Magazine article The Christian Century

True Victory. (Faith Matters)

Magazine article The Christian Century

True Victory. (Faith Matters)

Article excerpt

NOW THAT THE WAR against terrorism is well under way, things have eased up a little in Clarkesville. A month ago, you could not walk into a room full of people without someone trying to pin a flag on your lapel. If you refused, or even hesitated, you were treated to such a narrowing of the eyes that you got a sense of what it must have been like to be a suspect during the McCarthy era, or an early Christian in Rome. The pressure to salute the state was so great that it felt dangerous not to.

Recent victories in Afghanistan seem to have released some of the tension. Chasing down the Taliban over there has become more compelling than chasing down reluctant patriots at home. Plus, the holidays are here. Most of the churches in town have taken the red, white and blue bunting off their facades for Thanksgiving, and by next week Christmas decorations will outnumber American flags.

My uneasiness about the symbolism of the flag does not mean that I am ungrateful for the protection it offers me. The other day at the airport I caught an armed national guardsman in fatigues watching a blond toddler trying to negotiate the escalator. As I watched him watching her, his face melted into a smile of such tenderness that I wanted to run over and kiss him on the cheek.

The problem is that I am stuck with another symbol that I hold higher than the flag. Even if I do not wear it on my lapel, it is still right here on my forehead where it was placed at my baptism so many years ago. The cross stands for some of the same things the flag does, such as liberty and justice for all. But the kind of power it uses to pursue those virtues is entirely different from the kind I am reading about in the newspaper these days.

The power of the cross wins by losing. It disarms the enemy by refusing to fight. It dismisses any victory defined as the defeat of one people by another people, holding out for the one true victory of a healed world at peace with God.

If this understanding of power is neither obvious nor particularly appealing, then scripture is at least partly to blame. Between the first page of Mark's Gospel and the last page of Revelation, we have not one but several portraits of the Messiah who gives meaning to the cross. In some accounts, he is clearly crushed by it, while in others it seems no more than a prop. By the last book of the Bible, he has swapped the cross for a white charger and a sword. His job is to strike down the nations, ruling them with a rod of iron and treading the winepress of God's own fury.

In times of war, it seems natural to prefer this final portrait, which allows us to sing triumphant songs in church about winning battles and vanquishing foes. As long as they are sung in the presence of a cross, however, these images retain a certain irony. …

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