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The Cross Amidst a Plague: Choosing Cruciformity Over Self-Interest

May 27th, 2020 | 12 min read

By William E. Boyce

In the weeks leading to Easter, Americans found themselves, religious or not, on an enforced fast from normal life. The liturgical feelings associated with Lent became the daily realities of uneasiness, mourning, fear. There are the real personal fears, the grinding fear of exposure, the concerns about unemployment and food security. As well, there are the real fears related to the moral choices that our policymakers are facing: how to balance the preservation of health and the preservation of the economy, or the government’s concern to protect health nationwide and the freedom of lower-level institutions to best navigate local needs.

As a pastor, I am interested in seeing how Christians respond to these fears, as our responses are directly related to basic Christian discipleship. In our journey toward holiness, we are constantly faced with a choice: will we choose the path of self-preservation or self-gift? COVID-19 provides Christians a particularly pointed opportunity to reflect on the moral reasoning of the cross. Simply put, the question of quarantine is an opportunity to explore cruciformity.

Cruciformity and the Christian Story

A popular sentiment behind the push for re-opening the economy pits the cure against the disease in a game of comparison: if the cure is worse than the disease, what good are we truly doing? The trouble with such comparisons is that there is no way to properly adjudicate so many competing interests — how do we decide which is more important, the viability of a local restaurant which employs local residents, the long-term impact of investments, or the value of healthcare practitioners?

No easy answers. Yet, reflecting on the relationship between disease and cure from a Christian standpoint opens opportunities to explore the proper place of the cross in the midst of everyday life, enabling us to face our daily fears with courage and purpose. Christians rehearse this relationship every Sunday: the story of Jesus teaches us that a cruel disease necessitates a costly cure.

Commenting on 1 Peter 4:3, John Calvin describes sin in words that land hauntingly well during a pandemic: “the contagion is so spread and diffused through the whole human race, that the whole community appears infected with innumerable evils, and that no member is free or pure from the common corruption.”

Sin is the infection that warps the landscape of creation, perverting every relationship and threatening to suck the life out of every good gift from our Father. It is a cruel disease, indeed. What intervention can stand against its terrible onslaught? Only the death of the Son of God: “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10) It is a costly cure, but it works, as demonstrated by the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. This reveals a simple but deep truth: the path to the cure involves surrendering self-interest and opting for self-sacrifice. The shape of the cure is cruciform.

Cruciformity and the Christian Life

Possessing a cruciform cure to a cruel disease, Christians are invited to follow their Master in this pattern of self-denial: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”(Mark 8:34–35) This story habituates Christians to endure long-suffering and anticipate future rewards in all aspects of our current lives.

As Herman Bavinck writes, “To imitate Jesus is to enter into fellowship with his suffering, with his path of passion.” (Herman Bavinck, Ethics, vol. 1, 322) And yet, for disciples, such self-emptying ought to bring joy, because taking up our crosses connects us ultimately to the triumph of Christ, as “sharing in Christ’s suffering is a surety of our participation in his glory. Thus, there is also a participation in his resurrection and life, even for our mortal bodies.” (Bavinck, Ethics, 325)

From this vantage, the posture of Christians in the world is cruciform: outwardly brought low by the cost of discipleship but inwardly uplifted by the hope of resurrection. The gospel story invites Christians to see all of life as a recapitulation of the Lent-to-Easter drama: our present crosses are the very thing leading to our future resurrection.

Cruciformity in daily discipleship then shapes mission, as Christians are impelled outward in sacrificial acts of love. Indeed, “the suffering of Christians in the church is, like Jesus’ suffering, vicarious; it is undertaken with and for the community for the benefit of others.” (Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 179) Being and becoming cross-shaped involves patiently enduring the suffering of being spent in the world, for the sake of the world, giving up our personal rights to see others come to Christ.

Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 10, Michael Gorman writes that such cruciform love “seeks the advantage, not of self but of others, both individuals and the community as a whole. It is this kind of love that brings glory to God in the most mundane activities of life — eating and drinking — and indeed in all of life’s many dimensions.” (Gorman, Cruciformity, 233) Thus, love must be wedded to wisdom, as the obligations of neighbor-love are more art than science. Here too, Jesus acts as our model: “Always his own master, he remained faithful, balancing righteousness and love, sorrow and joy” (Bavinck, Ethics, 337). This is the invitation of Christian discipleship: to embody a cruciform wisdom that enables us to thread the needle between various competing interests, motivated by a cruciform love that puts our neighbors first.

Cruciformity and Christian Responses to COVID-19

The vast majority of us do not hold a political office tasked with making crucial policy decisions regarding shelter-in-place orders. Although social media tempts us to forget this reality, for most of us, the most pressing question is not “what policy do I think is the most appropriate?” but rather, “how does Christ call me to serve in light of whatever policy we get?” Far from being a saccharinely pietistic question, this cruciform question ties together the Easter story, the Christian life, and our personal callings in this time. It is an urgent, evangelical, sacrificial question. We are not simply quarantined, and therefore freed from our obligations to love our neighbors and bless the world; our cruciform calling is clarified due to the restrictions we face.

Similarly, the call to end restrictions, to re-open the economy and get back to normal, cannot be made simply for our own comfort; again, cruciformity calls us to seek the good of our neighbors above our own self-interests. Both situations require wisdom; both require love. For average Christians, we have a unique opportunity to focus on the fundamentals of the faith, striving to accomplish small things with excellence, practicing resurrection in an era of boredom, fear, and contention.

What does cruciform love look like in real time? Michael Gorman offers a few preliminary observations:

  • Cruciform love is others-centered and community-driven.
  • Cruciform love motivates people with status, privilege, power, and/or money to be downwardly mobile.
  • Cruciform love attends to peoples’ emotional and physical needs as well as their spiritual needs.
  • Cruciform love is enduring.

With this description as a starting point for our creative, cruciform imagination, at least five practices emerge:

Assess staying home through the lens of wise neighbor-love.

Taking cruciformity as a crucial component of moral reflection, fundamental questions about staying home include, is my desire to get back to normal rooted in self-interest, or the flourishing of others? If I am called to endure suffering for the sake of others, or sacrifice certain personal rights, am I willing to submit to this calling? Wisdom takes account of local realities. Wisdom acknowledges that human health involves more than staying away from germs, but engaging in the full realm of mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. With these considerations, the Christian is able to combine wisdom with self-sacrificial love to put the needs of our actual neighbors first.

For some, this will be putting up with more noise from the neighbors, showing patience to upstairs or downstairs neighbors with kids at home and understanding that restless, youthful energy knows no boundaries. For others, this might be waking up earlier to go for a run, to allow others to use local trails at peak times. While there is no cookie-cutter outcome, these are a few examples of how cruciformity can assess staying at home without it becoming merely a virtue signal, a political rallying cry, or a paid (or for many, unpaid) vacation.

Practice solidarity and subsidiarity through direct economic help to our neighbors.

In areas where many may be struggling financially and government bailouts are hard to come by, Christians can make a profound impact for their neighbors through direct charitable aid. In Catholic Social Teaching, solidarity signals a preferential option for the poor – what Gorman terms being “downwardly mobile.” Subsidiarity means that those closest to a problem can make the biggest impact. Put together, these call for cruciform wisdom and love in the arena of finances. As David Ingold demonstrates, there are multiple ways of finding local needs (subsidiarity) and meeting them with our own finances sacrificially (solidarity). Such sacrifice, in a culture of materialism and an age of shortage, is gloriously cruciform.

Create community even in the midst of distance

Zoom has been a stable presence in my community since the shut-down. Though an impressive resource for connection, more and more of us are succumbing to “Zoom fatigue” as the weeks go on. The more time we spend speaking across a screen, the more we realize that digital connection is a poor replacement for in-person social interaction. The pandemic has elicited in the hearts of many a craving for community, opening up interesting opportunities for Christians to creatively seek safe, yet personal, spaces. This fits well with Gorman’s description of cruciform love being both comprehensive and enduring.

