Bearing the Cross as a Way of Knowing
Gerald J. Mast

"Shoot me first, and leave the other ones loose.” These are the words of thirteen-year-old Marian Fisher just before Charles Roberts shot her, along with nine other Amish girls at the Nickel Mines Amish School near Lancaster, Pennsylvania on 2 October 2006.  Roberts did not “leave the other ones loose.” Marian and four other girls were killed in that tragedy, and five other girls were left with varying degrees of injury and disability. In media accounts of this school shooting, Marian Fisher’s words are treated as heroic and generous, but no less remarkable are the Amish community’s immediate offer of forgiveness to the killer and his family, their attendance at Roberts’s funeral, and their insistence that relief funds be extended to the killer’s widow.  (On the Nickel Creek Mines School shooting see: Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher 2007).

What did Marian Fisher know in those last few moments of her life, and how did she know it? It may be that she knew what John Howard Yoder knew when he wrote that “people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe” (1988, 58). The self-giving, self-emptying love of Christ makes a witness to the true direction of history—the way things really work—and is thus the ground for any honest confrontation with the darkness of sin and violence. The story of the Nickel Mines Amish community’s forgiveness broke through our culture’s conventional wisdom and suggested the basis for a pacifist, or defenseless, way of knowing. From this perspective, following Jesus in discipleship, even to the point of willingly giving up life, becomes something more than a hard teaching or a rule of faith that Christians are expected to follow, no matter how absurd it may appear in the context of a natural world full of rivalry, competition, and violence. Such self-offering discipleship, from this perspective, springs rightly from what we can know to be true about the renewal of the creation that God is bringing about all around us. Yielding one’s life to God in such a way is to align one’s self with truth and is thereby an act of freedom in both the practical and actual sense.

In what follows, I elaborate on this pacifist way of knowing, assuming a narrative paradigm in which human knowledge and communication is viewed historically and situationally, “as stories and accounts competing with other stories or accounts purportedly constituted by good reason” (Fisher 1987, 58). In recent years, theologians and biblical scholars have come to assume that truth is conveyed not only through rationally defended propositions, but also through “master stories” that construe a world in which some actions make sense and others do not, in which “a scriptural world is… able to absorb the universe” (Lindbeck 1984, 117). This narrative-based approach enables a specific kind of inquiry into the relationship between knowledge and action, namely: How does the story of Jesus—his humble birth, healing life, defenseless death, and miraculous resurrection—“absorb the universe” for those who are persuaded by it?


Cross and Resurrection

In his book, The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder makes a provocative statement concerning the epistemological status of the cross. In the final chapter of the book, while describing a nonviolent view of history and social change, Yoder argues that patience trumps effectiveness as the criterion for Christian faithfulness. In extending this argument, Yoder claims that “the relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection” (Yoder 1972, 238).

What does this mean? More specifically what does it mean to identify obedience with the cross and triumph with the resurrection? What is the content of the obedience that can properly be called cross-bearing, and what sort of triumph can properly be called resurrection? In short, what is the relationship between the cross and the resurrection? The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection offers us a way of seeing the entire cosmos as well as the particular events taking place around us in our own time and space. In this narrative,  suffering is neither fearfully evil nor intrinsically redemptive, but rather it is a moment of meaningful and potentially redemptive struggle toward the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ. In the midst of suffering is the possibility for a kind of obedience, an obedience that involves the adoption of a right posture toward the suffering, a willingness to discover in that suffering that which is aligned with the direction of history and the unfolding of God’s reality.

One way to understand suffering is as loss: loss of stability, comfort, possession, even coherence. The story of the cross, on this reading, is about not needing to fear losing those features of our social and personal world that are generally assumed to be required for experiencing health and well-being—such as food, clothing, shelter, comfort, and safety—even though these are gifts to be received with gratitude when they are available to us. As Yoder puts it quite succinctly, “...if you follow the risen Jesus, you don’t have to hate or kill. You don’t have to defend yourself” (Yoder 1988, 339). The loss of self-possession and self-protection is not, according to this view, the experience of victimhood—the forceful destruction or dispossession of human beings against their will. It is, rather, an experience of agency, of relinquishing willingly that which is demanded by another, of making a gift of what was demanded. We can hear Marian Fisher’s words, “Shoot me first,” as just such an act of impossible agency, of giving away what another sought to take, thus denying the killer ultimate control of the lives he destroyed, even denying retribution.

