Rome may have given Jesus his cross to bear, but they didn’t want to. Pilate tried to dismiss Jesus from the court several times, telling the people he found no fault in him, passing him off to Herod, trying to give the Jews an out to release Jesus rather than Barabbas, and finally, scourging Jesus in hopes that this would appease Jesus’s people. But though Jesus came to his own, his own did not receive him. Not only did they not receive him, but they insisted that he bear his cross. While Pilate was largely indifferent, Jesus's very own people were vitriolic, because Jesus didn't play by their rules. He was a traitor, and Jesus even explicitly tells us to expect betrayal from our own family members [Mt. 10:21-31].
We have come to understand how true Yoder’s second point is. I can believe all day long that abortion is wrong, sexual promiscuity is a problem among young people in the church, and religious freedom is good. I can be vocal about those things because my community believes those things and is not threatened by them. In fact, yelling vociferously about such issues makes me more of a team player. But being vocal about those issues, by and large, doesn’t cause me to bear a cross. All of my Facebook friends agree with me on those things and affirm me. All of my social group, composed largely of other white, conservative Christians, pat me on the back and shake their heads in dismay at the same things. And even if I run into the handful of people I might encounter who diverge from my moral position, we either don’t talk about anything of substance, or they yell at me and I can just avoid them in the future since they’re not a part of my close and immediate community. Acquaintances don’t tend to hand us our heaviest crosses. At worst, they scourge us and move on, but they don't send us up to Golgotha.
Of course there are different ways to define community. A community can be the people you encounter on a daily basis – your family, close friends, and co-workers. It can mean a more extended community, like your family friends and your church body. And it can even mean something as broad as your state, region, or nation. Each of these communities has some overlapping and some distinct expectations. But whatever the case, it seems apparent to me that Yoder is mostly correct in that where there is no community, there is no cross.
As a missionary, I’m finding it interesting to discover “cross” for the first time in my life. I think other missionaries and pastors could likely attest to this as well. And no, I don’t mean the "cross" of selling our possessions, moving a family overseas, taking a huge hit to our income, and all the stuff you’d expect me to say. Those are natural and impersonal results of decisions we have made which aren't at all crosses that happen to us, but rather strategies for the work to which God has called us. What I’m finding the most difficult is the bearing of ideological cross. See, when pastors and missionaries decide to move out into the world, they are locking themselves into a very particular set of views. And I do mean very particular. One church with whom I was very closely associated wouldn’t consider supporting us because our view of eschatology was different than theirs and we couldn’t say that we knew that the literal Israel would be reinstated at the end of time. Maybe it will. But why is that so important? When you’re choosing who you can work with based on eschatological doctrine from Revelation which seems more like a tertiary or quaternary issue, you are deadbolting your particular beliefs. You can’t stand any deviation.
I would argue that most pastors and missionaries are in organizations or denominations which are locked into hyperspecific views. Of course there are always the important doctrinal statements of core, orthodox beliefs. But that's not what I'm talking about. Sure, some churches put tertiary doctrines in their doctrinal statements (like the church I mentioned above), but the deep, hyperspecific requirements of communities are often unspoken and assumed. And sadly, these hyperspecific views are often extrabiblical, like requiring one to be a Republican. Our communities believe that there ought to be no deviation outside of the explicit and implicit values of our specific church. The best thing for pastors and missionaries to do, then, since their livelihood is based on the church, is to read only their group’s approved books, listen to only their churches, and refuse to think outside of very particular parameters which extend to even to tertiary issues, politics, justice, etc. But to lock oneself into such a rigid belief system, one needs to have an extreme confidence in their correctness on pretty much everything, including secondary doctrines, for sure, but even extending to tertiary and extrabiblical ones as well. And most pastors or missionaries do this by their mid-20’s! If you’re the one denomination out of the hundreds of thousands in existence which is right about absolutely everything, that works out well for you. Your closed hand of fellowship and lack of humility may be appropriate because you're right - assuming that rightness negates the need for humility and love. But if you’re not right about everything, that's irrelevant. You’re locked in. You must maintain your boldness and assurance and never listen to or take the hand of fellowship from the brother on your right or the sister on your left. Just. Don’t. Think. If you don’t think, you can’t deviate, and if you can’t deviate, you can’t be criticized. Just. Avoid. Cross.
As we meet more and more missionaries in our travels, we are refreshed by how different the missionary community seems to think. The community is not different because missionaries are holier than any other group, but they have more experiences. They have more than just a single story. It’s the nature of missions to meet diverse people with diverse ideas, and to be faced with your own personal problems and inadequacies. You end up working with Christian groups you wouldn’t work with in the States, recognizing that the centrality of the gospel and its advancement negates tertiary, and even some secondary issues. Most missionaries we meet, then, are harboring deep-seated views which run counter to their denomination and culture, because while those who live less mobile lives are locked into their limited community and system, the missionary's job moves them out into the world. That’s something that even pastors who are steeped in study and a single community often can’t say. Being a missionary is a very unique experience. We may be more awkward, socially disengaged, and struggle with stability and community, but what we lack in those areas, we gain in our understanding of broader perspectives.
But while missionaries have a unique perspective to offer, most missionaries seem to be more silent than the average person in regard to moral and social issues. We see very few missionaries speak out and discuss from their unique experiences and perspectives, and we know firsthand that some of this is because of repercussions (or potential repercussions) from supporters and flak from churches. Missionaries may often be falsely idealized as people who choose to bear their crosses by giving up material comforts and conveniences, and while that may be somewhat true, there are a lot of crosses missionaries don’t want to bear, and thus choose to avoid. And those crosses usually tend to be those things which can truly be called "crosses."
