When Christ becomes Christa
The importance of a contextualization of the cross-event
By Arnfríður Guðmundsdóttir
Excerpts of a lecture presented at Wartburg Seminary, November 13, 2012
Full lecture here: When Christ becomes Christa
As a key symbol of the Christian faith, the cross symbolizes God’s participation in human suffering and death. An empty cross signifies, on the other hand, the resurrection, or the important message about the final victory of life, over suffering and death. When the cross is interpreted particularly in light of women’s experience, it signifies God’s compassion with women, who suffer, amongst other things, because of domestic and/or sexual violence. Sometimes this compassion (or co-suffering) is portrayed in a female body on the cross.
In the past the cross has sometimes been used to discourage people from resisting injustice. When the cross is understood as a symbol of kenosis of patriarchy, the self-emptying of male dominating power, the power of the cross becomes the power of love instead of the power of control.
For centuries women’s has been justified, based on the idea of its salvific meaning. Despite the abuse of theological arguments in order to justify women’s suffering, women have been able to experience Jesus’ solidarity with them not only in their suffering but also in their fight against unjust causes of their suffering. This is why the christological question, “Who do you say I am?” receives a response with yet another dimension, when answered from the perspective of women’s experience of suffering. Hence, the Christ who sided with women as “the oppressed of the oppressed” reminds us that also today the knowledge of God is to be discerned in the midst of suffering. By identifying with the suffering women, the foreigner, the deserted, the sick, and the social outcast of our time, we are identifying with Christ among us.[i] At the same time we are participating in God’s ongoing struggle against injustice, inequality, and oppression.
The power of the cross is not to be understood on the basis of our knowledge of power as control. The power of the cross is the power of life, as both unexpected and ongoing.
Christa – a Crucified Woman
Since the mid-seventies a number of images of a crucified female Christ (often referred to as Christa) have stimulated interesting discussions about contemporary interpretations of the passion story. Christa-figures have pushed for important discussions about the meaning of the contextualization of the Christ-event, especially the gender-question.
Christ as Christa liberates not by condoning the suffering of abused women, or proclaiming that there is an innate redemptive quality in it; but by being present with and sharing in the brokenness, identifying this as the priority for God’s healing love, Christ gives hope, empowers and enables the process of resistance.[ii]
Indifference is truly something we should worry about in our western societies. All of us have probably heard stories about people passing by, instead of helping those who have been assaulted or hurt and need help. Those stories remind us of the story of the good Samaritan, when the priest and the Levite saw him lying there “half dead” and decided to pass by without helping him (Lúk 10.30-37). Too often people do hesitate to intervene when they are witnessing violence of some sort taking place next door – because they don’t want to intrude on people’s privacy. They also hesitate to intervene when somebody is being bullied, maybe because they are afraid of risking being bullied themselves.
Compassion- to be able to feel with somebody, can be passive, meaning to express solidarity,to listen to and to offer to go along with the one who is in pain, which can prove invaluable for the one who feels left alone in his or her suffering. But compassion can also be active, encouraging resistance and not submission to injustice. We have examples of both in the gospel stories. This is why imitatio Christi, or to follow Christ’s example, can either mean to suffer with the suffering one (com-passio) or to stand up and resist, hoping that eventually justice will prevail. Sometimes we need to be creative in order to come up with effective ways to practice nonviolent resistance, like Jesus certainly was.
There has always been a strong tendency to silence women’s experience, particularly their experience of oppression and abuse. Churches and other faith communities have been slow in responding to the danger many women are faced with, due to violence and abusive behavior. Initiatives by large church communities have signaled an increasing awareness of the problem. As a follow-up to the Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988-1998, the World Council of Churches (WCC) decided to confront the challenge of violence directly, by establishing a Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace, (2001-2010).[iii] While the WCC focused on manifold expressions of violence, violence perpetrated against women and children was among their central concerns. Bishop Margot Kässmann in her book Overcoming Violence. The Challenge to the Churches in All Places: “The inability of churches to deal with domestic violence is one of clearest indicators of the urgency of a Decade to Overcome Violence for the churches.”[iv]
Following the WCC’s initiative, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), in its document Churches say ‘NO’ to Violence against Women. Action Plan for the Churches from 2002, called its member churches to act on behalf of violated women. By offering this contribution to the WCC decade against violence, LWF sought to direct the focus of the international church community to the effect violence is having on women in their home as well as in the church and the society at large. In the foreword to the document the General Secretary of LWF, Ishmael Noko, depicts violence against women as a theological problem, and not simply a social one. Noko writes: “When those who are victimized suffer, so does God. Let us work together to overcome all forms of violence that are an offense against God and humanity.”[v]
A cross from El Salvador was painted in memory of María Cristina Gómez. Here we see a close relationship between the cross event and the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the cross remains an example of one more victim of evil; of one more person who lost her/his life life for a good cause. That is why it is crucial to keep the close relationship between the cross and our hope for the final victory of life over death, good over evil.
María Gomez spent her life fighting for a better living conditions for women in El Salvador. She particularly cared about women who were victims of rape or suffered from domestic violence. Among other things, she taught them to read. Eventually Gómez was murdered by her opponents in the year of 1989. This cross is a sign of hope because of the story told by the pictures of the cross. It is a sign of hope for those who want to improve the living conditions of victims of violence and abuse. This is not only a story of the power of evil amongst us, and the sufferings caused by it; but a story of the power of non-violent resistence. It is also an encouragement to follow to imitatio Christi, not to give up, but to stand up and resist evil, holding on to our hope that good will eventually prove stronger than evil.
[i] Mt 25.31-46.
[ii] Quoted by Clague, see ibid., 106.
[iv] Kässmann, Overcoming Violence, 45.
[v] Churches Say ‘No’ to Violence against Women. Action Plan for the Churches, 5.