One of the activities I’ve enjoyed with my neighbors over the past several weeks is socially-distanced beers in my front yard. Every Sunday afternoon, the guys on my street are invited to the most humorously inhospitable event I’ve ever hosted: bring-your-own-beer and bring-your-own-chair. As cold as it sounds, these events have been an unexpected blessing to me and my neighbors, offering us a weekly opportunity to slow down and connect with the real people who share our street. As an introvert who struggles with small talk, these meetings are a small way to practice cruciformity, foregoing some personal comfort to create needed community.

Cultivate a robust interiority of faith.

In his profound essay “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” Alexander Schmemann addressed college students on the big-picture question of living as Orthodox Christians in American culture in the late ‘60s. His encouragement: live as separate from American culture, yet live for the sake of American culture. In order for these students to transform the culture through their faith, Schmemann saw the need for them to first have a faith powerful enough to transform. To be fit for the work of mission required

the strength­ening of our personal faith and commitment. Whether priest or layman, man or woman, the first thing for an Orthodox is not to speak about Orthodoxy, but to live it to his full capacity; it is prayer, it is standing before God, it is the difficult joy of experiencing ‘heaven on earth.’ This is the first thing, and it cannot be reached without effort, fasting, asceticism, sacrifice, or with­out the discovery of that which in the Gospel is called the ‘narrow way.’

During this societal shut-down, many American Christians find themselves with unexpected time on their hands. This is an excellent time to develop a rich spirituality, fit for mission in secular America, as Schmemann envisions.

However, the consumerism of America impacts our quest for spirituality, and Christians have no shortage of opportunities to gorge themselves on spiritual content. Organizations have scrambled to provide vast quantities of free material for individuals to consume, but this glut of resources becomes itself a source of burnout; as Mary Townsend observes, “It’s so much, and it’s so generous. It’s also all too much.” There is a subtle difference between a robust interiority of faith and a faith fattened by binge-listening to theology lectures.

Instead of simply loading hours of content onto a playlist, why not rather spend one hour in silent reflection? I suspect that for many, learning to be alone with ourselves and quiet before God would be a more challenging, and therefore more fruitful, exercise. If faith is a prerequisite for mission, and mission requires us to suffer, then we need a hearty spirituality. Simple spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, and Scripture reading, acclimate us to suffering and protect us from one of the primary temptations of postmodern culture: “the cardinal mistake of believing that a good must be invalid if it leads to suffering or destruction.” (Taylor, Sources of the Self, 519)

Regain family worship as a political act.

With churches closed and services online, the household has automatically become the sanctuary. This weekly rhythm of worshipping from home teaches us the importance of an old Puritan ideal: family worship. Jonathan Edwards said that “a Christian family is as it were a little church and commonwealth by itself…” (“Living to Christ,” Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, Works 10 (1992):577.) In calling the household a commonwealth, Edwards infused family worship with political significance. Family worship is a political act that at once undermines the impulses of two popular brands of politics in America: statism and individualism.

As Andy Crouch writes, the coronavirus pandemic allows us to “reclaim the household as the fundamental unit of personhood, the place where we all are best known and cared for.” When the household operates as this unit of personhood, it tells the State that it is not Lord; it also tells the individual that he or she is not Lord. We could classify the current debate concerning the economic shutdown as a tug-of-war between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual. Family worship offers an alternative: finding individual personhood in the midst of a community where each is called to serve the other. If “cruciform love is others-centered and community-driven,” family worship is the political act most needed in this national conflict of political visions.

In the midst of this crisis, Christians are called to cruciformity, employing the logic of the cross instead of indulging the appetite of self-preservation. The pathway of Christian discipleship calls us to suffer, a posture that must shape our preferences and our responses to the policies that we get. Such suffering is indeed painful, but take heart: the cross leads to the empty tomb. We need not fear being spent in this world, because we know that this is not the last world.

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