Furthermore, the words of Marian Fisher offer clues as to how the master story of the cross can absorb not just contexts of human conflict and violence, but also the apparent violence of the natural world. Angie Montel, for example, has critiqued the dominant war metaphors used by cell biologists to describe the relationship between white blood cells (named natural killer cells by scientists) and the so-called invading viruses and bacteria that threaten the life of the host. Montel challenges the idea that we need to understand the struggle between white blood cells and pathogens as a war taking place within the human body (2003, 224–25). She argues that such a narrative frame has motivated an approach to treatment that emphasizes ridding the body and the environment of germs that are actually helpful in strengthening the immune system. She notes, for example, the increasingly high number of cases of asthma, hay fever, and other allergies associated with germ-free environments, compared with a much lower rate in contexts such as the more polluted countries of the former Eastern Bloc, on family farms, and in child care centers (225). She also points out how the excessive use of anti-bacterial products may be destroying a protective layer of nonpathogenic organisms on our bodies and strengthening treatment-resistant forms of harmful bacteria (225).

Montel suggests replacing the war metaphors with images of dance and struggle in accounts of cell behavior. Emphasizing the co-evolution and mutual dependence of human hosts and microbial pathogens, following the work of Nancey Murphy, she suggests that we view the dance between microbes and their hosts as an occasion to appreciate the “sacrificial suffering through to something higher” that “binds us to all creation and to the nonviolent, suffering Redeemer himself” (233).

When we recognize that our encounter with natural and social forces that seem to threaten us with death provides an opportunity to bear the cross, we are enabled to face such struggles with the knowledge that we are “threatened with resurrection,” as Jim Amstutz puts it (2002, 18). An eloquent articulation of this principle is found in the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God did not regard
     equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even      death on a cross.
(Philippians 2: 5–8)

Christ became exalted as Lord precisely in his self-emptying obedience to death.


Kenosis and Real Power

In her book Powers and Submissions, Sarah Coakley traces the concept of self-emptying, or kenosis, throughout church history. Her account ranges from the biblical account itself, through the writings of the Church Fathers, to the present argument among feminist scholars about whether the injunction to empty yourself as Christ did is properly addressed to women—or to anyone whose full humanity has been stolen by force (2002, 3–25).

This question of whether self-emptying is a practice of power or a means of disempowerment is crucial. The way of the cross is easily misunderstood as an acceptance or enablement of violence and abuse. Coakley attributes feminists’ anxieties about self-emptying to an assumption that Christ was giving up power that he had possessed as a member of the Trinity when he accepted crucifixion. However, if the vulnerability associated with self-emptying is in fact an attribute of divinity, a feature or sign of divine power rather than a contradiction of the divine, then the vulnerability that women often exhibit is properly seen as a practice of real power rather than an experience of victimhood (25). For example, when Marian Fisher said “Shoot me first,” was she exhibiting patriarchal training in oppressive self-effacement, or was she in fact taking charge of the situation by asserting agency in the face of a man’s attempt to destroy her?

If we accept Coakley’s argument, then Fisher’s speech act can be seen as a “willed effacement to a gentle omnipotence which, far from complementing masculinism, acts as its undoing” (37). In fact, according to Coakley, if such vulnerability to enemies demonstrates our true humanity, then women’s tendency not to take up the privileged role of the Enlightenment “man of reason” gives women a particular and privileged location for realizing the empowerment associated with vulnerability (30).

Furthermore, the spiritual and practical disciplines involved in giving up and letting go—what Anabaptists have named “gelassenheit” or yielding—are then to be seen as disciplines of empowerment, of receiving as gifts what others perhaps meant as harm. The practice of contemplative prayer, for example, should no longer be seen as a practice of passive withdrawal from the struggle of everyday life, but rather as the discovery of a renewed space within everyday life from which it is possible to live in a new way amidst the ruins of the world that is passing away.

