This is an adapted writing from a presentation given at the Women Doing Theology Conference in Elkhart, IN on November 9th, 2018, entitled Reconciling with the Cross; Reclaiming our Souls and Symbols for the Movement. It pulls from a sermon that I did at First Mennonite San Francisco, in March of 2017. Image from Mark Stavish, Signs of the Cross.
The language of the soul is not one of words. It is one that speaks in symbols. In Christianity our main symbol is the cross. Personally, I have never felt very connected to this symbol. I have distanced myself from it as it has become wedded to Christian hegemony causing much harm all over the world. In our country’s history the confederate flag “X” is a disguised version of the cross. It is a derivative of St. George’s cross, of England which traces back to the middle ages and honors St. George, who was a military icon during the crusades (Perrin, British Flags (1922) p. 20). In fact, the cross only came to be a major part of Christian iconography during the crusades, a time of great violence, when many Jewish people and other others, were killed. Prior to that time, the main iconography was Jesus, in the field as “The gentle shepherd” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire). Lest we forget that Jesus was one of many Jewish people killed on the cross, during the Roman Empire. Perhaps the most tragic irony is that the cross, the torture device of the Jewish teacher, whom Christians claim to follow, has become the symbol for a religion that has been the misconstrued theological backing for much of anti-Semitism for over 1500 years.
On a personal level, the cross has been used as a symbol that alienates me from Christianity and even the Mennonites due to my queerness. I would venture to say that there is no one in this room that has not been harmed, in some way, by an interpretation of the cross. Aside from that, when I think of it, I see those bloody images of an agonizing Jesus and the whole of it just feels violent. So, for much of my life, I had buried this image and much preferred the symbology of angels and hearts. Those, I found to be more simple. “God is love and I am love. Lets keep it clean.” But through many relationships and painful experiences, I learned that I am not only angels and love. In fact, this self-perception came and continues to come with quite a bit of shadow. This sent me looking for a way to work with shadow and the symbol of the cross; a symbol that I have kept buried and other-ed within my own psyche.
The work of Carl Jung regarding archetype (which I believe is actually the work that women, indigenous, and pagan people, have been doing forever) lit something up for me in my process to reclaim the cross. Jung writes, “Nobody who finds himself on the road to wholeness can escape that characteristic suspension which is the meaning of crucifixion. For he will infallibly run into things that thwart and “cross” him: first, the thing he has no wish to be (the shadow); second, the thing he is not (the “other,”) and third the psychic non-ego (collective unconscious)” (The Psychology of the Transference. Collected Works 16. paragraph 470).
Many of the most well known religious symbols carry these same elements of, opposing forces and balancing with “the other.” The two intertwining but opposing triangles of the Jewish Star of David, in some interpretations, symbolizes the relationship between God and Earth, and the Yin and the Yang symbolize male and female as well as dark and light. Clearly the human soul has a deep longing for “the other” as this is reflected in some of our most sacred symbols.
Paradoxically, we have a deep fear of the other. We find ourselves crossed between these two feelings. When we wear our symbols on flags and put them out in front of our bodies, the meaning tends be one of righteousness and a right to survive. Taken to the extreme, especially by those with power and privilege, the meaning tends to be that the other must be killed or exiled, in order for the self/group to live. Within our own psyches, this contributes to repressing and killing parts of ourselves that we do not want to see. This often results in projecting these qualities onto “the other”. In the collective, these projections have resulted in economic, interpersonal and group violence. For instance, the traders and owners of humans, as slaves, would not have been able to survive the pain of their own consciousness without the repression and projection of “darkness” and “savage” onto Africa and those who were from that part of the world.
The cross indeed symbolizes death, but the other common interpretation of the cross is found in the symbol of the empty cross. The empty cross places more focus and meaning on the symbolism and story of resurrection. In western culture Christianity has a monopoly on resurrection, but the truth is that it can be found in the stories of many religions and cultures. There is something universal about the resurrection narrative. In the Old Testament scriptures we read the resurrection prophesy by Ezekiel in the dry bones passage.
One translation reads:
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”
When contextualized, this passage comes at a time when Israel has been split into two nations, sometimes waring with one another, however, common in origin. In this passage Ezekiel is receiving the prophesy that God will restore the divided nations into one again. This text could not be more apropos for the current times. I believe reading this text, apart from the lens of Christianity, as best we can, offers something important in reinterpreting and reclaiming resurrection in a deeper way, as Christians. Seeing it as a text by and for the Jewish people in antiquity, reminds us that Judaism is tribal and collective in nature. In this context, the resurrection is a collective one, not a personal one. While I utilize the cross in my own individual shadow work, I am called back into a collectivist vision and the collective unconscious, named by Jung, when I consider the symbolism of resurrection, from the Jewish perspective.
