Two, almost polar, questions come to me.

    1. How should this earth or not in political parties? Is voting for a Christian different from forming a party? It feels a tad too much like the worlds ways and means.

    2. I’d not thought of it but does “‘Just throw yourself down from the temple pinnacle and the angels will come and protect you.’ Jesus refused this also. ” have any implication for miracles in evangelism? Could they be, in that context, counter to Jesus example?

  3. I appreciated a lot of this, but the polemic in the middle about how bad churches have been at cultural and political engagement just didn’t ring true. Perhaps your criticism is that churches haven’t always been involved in left-wing activism – your list of agendas is heavily weighted towards causes favoured by the left (‘addressing poverty and inequality, challenging exploitation, combating climate change, being involved in advocacy, peace and reconciliation, and resisting the proliferation of weapons of war’) – but the Bible doesn’t only support leftist causes.

    In the current cultural climate there are some ideas notably missing from your account of a Christian politics, particularly liberty, freedom of conscience and religion, marriage, sexual morality (and sex and gender identity), abortion and issues of medical ethics, euthanasia and end of life issues. I don’t know if any of these come under the ‘moralism’ condemned at one point, but if not then some reassurance would have been welcome.

    (As an aside, is citing John Yoder a good idea now, with him having admitted to committing multiple sexual assaults over many years within his non-violent community?)

    I think the cross has some important ethical messages for Christians to bring in to politics. But the centre of Christian engagement with the structures of the world has to be the rational moral law, which God has provided to all people as the guide to right conduct in his world, and to which he holds all people to account. It is because as part of our Gospel faith in Christ we espouse the rational moral law of the Creator of the world that we bring a message of human flourishing (or at least avoidance of human depravity), not just for Christians in our slightly crazy idealistic communities, but for the whole of humanity.

  4. Good, except:
    “the eternal subordination of the Son- (largely construed to keep women out of church leadership)”

    It is not true to say that we do.

    Back this up, or don’t say it at all. If you want people to listen to you because you are so free from your own priors, perhaps you could avoid imputing dishonesty to your opponents. Otherwise you risk getting bogged down in doctrinal debates.

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