Such radical contemplative prayer in the service of yielding is aligned with the practice of revolutionary subordination, as described by Yoder in the controversial ninth chapter of The Politics of Jesus. In this practice, we become “free ethical agents” by voluntarily acceding to “subordination in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it either fatalistically or resentfully” (1972, 191). This is because “the new world or regime under which we live is not a simple alternative to present experience but rather a renewed way of living within the present” (190).

Because this renewed way of living is precisely not an absurd idealism amidst a tragic reality, but rather a quite realistic alignment with the actual direction in which the cosmos is being renewed by God, the disciple of Jesus can yield rather than fight. Or as Yoder puts it: “it is precisely this attitude toward the structures of this world, this freedom from needing to smash them since they are about to crumble anyway, which Jesus had been the first to teach and in his suffering to concretize” (192). Radical contemplative prayer or revolutionary subordination is thus a spiritual discipline that puts the disciple into the flow of God’s purposes as they are being worked out.

To say this yet another way: Accepting God’s will means accepting the way that God works in the world—not by might or by power, but by the spirit. If God does not impose God’s will on the world against the wills of disobedient creatures, then for the disciple of Jesus to accept willingly the painful effects of disobedient practices or structures, without trying to crush them and without accepting their ultimate sovereignty, is to accept the will of God, without God’s will being seen as the sovereign cause of the suffering caused by disobedience. Only in this sense is it right to understand Jesus’ crucifixion as the will of God—as a way of responding to enemies even unto death that comports most fully with the way in which God intervenes in history, with the way God brings about God’s purposes amidst disobedient creatures, and with the will of God for those of us who seek to pursue God’s purposes in our daily lives. In other words, kenosis is real power.

Let us consider a few words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Memphis the day before he was assassinated, when he reflected on the famous confrontation with Birmingham police chief Bull Connor. In the speech, King stresses the extent to which that confrontation witnessed to the tactical alignment of the Civil Rights Movement with God’s will and with the “physics” of the cosmos: “Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out” (Buckley 2007, 24). Arguably, the practices of nonviolence King advocated illustrate an aggressive version of yielding—a public and persistent witness against the disobedience of racist political and institutional life which endures the suffering involved in such a witness without retaliation or self-defense.

To return to Yoder’s helpful phrase, “revolutionary subordination,” one can imagine a range of tactical emphases that improvise on such a complex posture. King’s activist stance arguably privileged the revolutionary aspect, while other stances might privilege the subordinate aspect. Yet, when some measure of each emphasis is present in Christian witness—a revolutionary refusal to be defined by the fading social order and a subordinate yielding to the damaging blowback of such a refusal—then the will of God can be understood as being fulfilled. It is this sense in which Marian Fisher can be said to have known the same thing that Martin Luther King Jr. knew: a kind of “trans-physics” describing a “fire that no water can put out.”


Bible Reading and Cross-Bearing

How does a person come to see the world in this sort of  way? What is the source of strength and wisdom for sustaining the life of renewal amidst the corrupting and dehumanizing structures of the fading order? What concrete knowledge can infuse contemplative prayer with improvised combinations of revolutionary challenge and nonviolent subordination which flow with God’s purposes?

For centuries, Anabaptists and other radical Protestants have answered: through the knowledge and practice of the Scriptures by the living body of Christ. The texts of the Bible are a marvelous instantiation of the broken and renewed world that we seek to perceive and address rightly. Rather than functioning as contemporary self-help manuals, which tell us how to adjust our lives to the functional realities of the blinded world, the Scriptures empower us to align our lives with those purposes of God that challenge the disobedience of the surrounding world. The Scriptures make us dysfunctional, but in a way that humanizes us, that makes us into the lovely and loving creatures God intended us to be when God created us. This humanizing dysfunctionality is precipitated by the biblical text through at least three kinds of tensions found in the Bible.

