From the various medals, statues and drawings adorning his car, it was obvious that my taxi driver was Hindu. He was driving me to Kuala Lumpur’s airport, through the vast oil palm plantations of Southern Malaysia.
Malaysia is a multicultural nation, and although the principal religion is Islam, it is common to see Hindu and Buddhist temples alongside the mosques in the towns and villages. There is even the occasional Christian church—although Christianity is very much a minority religion in Southeast Asia.
The older I get, the more tolerant I become of other people’s religious beliefs. I don’t mean that I accept them or even understand them, but I have learned that what to me might seem foolish or confusing can have deep meaning to someone from a different culture. For example, my Hindu taxi driver is an intelligent man, but I have to wonder what he sees in what to me are rather odd symbols of his faith. Like, for instance, the brightly colored statues of monkeys and elephants that adorn the temples. Or the small statue of a multi-armed goddess on the taxi’s dashboard.
To those who don’t know the story, it must seem odd to choose a tortured, bleeding corpse on a cross as the symbol of your faith.
I was thinking of asking the driver about this, when he neatly turned the tables on me. We passed a Christian church building decorated with a large cross on the wall. The cross had a gaudy plaster statue of the crucified Christ nailed to it, with bright red painted blood flowing from its hands, feet and side. Turning to me, the driver asked, “Excuse me, sir, but are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then could you tell me what you Christians see in that strange dead god?”
I had never thought of the symbol of the cross like that. To me, Jesus is very much alive. When you know the story, the cross becomes a powerful reminder of how Jesus suffered when he became the sacrifice for sin. But to someone who does not know the story, it must seem odd to choose a tortured, bleeding corpse hanging on Roman cross as the symbol of your faith.
Not always the cross
Today the cross is the universally recognized emblem of Christianity. It wasn’t always. In the early years of the Church, the cross was not widely used. Perhaps it was considered too horrific at a time when crucifixion was still a dreaded punishment in the Roman Empire. The first Christians identified themselves with the symbol of the fish, like the one you see on bumper stickers. The first letters of the Greek words that meant “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter) happened to form the Greek word for “fish” (ichthys).
It was an apt symbol, because Jesus told his followers they would be “fishers of men.” But in those early days, they had to “fish” in secret. It was dangerous to be a Christian, and the followers of Jesus resorted to secret signs and symbols to keep from exposing themselves unnecessarily. For example, a man sometimes drew half the picture of a fish in the sand while talking with someone. If the figure was recognized to signify more than an unconscious movement during the course of a conversation, the other person would complete the drawing, and the two believers would know they were safe with one another.
The Christians had to worship in secret, and visiting Christians could find their way to the worship center in the long underground passageways by simply looking at the fish on the wall pointing in the direction they were to go.
However, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the days of Constantine and crucifixion was abandoned as a punishment, the cross became more prevalent as a symbol of Christian faith. But during the first millennium, the Christ figure was usually portrayed fully clothed and very much alive, focusing on his triumphant resurrection rather than his ignominious death.
My Hindu taxi driver was not the only one who did not understand “our strange dead God.” In many parts of the world, where the representatives of Christ have not always behaved well, the cross is seen as a symbol of oppression and exploitation. And of course, there are now millions of people in the Western world who wear a cross as jewelry, but have no clear idea of what it symbolizes. Perhaps you have heard the story of the girl who asked a jeweler, “Do you have one of those cross things people are wearing?”
“Do you want a plain one, or one with the little man on it?” the jeweler asked.
Core of our faith
Even if a growing number of people see a cross as nothing more than another kind of trendy jewelry, the cross continues to hold its rightful place as a centerpiece in our places of worship. It adorns our Bibles, prayer books and hymnals. It represents forgiveness of sin and reminds us of what Jesus suffered to become our Savior.
But here’s something to think about. Does a cross actually convey the core meaning of our Christian faith? It might to us, since we know the whole story. Jesus didn’t remain on the cross or in the tomb. He rose from the dead and ascended to the Father, having conquered death and reconciled humanity to God as both the representative and substitute for all. But to many, like my taxi driver, the cross conveys the idea that we worship a “strange dead God.”
Many a church notice board reminds passersby that “the wages of sin is death.” Such constant emphasis on avoiding punishment for sin can give the impression that this is what our faith is all about.
But Christianity is not primarily about avoiding death. It is not even primarily about forgiveness of sin. It is about love and life. John 3:16 reminds us that God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son so that humanity could have—not just their sins forgiven—but true life, life with God. Forgiveness is part of the process, but even forgiveness springs eternal only from God’s heart of love, and it is God’s undying love that transforms people into brothers and sisters of Jesus, more than that, into friends of Jesus, and into the beloved children of the Father.
The world has never been so filled with fear, suffering and death. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Christianity stands for love and life. The cross will always be a symbol of the death of our Lord. But is there an equally recognizable way to represent the new life created for humanity in his resurrection and ascension to the Father? Artists’ attempts to show the risen Lord in all his glory inevitably fall far short of reality. But maybe there is a way.
Jesus said he would live in and through people who accept him as their Savior. They would follow him, their lives transformed, reflecting his love and life like a glowing candle in a dark room. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” said Jesus (John 13:35).
A life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustworthiness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) will undoubtedly be thought of as a bit strange. It is to be expected; people thought Jesus was strange, too. But Christian faith is best represented not when someone looks at a handmade symbol that might have different meanings to different people, but when those who believe it become living symbols of our “strange living God.”
Author: John Halford