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Whoever takes up the sword shall perish by the sword. And whoever does not take up the sword (or lets it go) shall perish on the cross. ~ Simone Weil
Olga Gummerus Ehrström, Boy holding a Cross, 1899

A cross is a geometrical figure consisting of two intersecting lines or bars, usually perpendicular to each other.


  • If the church ... does not make God's liberation of the oppressed central in its mission and proclamation, how can it rest easy with a condemned criminal as the dominant symbol of its message?
    • James Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (1986), p. 6
  • The most famous means of Roman death, of course, was crucifixion, the source of the word excruciating. Anyone who has ever looked up at the front of a church must have given at least a moment’s thought to the unspeakable agony of being nailed to a cross. Those with a strong stomach can supplement their imagination by reading a forensic investigation of the death of Jesus Christ, based on archaeological and historical sources, which was published in 1986 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A Roman execution began with a scourging of the naked prisoner. Using a short whip made of braided leather embedded with sharpened stones, Roman soldiers would flog the man’s back, buttocks, and legs. According to the JAMA authors, “The lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.” The prisoner’s arms would then be tied around a hundred-pound crossbar, and he would be forced to carry it to a site where a post was embedded in the ground. The man would be thrown onto his shredded back and nailed through the wrists to the crossbar. (Contrary to the familiar depictions, the flesh of the palms cannot support the weight of a man.) The victim was hoisted onto the post and his feet were nailed to it, usually without a supporting block. The man’s rib cage was distended by the weight of his body pulling on his arms, making it difficult to exhale unless he pulled his arms or pushed his legs against the nails. Death from asphyxiation and loss of blood would come after an ordeal ranging from three or four hours to three or four days. The executioners could prolong the torture by resting the man’s weight on a seat, or hasten death by breaking his legs with a club.
  • Though I like to think that nothing human is foreign to me, I find it impossible to put myself in the minds of the ancients who devised this orgy of sadism. Even if I had custody of Hitler and could mete out the desert of my choice, it would not occur to me to inflict a torture like that on him. I could not avoid wincing in sympathy, would not want to become the kind of person who could indulge in such cruelty, and could see no point in adding to the world’s reservoir of suffering without a commensurate benefit. (Even the practical goal of deterring future despots, I would reason, is better served by maximizing the expectation that they will be brought to justice than by maximizing the gruesomeness of the penalty.) Yet in the foreign country we call the past, crucifixion was a common punishment. It was invented by the Persians, carried back to Europe by Alexander the Great, and widely used in Mediterranean empires. Jesus, who was convicted of minor rabble-rousing, was crucified along with two common thieves. The outrage that the story was meant to arouse was not that petty crimes were punishable by crucifixion but that Jesus was treated like a petty criminal.
  • The crucifixion of Jesus, of course, was never treated lightly. The cross became the symbol of a movement that spread through the ancient world, was adopted by the Roman Empire, and two millennia later remains the world’s most recognizable symbol. The dreadful death it calls to mind must have made it an especially potent meme. But let’s step outside our familiarity with Christianity and ponder the mindset that tried to make sense of the crucifixion. By today’s sensibilities, it’s more than a little macabre that a great moral movement would adopt as its symbol a graphic representation of a revolting means of torture and execution. (Imagine that the logo of a Holocaust museum was a shower nozzle, or that survivors of the Rwandan genocide formed a religion around the symbol of a machete.) More to the point, what was the lesson that the first Christians drew from the crucifixion? Today such a barbarity might galvanize people into opposing brutal regimes, or demanding that such torture never again be inflicted on a living creature. But those weren’t the lessons the early Christians drew at all. No, the execution of Jesus is The Good News, a necessary step in the most wonderful episode in history. In allowing the crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor. Though infinitely powerful, compassionate, and wise, he could think of no other way to reprieve humanity from punishment for its sins (in particular, for the sin of being descended from a couple who had disobeyed him) than to allow an innocent man (his son no less) to be impaled through the limbs and slowly suffocate in agony. By acknowledging that this sadistic murder was a gift of divine mercy, people could earn eternal life. And if they failed to see the logic in all this, their flesh would be seared by fire for all eternity. According to this way of thinking, death by torture is not an unthinkable horror; it has a bright side. It is a route to salvation, a part of the divine plan. Like Jesus, the early Christian saints found a place next to God by being tortured to death in ingenious ways. For more than a millennium, Christian martyrologies described these torments with pornographic relish.
  • The "cross" of Jesus was a political punishment; and when Christians are made to suffer by government it is usually because of the practical import of their faith, and the doubt they cast upon the rulers' claim to be "Benefactor."

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