Essay: Violence and the Cross an Analysis

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Violence and the Cross

An Analysis of Migliore's Comments on Violence and the Cross

Daniel Migliore comments upon the significance of Christ's violent death on the Cross in relation to a world already steeped in violence. The death of Christ is described as being an exercise in atonement, as being the ultimate expression of penitential sacrifice. Artists since the High Renaissance depicted it in its most gruesome aspect, highlighting the suffering that Christ underwent for "our sins." It is a violent image of sacrifice that has had deep and profound theological implications for many religious, from St. Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to Padre Pio (who, interestingly -- and like St. Francis -- is said to have received the stigmata -- Christ's wounds in his hands). Migliore asserts that Christ's suffering was "necessary" (189) because the "world of our own making" (189) deemed it so: our world rejected Christ's love -- violently -- and yet Christ overcame that rejection through His resurrection and His faculty as Redeemer. As Migliore puts it, Christ descended into hell "for our sake" (189). This paper will show the theological, philosophical, and practical implications of such a supposition, from both a historical and contemporary point-of-view as well as from various stances and theological traditions.

My Beginning Stance

My beginning stance is similar to Migliore's, which is to say that Christian theology has always sparked a significant violent reaction from those opposed to it. Yet, throughout history, the "good news" of Christ has been spread despite fear of suffering. In fact, that history of suffering has been recorded by the Catholic Church in its martyrology, which has been sung at Prime (the first hour of chants sung by religious each day) for centuries as part of the divine office (officium divinum). The watershed years of the Church, as they could be called, when the blood of the Roman martyrs acted as a kind of watering, were some of the most violent times in Christian history. Christianity was not officially defended by the Roman Empire until the fourth century under Constantine, whose own conversion put an end to the persecution.

Nonetheless, persecutions have always followed Christianity, and faithful appear to have always accepted the fact, since the religion's founder was Himself persecuted "unto death." There are four marks of the Catholic Church -- it is one, holy, universal, and apostolic. A fifth mark of the Church, it has been said, is its persecution.

Historical Development

Migliore's point in "Violence and the Cross" is that our world of violence is like a kind of living hell. He uses the passage of Scripture that states Christ "descended into hell" to reinforce such an idea. While the historical, traditional interpretation of the passage does not quite apply to the context with which Migliore attempts to situate the discussion, it is a useful citation for the analogy he wishes to draw. Traditionally, of course, (that is to say, according to the early doctors of the Church, such as St. Athanasius) Christ's descent into hell was neither metaphorical nor abstract -- but very literal. The traditional narrative states that since the original sin of Adam and Eve, the gates of heaven were barred and the just souls went to limbo -- or, according to Dante, the first circle of hell. Christ descended into hell (to this circle of limbo) to free the just souls from their place and admit them into their inheritance -- heaven. Thus, this portion of the historical narrative that Migliore uses to emphasize his point that violence and Christianity are oppositional only aids him figuratively. The traditional interpretation actually carries with it, however, a concept that unites violence and Christianity in much the way that Migliore intends: Christianity is a religion of charity; violent rejection is the world's response. Christ must then descend (both literally and figuratively) into the hellishness of such violence to free and lead the souls of the just (those who desire God's charity) to the path of salvation.

Migliore cites John Calvin and Karl Barth for their interpretations of the scriptural passage but gives none of their own specific words, suggesting only that they believed Christ's descent into hell to "refer to the terrible example of loneliness and abandonment that Christ experienced for our sake on the cross" (189) -- and it is, indeed, this school of thought, as he calls it, to which he himself ascribes. There is no literality implicit in the scriptural account -- which also makes up a portion of the Nicene Creed. In fact, all traditional and explicit Christian dogma is replaced in Migliore's interpretation of Christ's suffering and death on the cross (which, according to medieval ecclesiology was the fulfillment of the sacrifice of the old law celebrated at the Passover -- Christ being the new Paschal Lamb, shedding His Blood before God, as a means of restitution and salvation, so that man may be with God in heaven).

Migliore, however, adopts a more modern approach to Christ's death, viewing it mainly in a social, economic, and political framework: Christ died 1) to expose the sinfulness and violence of our world, which keeps people enslaved, or in "bondage" (190); 2) to show us that love is better than hatred, that evil should not be repaid with evil; and 3) to open up a new path towards social unification, in which forgiveness is emphasized over violence. The lessons that Migliore attempts to define, in fact, are less spiritually-inspired than the medieval lessons that a scholastic like Thomas Aquinas would have offered with respect to Christ's suffering and death.

Scholasticism in the medieval world was concerned with the relationship between faith and reason, not the reconciliation of faith and the modern, unbelieving world. The Church of the Middle Ages, and even of Cervantes and Don Quixote preached of the redemptive value of suffering when united to Christ's suffering: it preached penance, which, when employed was a kind of re-direction of the one's own violent tendencies towards one's own baser half; it was a kind of ascetic elevation of the disposition that one such as St. Jerome of the Wilderness would have manifested: a life of mastering of the passions and redirecting of the will, energy, mind, and soul to God -- and uniting oneself to His suffering on the cross.

Migliore, on the other hand, glosses over such spiritual directives for a more social-sounding doctrine, one that is more about comfort than about suffering -- a kind of Christ suffered so that we may be comfortable doctrine. It has its place mainly in modern theology, which is built around the pacifistic, compromising social dogma of the ecumenical age.

Other Theological Perspectives

Violence and the Cross is a theme that has also found expression in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary -- a devotion, as the story goes, given to St. Dominic by the Mother of God in the early thirteenth century (in the age of faith also known as the High Middle Ages). The Sorrowful Mysteries employ the suffering and death of Christ as themes for meditation -- essentially calling for the faithful to dwell upon the mystery of violence and the cross.

Each mystery of the rosary, of course, carries with it an intention. The second Sorrowful Mystery, Christ's Scourging at the Pillar, for example, calls for the intention of mortification of the flesh -- the grace to subdue one's passions. The third Sorrowful Mystery, Christ's Crowning with Thorns, calls for the intention of the subdual of pride. In each Mystery, Christ sets the example. He mortifies his flesh, he allows himself to be crowned in mockery (and in pain). The Christian mysteries, therefore, do not reject the violence that the world subjects it to -- on the contrary, they embrace them.

Theology, after all, is, as James Evans says, the way in which "the church both asks and answers the questions, "Who are we, and where are we going?" (1). Evans links these questions to the predicament of the African-American Christian church, which, apparently, struggles to realize its own identity. No such problem existed in the medieval world. Individualization is largely a product of modern philosophy and modern times. Unity is widely proclaimed before truth, not truth before unity -- which was, generally, the condition laid down in the Middle Ages of the Church, particularly in what Holzhauser called the second, third, and fourth Ages of the Church (Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira), when the Church was unified and cohesive.

The martyrs of Holzhauser's Second Age of the Church (Smyrna) are praised for their sufferings and poverty and for irrigating the Church with their blood. Their sacrifices are not discounted are used as banners to extort forgiveness for an ancient Empire's crimes. Today's age, however, does not acknowledge the same sense of worth in poverty -- rather it identifies poverty as part of a social class struggle. Heaven through suffering (ala Christ on the Cross) is no longer the perspective; equality through class warfare is new interpretation from which… [END OF PREVIEW]

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