The War on the Cross

History/Bridgeman Images).
Bridgeman Images. Archaeology Magazine

Christians frequently ask me why Jewish people struggle with the image of a cross. My response is always the same, “It’s the history attached to the cross that gives Jewish people a reason to eschew this symbol sacred to Christians.” Who is responsible for this theological war waged on the New Covenant significance of the cross?

In the past 200 years, Christians have shouldered the sign of the cross in their wars on so-called infidels. Even today, followers of Jesus brandish the cross at political events. Onlookers are led to believe the Christian message is in full support of various civic causes-good and bad-when the cross is displayed at these protests.

Hence, there has been a war on the cross in ancient Christian history. This same confusion regarding the biblical significance of the cross is apparent when evangelicals glue the cross symbol to contemporary secular political aspirations.

To elaborate on this pressing question uttered by Jewish people, I authored an article in 2016. I used the subtitle “The Roots of the Problem of the Cross in the Eyes of Jewish People.”

In this short piece, l focused on the torrid history of the medieval Crusades. Recently I revised this composition and added additional insights.

In this revised article, I am mostly concerned with several parallels of the Crusader mentality leaking into modern evangelical Christianity’s political stance. The imagery of the cross as the vehicle of God’s spiritual redemption is distorted by a cadre of Christians. Sadly, these actions confuse many Jewish and non-Jewish people.

The Cross Appears Where It Should Not Be

For the past 5-6 years, the cross symbol has appeared at political rallies as a Christian stamp of approval of an event, a candidate, or a political ideology. Zealous Christians are hijacking the cross imagery for their purposes. In their patriotic fervor, the protestors seem unaware of the military stigmas attached to the cross from the Crusaders.

For example, at the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building, both peaceful and militant evangelicals wielded the cross as they protested the national vote that elected Joe Biden as president. From a well-researched article on Christian nationalism from the Joint Baptist Committee, we learn:

One of the most ubiquitous symbols on January 6 was the Christian cross. Latin crosses are “the principal symbol of Christianity around the world,” according to the Supreme Court, and, as used on January 6 by the insurrectionists, one of the clearest displays of Christian nationalism.

They [participants at January 6 event] erected an 8-foot wooden cross in Freedom Plaza (at the White House end of Pennsylvania Avenue) and another 8-foot tall cross at the Capitol that became disturbingly iconic after the crowd prayed around it

The Cross is Used to Send a Message It Should Not Give

I embrace the American freedom to express one’s political views. Nonetheless, I am stunned at how the flagrant use of the biblical symbol of divine pardon is thoughtlessly attached to extreme right-wing politics. For further information on the appearance of Christian symbolism at the January 6 event, click here.

How can the redemptive symbol of Christianity be conjoined with any form of partisan politics? Does any political group possess the authority to utilize the crucifix icon to support their cause?

The way I see it, when a political faction adopts the image of the cross in connection with their viewpoint, this action implies their perspective is THE authoritative Christian way of thinking. The message is clear: Any faithful follower of Yeshua (Jesus) will and should back any ideology that commanders the cross to bolster their outlook.

This misuse of the cross to support a secular political effort is reminiscent of the militant Crusaders who affixed the cross to their shields as they rampaged across Western Europe.

Need I say modern evangelical patriots are NOT determined to harm anyone as the Crusaders did. Nevertheless, when the cross is displayed at an event where government property is destroyed, attacks on law enforcement personnel take place, and anger is unleashed on dissenters, how is the redemption promise of the Messiah communicated?

My title, “The War on the Cross,” describes how the misuse of the cross by followers of the crucified Messiah clouds our salvation declaration. Rather than zero in on those who reject the good news of salvation, believers in Jesus need to discern how we can be the ones making war on the message of the death of the Suffering Servant.

A Brief Background on the Antisemitism of the Crusades

The year 1096 is the year the First Crusade launched from northwestern Europe, destined for the Holy Land. James Carroll, the author of Constantine’s Sword, records that the Crusaders’ first clash did not occur in Jerusalem but in the Rhineland. 

Distancing Medieval Religious Figures from Antisemitism

Those who absolve the religious figures of the Middle Ages from the charge they issued the Crusades against the Jewish people will point to a significant fact: Pope Urban II only announced the call for a Crusader army to liberate the Holy Land, occupied by Muslims since 638. He did not mandate the Crusaders to go after the Jewish people. He was solely fixed on wresting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim invaders and placing the holy shrine back into the hands of Christians.

