Friday, December 11, 2009

Misusing the Cross in Pastoral Care

Some rather challenging thoughts on the alleged pastoral misuse of the language of "bearing one's cross" from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

One universal demand which the church as an agency of counsel and consolation must meet is the need of men and women of all ages for help in facing suffering: illness and accidents, loneliness and defeat. What more fitting resource could there be than the biblical language which makes suffering bearable, meaningful within God's purposes, even meritorious in that "bearing one's cross" is a synonym for discipleship? Hosts of sincere people in hospitals or in conflict-ridden situations have been helped by this thought to bear the strain of their destiny with a sense of divine presence and purpose.

Yet our respect for the quality of these lives and the validity of this pastoral concern must not blind us to the abuse of language and misuse of Scripture they entail. The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus' constantly reiterated free choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus


TLF+ said...

"Alegged misuse" indeed. Yes, some of our suffering appears random and meaningless - "Unless you repent you will be just like those folks the tower fell on."

But "difficult family situations" are not a bearing of the cross against the "powers"? In a culture that says relationships are disposable and exalts personal comfort and convenience, to suffer the demands of loving committment is to take up one's cross - daily.

I understand what he's getting at - we can trivialize the cross. But we can trivialize it just as much by locating it only in the antics of activists while disdaining the mundane sufferings of "small" people seeking to honor the Great Commandment.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Tim.

I was very deliberate to add the word "alleged" as a qualifier for "pastoral misuse." And while I definitely see your points and want to affirm them, I still think that there's something correct about Yoder's distinction between the things that happen to us which we do not choose (which, from a pastoral perspective, should never be minimized as somehow unimportant or as lesser causes of suffering)and those things which we choose as disciples of Jesus yet which we could just as easily have said "no" to.

On the other hand, even if we grant the distinction Yoder makes, isn't it still possible to say: X or Y befell you and you had no choice about that. In that respect, it's true that you cannot say this is your cross to carry. But the way in which you freely choose to respond to X or Y can, indeed, exemplify faithful discipleship and thus what it means to 'carry one's cross' if such a free choice exemplifies Christlike virtue in the face of suffering, persecution, etc.

So Yoder is right that a difficult family situation is not, in and of itself, the cross of Calvary laid upon someone's shoulders. But the way in which a person responds to that difficult family situation could well be a fine example of what it means to deny one's self, take up one's cross, and follow Jesus.

At the same time, we must also be careful not to suggest that persons should stay in abusive situations as a mark of faithfulness, as though such suffering is a sharing in Christ's cross and thus 'meritorious.'