The first tension is the tension of generic and literary difference. Like a good library, the Bible contains texts that address a variety of different human situations and problems. As such, one finds in the Bible many contrasting methods of communication and artistic appeal. For those who want to discover who they are, the historical narratives of Israel and the church provide a background against which to live out the drama of one’s own life as a member of God’s people. For those who struggle with the extraordinary emotions of human experience—love, hate, delight, anger, desire, fear—the Psalms provide poetry and music. For those who seek practical guidance amidst the recurring patterns of human failure, the wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes offers rules for living and decision-making. For those who seek empowerment to challenge the sins of self and world, the prophetic texts offer judgment and hope. For those who seek spiritual counsel and admonition there are the pastoral epistles. For those who desire a perspective on how all of this is going to turn out, there is the apocalyptical literature. The changing demands of human experience are addressed in all of these genres in concrete rather than general ways.

The second tension is one of perspective and conviction. The Hebrew Bible provides what Walter Brueggemann has called disputed testimony about the nature and purposes of God (1997, 82–83). We find as we read, that we have the experience of being in a jury box of the biblical courtroom, listening to competing arguments and deciding which one to accept. Is the God of Israel an angry God who destroys the disobedient with water and fire, or is Yahweh a God of mercy and love who refuses to revoke the covenant God has made with God’s people? Should the alien be removed from the community or welcomed as a friend? Are we to pursue purity or hospitality? Should we fight for God, or will God fight for us? These disputes about God and humanity, and many others, are not finally settled in the Scriptures. As James Barr has written, “the working out of the biblical model for the understanding of God was not an intellectual process so much as a personal conflict, in which men struggled with their God, and with each other about their God” (Peterson 2006, 105).

Third, we discover in the biblical story changing circumstances of godly intervention and will-manifestation. At times, God shows up in the earthquake, and, at other times, through a still, small voice. In one moment, God sends plagues, and, in another, he sends manna. God may harden the Pharaoh’s heart, or he may remove the scales from the eyes of Saul. This God, in the testimony of Moses, both kills and makes alive, both wounds and heals (Deuteronomy 32:39). Perhaps most decisively, in the Christian inflection of Scripture, this God was revealed to the ancestors through the prophets, “but in these last days by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

Against the backdrop of such difference, debate, and development in the Scriptures, we can find ourselves with the apocalyptic seer before the mighty angel wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, with a face like the sun, and with legs like pillars of fire—one foot planted in the sea and the other in the land—holding a scroll. We hear the voice from heaven: “Go take the scroll.” We hear the angelic invitation, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth” (Revelation 10:1–11).

Eugene Peterson’s riff on this text emphasizes how consuming the biblical text through contemplative and prayerful reading opens up the true world of God—a world that is beyond our control, without obvious relationships between causes and effects, and full of upsetting miracles. This world—the real world—disrupts the dream world of our adolescent expectations, where everything works out on our behalf. “For most of us it takes years and years and years to exchange our dream world for the real world of grace and mercy, sacrifice and love, freedom and joy” (Peterson 2006, 105).

Such scriptural consumption is best experienced in the company of others. The proper image of scriptural consumption is not so much the individual meal but the community potluck. Swallow the text whole, but make sure you are with others who can help you out if you get too sick to your stomach. When the gathered body of Christ consumes the Word of God, taking it up in discussion and taking it in through prayer, the Word becomes enfleshed again among us. The “real world” of God becomes visible once again before the blinded world.

Eugene Peterson emphasizes that the “real world” that is available to us in the consumption of Scripture is not imposed upon us: “God’s word is personal address, inviting, commanding, challenging, rebuking, judging, comforting, directing. But not forcing. Not coercing. We are given space and freedom to answer, to enter into the conversation. From beginning to end, the word of God is a dialogical word, a word that invites participation” (2006, 105). Thus, the truth we discover in the consumption of the Scriptures is a truth that can only be received rightly as a gift, as good news, and only ever offered to others in the same way.


Remembrance, Anticipation, and Obedience

The gospel way of knowing described thus far is a comprehensive experience of the world, even if it is as scandalously particular as a revelation of God in the life of a particular (temporarily divided) people—Israel and the church. There is a past, a future, and a present dimension of gospel consciousness, discovered first of all in the reading of the scriptures with other believers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but then also instantiated in the way we come to see our places in the unfolding drama of God’s story in our own time and place.