Though most Jewish people do not embrace the redemptive message of the cross, their cringing at the sign of the cross is based more on history than on rejecting the theological significance of a symbol sacred to Christians.

Louis Lapides

Nevertheless, the Crusaders allowed their armies to be infiltrated with non-Christian barbaric mercenaries who enjoyed the sport of combat, whoever the enemy was. To play down the antisemitism of the Crusaders, some historians argue this motley crew affixed themselves to the Pope’s armies, who were responsible for the attacks on the Jewish residents of northwestern Europe and the Holy Land.

In contrast, the history of the Crusades records that the Pope and the bishops tried to protect the Jewish people in the local towns from the Crusader mobs.

Placing Responsibility on Medieval Religious Figures for Antisemitism

Counter to these religious authorities’ well-intentions, we cannot ignore the influence of religious heads who adhered to a theology of contempt towards the Jewish people during these times.

For example, Peter the Venerable (1092-1156 AD), abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, pronounced his disdain on the Jewish people during the time of the Crusades:

Yes, you Jews. I say, do I address you; you, who till this very day, deny the Son of God. How long, poor wretches, will ye not believe the truth? Truly I doubt whether a Jew can be really human…. I lead out from its den a monstrous animal, and show it as a laughing stock in the amphitheater of the world, in the sight of all the people. I bring thee forward, thou Jew, thou brute beast, in the sight of all men

Mark Whitehead and Bert Spann, “Introduction,” Having Our Head, Heart, Hands, and Feet ALL IN for Jesus Christ, 1st ed., Mark Whitehead and Bert Spann (2018) 30.

Let me ask: How can church authorities call for the Jewish people to be protected during the Crusades while, at the same time, other so-called Christians are preaching that the Jewish nation is to be punished for rejecting the Jewish Messiah?

This anti-Jewish theology declared the Jewish people serve as “witness people” to the judgment of God. This tirade against the Jewish inhabitants of Europe soon seeped into the minds of everyday followers of the Messiah. This is especially true of the townspeople who aided the Crusaders-a mixed horde of barbarians, mercenaries, and professing Christians.

So the Crusaders and Christian masses were armed with more than swords, clubs, and firebrands. They possessed a belief system that weaponized Christian theology and empowered them to act as God’s representatives to carry out His alleged anger on innocent Jewish men, women, and children. How appalling!

Like our present-day evangelical zealots, the biblical message of the cross is distorted and conflated with other perspectives that cloud God’s gift of eternal life.

The Intended Theological Meaning of the Cross

The New Covenant intends for the cross to signify God’s instrument on which His Son died to bring redemption to the world. The God of Israel declared war on sin through the atonement Yeshua accomplished in His death.

The Declaration of War on Sin Through the Cross

John 3:14-15 states:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the cross], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15 ESV).

God intended for His Son to be lifted on a Roman cross to make atonement for us. This was never Rome’s intention. Rome used the cross to punish zealots who rebelled against the state.

Consider the two bad actors crucified alongside Yeshua. Matthew 27:38 in the ESV suggests these two individuals were “robbers.” This translation agrees with most Scripture versions which call them “outlaws” (NET).

However, the Greek word λῃσταί used in Matthew 27:38 can also describe the individuals crucified adjacent to Yeshua as “revolutionaries, insurrectionists, guerrillas” (BDAG, 594). I believe the NLT chooses the more accurate phrase “revolutionaries” to depict these two criminals.

Why bring this up? Though Yeshua was charged with an act of insurrection, He was never in alignment with these political activists.

Yes, throughout the trial of Yeshua, He is continually charged with an act of insurrection. Why? This is the only charge that justifies the Romans to put Him to death. To them, He is a rebel against Rome who makes Himself out to be “the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:11, 29, 37). He must be executed as a zealot. We know this is a false charge. Yeshua is not a threat to Rome. He is only a threat to sin, death, and the evil one.”

Yeshua makes Himself crystal clear as to His intentions:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36 ESV).

Rather than die as a martyr or revolutionary, Yeshua portrayed His death as a means to provide eternal life to His followers:

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
(Matthew 16:21 ESV). See also Matthew 17:23; 20:19. Jesus prophesied He would die at the hands of those who opposed Him, and then He would be raised and enter His heavenly glory.

“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40 ESV). Yeshua says nothing to lead us to think His death is the start of a political upheaval.

“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (Luke 24:25–26 ESV).

The prophet Isaiah said of the Suffering Servant:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV).

