I want to suggest a new spiritual practice—one that will be uncomfortable for many people. I want to implore the Church to reframe its understanding of the cross. While the cross (and resurrection) makes reconciliation possible for us, our understanding of the cross must begin with it as a sociopolitical tool of the Roman Empire. The cross was an imperial weapon wielded to suppress truth and inflict death upon “undesirable people.”
Today, the sociopolitical implications of the cross have been lost on us. The Church has relegated the cross into a form of cheap grace. The cross is commonly seen, and referenced, as the sacrificial gift that grants easy access to salvation, a cost-less redemption that atones for our sinful nature before the Father. This understanding of the cross fails to grapple with the reality that crucifixion was capital punishment. The cross was a death sentence reserved for Rome’s most hardened criminals and society’s most reviled citizens, while also doubling as public spectacle. To be subjected to extermination via the cross was to be publicly dehumanized, tortured, and ridiculed. These executions were intentionally conducted in front of the masses. Crucifixions (much like lynchings in the U.S.A.) served as a form of participatory spectacle, where Rome’s ruling powers promoted and publicized crucifixions. Crucifixions were also carried out publicly because they were designed to serve as public service announcements. The cross served as a vehicle for social coercion, especially among subjugated segments of society.
The Romans began the practice of crucifixion upon learning about it from the Greeks. They adapted and revised this practice of torture, making it even more barbarous. The cross ultimately became a hallmark of the Roman Empire, an insignia of the Pax Romana. For example, in response to the slave revolt in 71 B.C., the Roman Empire crucified 6,000 rebels and then decided to line the road from Rome to Capua with the crosses used to execute the “rebels.” These crosses were erected to traumatize the “least of these” within Rome’s influence. Additionally, during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Romans crucified as many as 500 “rebels” a day. rebels” a day. Crucifixions were not irregular; they were a staple of the Roman Empire. Crucifixions became the primary way the Empire chose to reinforce the oppressive status quo.
Crucifixions, therefore, were ultimately a power play by social elites aimed at activists, potential “rabble–rousers,” and revolutionaries within society. They were carried out to send a message–to serve as a stark warning to dissenting factions throughout society who even contemplated disrupting the status quo. The message was clear: all who even considered breaching the status quo were to be reminded of the fate of social activists each time they saw the ominous image of the cross. This imposing social symbol served as a concrete reminder that they too would suffer a similar fate as those previously exterminated upon Roman crosses. Consequently, the cross must be understood as a coercive mechanism of keeping marginalized populations under the thumb, rule, and reign of the Roman Empire. To understand the cross as anything other than this, a social symbol of domestic terrorism used by the prevailing powers within Roman society, is to misunderstand the purpose of the cross.
This should not only cause us to reframe our thinking about the cross, but also about Christ and why he died. Yes, Jesus died upon the cross for the sins of the world, but he also died because he was crucified by the Roman Empire, religious leaders, and the acquiescent masses. In other words, Jesus did not die, he was executed! We too often lose sight of this. Jesus was executed for bearing witness to the Gospel in countercultural ways that threatened the status and legitimacy of religious leaders and the Roman Empire. Theologically, we shy away from this truth because it has implications for our lives and the ways we are called to bear witness to the Gospel within the U.S. Empire!
Theologian Michael Gorman discusses the theological term “in Christ,” frequently used by Paul, saying life “in” Christ is simultaneously life “for” others, because both the cross and the resurrection were for others. Therefore, all Christians are called to embody cruciform love for others that is empowered by the Spirit and informed by scriptural revelation of Christ’s sacrificial self-giving, which was anointed and affirmed by the Father. Living in the world, in this way, could very well lead us to be crucified too. The world shall know that we are Christians by our love—our sacrificial love! We are people called to be people who express our faith in love. But to do this, we must not fear the Empire and all of its signatures of death. To do this, we must embody Luke 12:4: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.”
The Church must re-examine its understanding of the cross in order to cultivate a proper Christian ethic. Christ’s work on the cross must not be written off so easily. It is not by faith alone–divorced from practice–that we are saved; proclamation of our faith alone does not suffice either. The cross requires a lifestyle change. Discipleship must breed transformation. The death of our Savior has to invoke his bride to embody a posture of cruciformity in the world today, and forevermore.
 Michael Gorman. Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2001), 47.