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The Significance of the Cross

Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. -Luke 9:23

The church—and Christians—doesn’t talk about the cross as much as it used to. You used to hear Christians talk about “bearing their cross” usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Perhaps there was a neighbor who wasn’t neighborly or a teenage daughter who was rebellious. “It’s just a cross I have to bear,” the complacent saint would say. This isn’t anything like what Jesus meant when he spoke to would-be followers.

To first-century disciples, the cross represented public torture and execution. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes against Rome. It is possibly the most cruel and violent form of execution ever devised, designed to kill slowly and tortuously and very publicly. The condemned were typically made to carry their own cross the the place of execution, so when Jesus says his follower must “take up his cross daily,” he has in mind only one destination: death.

Jesus tells his followers they must embrace their own death every day. In this way, they will always be prepared to die if need be for what they believe. For the way of Jesus’ followers is the way of love. They are to be like Jesus, offering themselves up to torture and death to secure life and liberty for others. They are not to use violence or try to force people to comply with their demands. They can persuade. They can reason. They can do good works. They can pray for their enemies. But they cannot curse. They cannot bribe. They cannot use force or coercion. At times, when the church has been politically ascendant, this command has been forgotten, and Christians have even tortured and killed other Christians in the name of Christ.

There is nothing Christlike about the use of force. Jesus never compelled; he invited. He spoke out harshly against the oppressors, especially when they pretended to speak for God, but he did not attack them physically, and he did not resist when they attacked him. He expects his followers to behave as he did. He urges his followers to make a point of daily facing their own death and assures them that death is not final. This attitude of love with nothing to lose is what has made the church uniquely powerful in the world. It is a power not of force or violence but of totally committed people who will speak out against injustice and let themselves suffer and die for what is right.

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Original Intent

My Facebook friends will not be surprised that I have been reading The Federalist Papers. I’ve been posting favorite quotes, mostly from Alexander Hamilton, who wrote so many quotable passages. I had never read them before, and I find the experience quite surprising and interesting.

One surprise was to learn that Hamilton opposed keeping a standing army, what today we would call a professional military. He considered it a danger to individual freedom for the government to have professional soldiers at its command. He reasoned that since soldiers are everywhere admired and respected, they would gain increasing influence in politics and eventually carry out a coup, overthrowing the duly elected government. Indeed, we have seen this scenario play out in fledgling democracies across the world. As long as the citizens of a country were armed, there was therefore no need to keep a professional military.

Of course, in Hamilton’s day citizens had access to the same arms as professional soldiers. Despite having guns, many armies still fought at close quarters with swords. Guns had to be reloaded through the muzzle after every shot. Volunteer artillery groups acquired their own cannons. Can you imagine a volunteer group of citizens today purchasing a long-range bomber or a nuclear submarine?

The nature of warfare has changed so much that it is no longer reasonable to expect that a well-armed citizenry could act as a sufficient deterrent against invasion from without or a military coup from within. Modern armies have access to weapons with far greater destructive capability than those available to citizens. The causes which impelled the constitutional framers to insist on limiting the government’s authority to control private ownership of arms no longer exist.

Since the Second Amendment can no longer serve its original intent, it should be repealed by amending the Constitution. However, it would be political suicide for any politician to take up such a position, even if the aim was to place gun ownership on a more sane Constitutional footing.

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Vain Repetitions

I was reading in Tremendous Trifles by G. K. Chesterton and twice came across places where he referred to repeated patterns (as, for example, on wallpaper) as vain repetitions. The phrase, of course, comes from Matthew’s gospel, just before Jesus introduces a model prayer that has come to be called “The Lord’s Prayer”—though it would be more accurate to call it “The Disciples’ Prayer.”

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. —Matt 6:7 (KJV)

It’s hard to find in the Bible any examples of people petitioning God for the same thing more than once. Abraham’s prayer for Lot comes to mind. Elijah’s prayer for rain. Jesus’ prayer to skip the cross if possible. Paul’s prayer to be delivered from a thorn in the flesh. Paul, in particular, tells his readers that he prayed three times, as if it were something extraordinary.

It is the practice of heathens, says Jesus, to repeat the same prayer over and over in hopes of finally being heard by distant and disengaged deities. But his disciples have a God who is also a Father, one who anticipates their needs before they even ask, eager to act on their behalf. To him they can just pray simply, without affectation, without elaborate reasonings, without self-justification.

Just tell him what you want; he already knows anyway.