Reading the passage from this collective perspective made me wonder about the dry bones that are in this country and the soil of this Earth. It made me wonder about the collective resurrection that is needed in this country and even this church before reconciliation is even possible. I have felt what can only be described as a haunting, when visiting the old plantation homes, in the South. I felt this haunting acutely, biking in the rural southern region of Vietnam. And, I felt it recently on a trip to Germany. I think what I have felt, in these settings, are the dry bones of those who have been oppressed, conquered, enslaved and unjustly killed. These souls are in need of recognition, resurrection and justice. It has been as if the dry bones of these people are saying, “Something happened here.”
Perhaps the recent increase in discussion and awareness around identity politics is, at its core, a collective attempt at resurrecting the dry bones of women, Queer folks, Native people, religious minorities, people of color, poor folks and many more. As these souls rise up, white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchy is meeting it’s cross!
Now, let’s pause here for a second. I can really feel myself getting revved up. Having this term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is such a satisfying phrase to have in my back pocket. Mostly because I have a safe place to put all my blame. That sweet taste of self-righteousness is so tempting, isn’t it? Especially during these times when parts of my identities are under threat, the weight and the anger of that makes me want to harden and become dualistic. Dr. Malinda Berry illuminated this danger in her plenary talk, when she said, “Sometimes when we experience victimization we can think that we have no power. We can use a power analysis to assert power and perpetration” (Plenary presentation, Women Doing Theology. November 8th 2018). A victim identity often is accompanied by self-righteousness, judgment and a hardening of the heart, out of self-protection. With this comes further separation and further dynamics of “Us vs. Them.” When I start to do this, I find that I become very fragmented. This fragmentation keeps me from doing my internal soul work around -isms. This, I believe, is what Jung is talking about in his interpretation of the cross and the repression of the “other” and the “shadow.” We all have different soul work to do based on our social location, but without this internal process, we will continue to see the projections and creations of more divisions externally. The internal fragmentation shows up in the external fragmentation, which then creates more internal fragmentation. It is a cycle.
For the we of us who are on the margins, I think our soul work looks like giving breath and life to the dry bones that lie in the landscape of our hearts. I think that everyone does this differently and I am not here to tell anyone, especially those with different identities of oppression, how to do this healing. For me, one way this has looked is resurrecting and healing the stories of feeling wrong for my gender and sexuality, from a very young age. The wounds of this continue to thwart me from showing up in my full power and full self and being the best ally, activist, friend, lover/partner, therapist etc. It is the part of me that is easily shamed, easily other-ed and will get small and keep quiet. Sometimes it looks like finding safe space, with those who either share those identities or have done enough personal work to not cause more harm to those aspects of my identity. These are the parts of me in need of resurrection.
For the we of us benefitting from systems of power and oppression. The healing looks different. I think it involves the allowance of a shattering, a surrender and a willingness to be continually humbled. In the external world this also looks like a re-evaluation of how we are taking up space, enough self-compassion to withstand being “called out” or “called in.” It also requires a re-evaluation of how our money is being used, and a willingness to give up some aspects of comfort and some illusions of safety. It looks like a willingness to stand in solidarity with those on the margins, without the need to be the hero or savior, but rather a true equal and often taking direction. And, I believe it looks like grieving for the parts of us that had to die, in order to participate in systems of domination and oppression.
For those of us, who are Mennonites of European heritage, this recognition can meet a harsh internal cross. We have thought ourselves to be and have heard ancestral stories of great moral courage and the subtle, disguised in humble, moral superiority. I know that this has been the case for me, as I have come to terms with the fact that my ancestors settled in Berne, Indiana, displacing the Potawatami people and that some Mennonites colluded and joined with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
For most of us in this room, we contain a mixture of target and perpetrator identities with in ourselves. This requires us to do both types of healing at the same time. In fact, it actually requires us to create a dialogue between the internalized perpetrator and the internalized victim.Furthermore, there is not a one of us that gets through life without experiences and triggers around feeling other-ed. Exclusion is perhaps one of the most painful human experiences. As we navigate the sludgy complexity of identity politics and the task at hand, in our multi-cultural society and multi-ethnic world, many of us will find ourselves triggered by our very personal experiences of other-ing and exclusion. It is an ongoing process to tend to those fragile parts and continue to heal them. We must find the correct and appropriate places to do this type of healing and create a healthy internal dialogue, so that this aspects of ourselves do not repeatedly leak out into social movement and collective spaces, halting progress.
The claiming of identity is an important part of our collective soul journey and social justice work. However, after the resurrection, as articulated in the Ezekiel passage, the goal is not continued division, but reconciliation. I believe that reconciliation work is ultimately, the evolution out of dynamics of victim/perpetrator. This is what resonated with me last night in Dr. Malinda Berry’s talk when she posed the question “How do we transform the suffering tree (the cross) into a healthy tree?”