The memory of the past—both that of the human societies and of our own personal histories—is for the believer embedded in the story of God’s people as found in the Bible. That story is one of failure, forgiveness, and faithfulness. God’s people fail God and one another, while God both judges and forgives their failures.

Miroslav Volf has argued that in order for the injuries of the past to be rightly remembered, the gospel call urges both an accurate recall of such injury and a readiness to forget it (2006, 204–05). Of course, the ability to forget is not unrelated to the severity of the injury. Some injuries are easier to forget than others. One aspect of injury is precisely a legacy of ineradicable pain and suffering. Suppressing such memories makes forgiveness impossible. One cannot forgive what one cannot recall.

At the same time, as Derrida has argued, true forgiveness could only be properly offered in response to an unforgiveable offense. What is forgivable by definition can be recuperated within an economy of exchange and justice. Derrida thus distinguishes between pure forgiveness, which is impossible, and transactional forgiveness, which occurs in human history but is only given meaning by reference to the horizon of the impossible form of forgiveness—forgiving the unforgiveable. He writes: “Sometimes, forgiveness (given by God, or inspired by divine prescription) must be a gracious gift, without exchange and without condition; sometimes it requires, as its minimal condition, the repentance and transformation of the sinner.” Furthermore, he argues, “It is between these two poles, irreconcilable but indissociable, that decisions and responsibilities are to be taken” (Derrida 2001, 44–45).

Stated another way, the memory of God’s gracious and impossible acts of forgiveness toward us provides a horizon against which it is possible to contemplate the offering of forgiveness to others—even when such forgiveness is flawed, limited, and conditional. And such a practice of both honest remembering and free forgetting is the condition of possibility for an anticipated future in which reconciled enemies make historically visible their already accomplished reconciliation in Christ. For Volf, the Eucharistic body of Christ is the crucial location of such a realized future: “by remembering Christ’s Passion, we remember ourselves as what we shall be—members of one communion of love, comprised of wrongdoers and the wronged” (Volf 2006, 119).

The astonishing presence of Amish families at the funeral of Charles Roberts is perhaps a most Eucharistical instance of such practices of memory and anticipation, even though communion was not technically served. But in more ordinary contexts, the capacity of members of Christ’s broken body—alienated from one another as they might be—to gather in right relationship around the Lord’s table is indeed a practice that makes visible the cross-formed grain of the universe. And any such miraculous actions that yield one’s memories to God, in the hope of the world to come, whether they take place in the sanctuary or the marketplace, are evidence of the possible obedience that right remembering and hopeful anticipation make visible.

Mennonite missionary David Shank tells the story of attending one of Karl Barth’s seminars in the early 1950s with John Howard Yoder. Barth was discussing with students the relationship between the memory of the cross and resurrection, on the one hand, and the anticipation of the future coming of the Lord, on the other, as the basis for Christian hope. When a student asked what the task of the Christian is during the meanwhile, between the past event of the cross and the anticipation of the second coming, Barth responded: “In-between we look back and remember, and we look forward and hope. We remember… and hope.” David Shank recalls, “I was sitting beside John Howard, and close enough to hear him mumble under his breath, ‘We obey!’”

There are several ways to read Yoder’s interjection during Karl Barth’s lecture. Obedience can be posed as a kind of action-focused alternative to belief-centered Christianity: orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy. Obedience can also be understood as the next thing that follows once remembering and hoping have happened: Action must be rooted in correct theology, especially eschatology. But instead of replacing or following faithful contemplation, the patient, yet revolutionary, yielding associated with practices of remembrance and hope is itself an act of obedience, whether it is an organized experience of worship, a prayerful meditation, or an act of social protest. Knowing the reconciled creation is the same thing as yielding to it, the same thing as making the peace that Jesus Christ gives.





Gerald J. Mast is Professor of Communication at Bluffton University and co-author of Defenseless Christianity: Anabaptism for a Nonviolent Church (Cascadia Publishing House 2009).




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