As for lay people, it’s just as easy to avoid crosses of all sorts. But rather than using silence, like missionaries and pastors, lay people can use selectivity. You can pick a church where everyone’s like you and where they don’t preach about the revolutionary, life altering, demanding aspects of the Kingdom. And if your church ever does have the Holy Spirit rain down and stops catering to one's sentiments and whims, there are other options. If the church calls you to legitimate change, or if you come to discover that you disagree with a doctrine at your church, you can just leave the church. You can go find another community which fits you perfectly. If you have kids, it may be a little sad that they won’t see their Sunday School friends for 40 minutes every week. But really, there’s no skin off your back. We’re a consumer culture and we shop for churches as products rather than as true communities, and churches fail to be communities for this reason: crosses are avoided.
So whether you're a pastor, a missionary, or a lay person, you are probably like me in that you are constantly trying to figure out how best to avoid cross. Americans are smart in this regard. We know how to birthday hop from restaurant to restaurant and get a week’s worth of free meals every year. We know where kids eat free throughout the week. We know how to find a bargain, take advantage of program trials, and get those money back guarantees. We know how to consume and how to avoid cost. Such knowledge extends into the spiritual realm when we repackage the cross. Jesus tells us what it means to bear our cross, but we redefine what he meant and call a cold a cross, and conveniently find ourselves bearing crosses all the time. But we don’t want to bear a real cross. It costs too much. Nowhere is this more clear to me than in my community’s refusal to bear the cross of racial reconciliation.
My community is white. My community is largely in the South and in a very conservative part of Pennsylvania. My community almost wholly votes Republican. For me, or anyone else in my community to speak out for racial reconciliation is to put a target on our backs. And please know that by racial reconciliation, I don’t mean saying sentimental platitudes when we see egregious injustice. I mean acknowledging systemic injustice, acknowledging our responsibility for our continued silence, advocating being proactive with our kids in teaching diverse curriculum, and refusing to demonize and spread misinformation about the supposed violence of protestors. We find that just as white Christian America demonized nonviolent Civil Right’s leaders in the past, so they're doing it again. Scapegoating allows one to be dismissive of movements which seek justice and change, and damning of anyone who associates themselves with such movements. In my community, doing or saying something of substance in regard to racial reconciliation is something we have found leads to cross. Because first, it doesn’t just lead to a temporary, shallow trial, but as Yoder points out, speaking about racial reconciliation requires of oneself the recognition of privilege, followed by subordination in following Jesus’s example and in helping those without the same privilege. And secondly, as Yoder shows, pushing for substantive racial reconciliation means that your own people want to crucify you.
For lay people, this could simply be another opportunity to find a new “community.” You can change churches and go somewhere which shares your views, if agreement and comfort is how you define community. But for pastors and missionaries, our community pays our salary. And as Mike Huckabee said about Russell Moore, the SBC’s chosen ethicist whose actual job is it to hold them accountable, “I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them.” Holding our communities accountable and cautioning them about their moral (or immoral) course is now considered an "insult" to Christians who claim to adhere to objective morality. But let’s be clear, this is not a struggle only for the Southern Baptist denomination. For us, saying “black lives matter” doesn’t simply mean we aren’t invited to the next baby shower. Rather it means the very real potential of losing our entire platform - our entire livelihood. Giving up our material possessions to do justice was easy. But having our livelihood threatened for doing justice is another thing.
So why don’t white people in our communities tend to speak up and acknowledge the true severity of racial injustice? How did doctrines that are really no doctrines at all, like being a Republican and not speaking out against any of their misdeeds, become primary doctrines? There are many answers to this, some of which I've addressed in my consequentialism series and posts. But largely, I think it’s happened because nobody wants to bear their cross. Denominations are hollowed out of many of their cross-bearers who ended up finding different churches rather than call out any denomination's unique brand of syncretism. And there’s a denomination for every type of cross that someone didn’t want to bear. It’s easier to find a community where you won’t have to bear cross than to seek the transformation and repentance of the community you’re currently in through cross, or to bear your own call to repentance to which your church calls you.
The moral of the story, then, is that we need cross-bearers. We need them because there are individuals in many of our churches who are blindly enslaved to calloused views of racial issues and racial reconciliation, among many other justice issues. Sin and injustice are enslaving. We need lay people to stay in their churches and duke it out in love, not allowing their denominations to ignore injustice. We need pastors to call out their congregations as they exposit scripture, and not create moral black holes by labeling some moral issues as "political." And we need missionaries who can remind us of the need for the unity of the Church universal, and the primacy of the gospel over tertiary issues. We, the body, need each other. We need those individuals who live outside of our personal experiences to be cross-bearers with us, as we ourselves are blind and enslaved to our own sins. We don’t want a church body that is identical. We want one that is diverse, but unified in its ultimate aim. It is only through a church body which has many members who are willing to play their parts and bear their respective crosses that a true community is formed. Because as it stands, our current communities are merely reflections of us.
When ethicists stop holding people accountable for fear of losing their jobs, we have a problem. When pastors refuse to speak to certain moral issues because they are “political,” and instead, silently foster and perpetuate their congregation's moral blindness, we have a problem. When missionaries hold back from sharing the lessons they've learned from the diversity of the church universal, we have a problem. When lay people feel little weight to changing churches in order to avoid problems, repentance, disagreement, or confrontation, we have a problem. So, here we are. There are, of course, many areas in which we could bear cross right now, but there is one glaring issue at hand - racial reconciliation. White people in all denominations, in all roles, and in all communities need to speak up against racial injustice, even and especially if that means there will be cross. Yes, it may cost us something, but so will silence. If we are silent in helping the least of these, the One who we claim as Lord may end up being silent about us one day, as we prove ourselves unknown to him in the end, through our actions. I didn't say that, and I'm not being hyperbolic. Jesus said that. Jesus also said, take up your cross and follow him. So let's take up our cross.