Last week, I was having a rich conversation with a friend from church, Dr. Anne Byram Blackwood. She said to me, “Suffering in itself is not redemptive.” She was speaking from her perspective of a woman of African descent, who are too often in the position of holding the suffering of the world. She went on to say, “It is living a life of faith that is redemptive.” I thought of this conversation last night as Dr. Berry charged us to “…confess our humble exceptionalism (as Mennonites) and a spirituality of martyrdom” so that we can move from being “victims to being better neighbors.” How do we make meaning of our suffering and pain? How do we live a life of faith? How do we transform it within us, in our relationships and in the collective, rather than worship and protect our pain and suffering as if it were God itself? That is a big question, that many of us need to answer for ourselves. What I can do is offer a snippet from my own personal healing journey.
In 2017 I had my moment of public suffering at the final round table discussion of the Future Church Summit (Mennonite Convention). I started shaking and crying after at least four people, in the final hours of the summit, had looked me in the eye and talked about how “the changes” to the church made them afraid for their children. Their projections of fear and sexually predatory behavior, probably from their own interpretation of the cross, broke me open. I began shaking and crying, reliving and retelling the story of my traumatic coming out at Goshen College. I said to one of the people at my table, who had talked about being afraid for his children, “I don’t know what to say to you. You say I make you afraid for your children, but what was I supposed to do? If I didn’t come out, I was going to die. Now, all I want, is to be at the table. I am not a threat to you.” I then left the table and cried in the arms of one of the few queer pastors.
I have no idea if my public suffering transformed anything within the white man that was at our table. But, a few months later, I received an email from the pastor, who held me during my breakdown. They told me that they had a previously scheduled trip to a more conservative congregation and that their host had written them before the conference saying that she wanted to have a conversation with them. When the pastor arrived their host said something to the effect of, “You know I was planning to talk to you about your sexual orientation, but I was at Addie’s table and her breakdown transformed something in me. All I want to do now is give you a message of acceptance.”
So, yes suffering can be redemptive when those in positions of power allow a shattering, a heart opening and a transformation. However, we don’t know when or how that will happen. My vulnerability cracked something open in that particular woman, on that particular day and for that, I am glad. But, that is not MY story of redemption. It is hers.
My story of healing will hit a major narrative arc this coming summer, during the Mennonite Convention in Kansas City. Some of you may be there and I wish you all my love, but I will not be going. If I am to turn my internal suffering tree into a healthy one, I cannot, at this time, go to a conference that does not affirm my sacredness from the pulpit, from those in the greatest positions of power. My tree is not strong enough, at this time, to withstand the projections, without becoming a suffering tree.
So, on the weekend of the Mennonite Convention in Kansas City, I am a going to be getting married, instead. I am committing myself to an amazing, generous and wise soul. A person who has her own symbols and dieties from her own tradition and spiritual path. I once asked her, “You have done so many things and been so many things. How do you integrate it all?’ She said, “I just decided that all of it was sacred.” I know that while we disagree and fight sometimes, she has oriented herself towards the sacredness of all parts of me and herself. This is the only context for a healthy relationship and a container for the ongoing reconciliation work needed in long-term relationships and within our own psyches.
In working towards reconciling the cross, I have discovered that it is not so much what the symbol is, but what it means to an individual/group and how it is being used. For me, the relationship that provides me with the best container to do my internal cross work, is with a person who isn’t a Christian.
You all may have guessed by now that I am a Universalist. It would be quite hard to be in a relationship with a Jewish/Buddhist partner, in a healthy way, if I wasn’t. But, I am not the type of Universalist that shies away from saying things like, “Jesus”, “the cross”, “communion,” “resurrection,” “holy,” “God” and other names and words that often stay buried in liberal circles, so as not to trigger anyone. I am the type of Universalist that seeks to own my history for better or worse. This means that I must own my Christian/Mennonite lineage and yes, even the cross, as much as I have hated it, in the past.
What makes me a Universalist is my lens. It is what I go looking for as I dig into my own history and listen/learn the stories of others. I am looking for bridges and connections, for what it means to be human, while still honoring the uniqueness of each individual, tribe and group. The reconciliation that I long for is one where we come to see each other’s unique paths, symbols and experiences as sacred; where “the other” is not feared, triggering projection, dominance and violence, but rather embraced for the unique contribution to humanity and all beings, everywhere. This is what I am ultimately am aiming for as I reconcile the cross, within myself and my history, in an attempt to reclaim my soul and symbols.
For now, the path of healing leads away from denominational spaces that do not celebrate and affirm such an essential part of who I am, from the pulpit. I remain open to seeing where this interpretation of the cross takes me and anyone else, in the future.