The true insurrectionist was Barabbas (Matthew 27:16). He was set free in exchange for Yeshua. This political upstart and murderer (Mark 15:7) was released so the Suffering Servant could take on Himself our rebellious sins.

If Yeshua were the one set free by Pilate, the political revolutionary Barabbas would have died alongside his other two compatriots. As a result, we would die in our sins without hope.

The Declaration of War on the Cross by Sinful Behavior

Perhaps you can understand my disillusion when I see the sign of the cross appear at political gatherings. At these conclaves, the cross sign is joined with denouncements against the government. I hear the voice of the King of Kings saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. Don’t revise the cross upon which I died to be used as a support for your political causes. I am not your Barabbas.”

When I see the cross paraded at a political rally, I fail to see of death of Jesus for our sins. What message are these cross-carrying evangelicals communicating to a world needing the salvation Yeshua offers? I do not see a clear message of God’s love through Yeshua’s death on the cross at these gatherings. Rather, I observe “Jesus Saves” signs comingled with anti-government aspirations. The result is confusion and a subtle declaration of war on the clear message of salvation offered via the cross.

Photo by Madison Muller for Sojourners.

The symbol of the cross for followers of Yeshua is not a token of flaming anger towards government policies. Instead, the gift of God’s love chimes true for all people exposed to the New Covenant declaration:

“For  God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16–17 ESV).

The Attitude Of Jewish People During the First Crusade

Regarding the cross, a surviving Hebrew chronicle, “Mainz Anonymous” recounts the events of 1096 A.D. faced by Jewish people:

There first arose the princes and nobles and common folk in France, who took counsel and set plans to ascend, and to “rise up like eagles” and to do battle and to “clear a way” for their journeying to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and reaching the sepulcher of the Crucified, “a trampled corpse” “who cannot profit and cannot save, for he is worthless.”

They said to one another: “Behold we travel to a distant land to do battle with the kings of that land. ‘We take our souls in our hands’ in order to kill and subjugate all those kingdoms that do not believe in the Crucified. How much more so [should] we kill the Jews, who killed and crucified him.”  They taunted us from every direction. They took counsel, ordering that either we turn to their abominable faith or they would destroy us “infant to suckling.” They – both princes and common folk – place an evil sign upon their garments, a cross.

(“The Crusades, The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, vol. 4, pg, 378). 

From this Hebrew chronicle, we take away several observations about the relationship between Jews and Christians around the time of the First Crusade. 

First, though Pope Urban II called forth the Crusades, the “princes and nobles and common folk” consulted together to attack the Jewish people. There was a grassroots movement among the masses to take the Pope’s order to regain the Holy Land and twist it into a justification for a sideways war on the Jews.

Second, the Jewish people are characterized as those who killed the Lord Jesus. In contrast, the New Testament focuses solely on the first-century Jewish leaders as the actors who plotted the death of Yeshua along with the Romans. Still, the standard Christian belief throughout most of Christian history held that all Jews, even over a  thousand years past the death of Jesus, are still guilty of Jesus’ death.

Third, it is apparent from this account the Jewish people had a strong aversion to faith in Yeshua as the promised Messiah. He is disparaged as a “trampled corpse” instead of a resurrected Redeemer. Jesus is seen as worthless to the Jews of the Rhineland. He cannot save or profit anyone.

We can understand this declaration by Jewish people who observed the horrors of the Crusades. Catch the joint commitment uttered by these Crusaders: ‘‘We take our souls in our hands’ to kill and subjugate all those kingdoms that do not believe in the Crucified. How much more so [should] we kill the Jews, who killed and crucified him”.

Why would any Jewish person want to embrace the messianic faith after it fell into the hands of these murderers who distorted the gospel into a message of “conversion or death”?

Does any Christian seriously believe these Crusaders were true representatives of the faith Yeshua taught?  Yes, they used the sign of the cross in their war efforts. Yet their actions actually declared war on the cross.

Therefore, we can understand the final statement in this chronicle: “They – both princes and common folk – place an evil sign upon their garments, a cross.”

Perhaps the readers of this article have gained a deeper insight as to why some Jewish people shy away from the cross. To correct this misconception, followers of Yeshua are to demonstrate to our Jewish friends the difference between the hatred directed at them by those wielding the cross and the biblical message of God’s love for them and all people through the death of Yeshua.

The Crusaders distorted the redemption message of the cross with militancy and antisemitism. Contemporary evangelicals distort the saving proclamation of the cross with militant activism and political extremism. Both sucessfully fail to to convey the message of God’s loving grace offered in His Son Yeshua

Louis Lapides

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