The other day a friend, who is not Mormon, asked me why there are no crosses on LDS buildings and why Mormons don’t wear crosses or hang them in their homes. It’s an interesting question considering the prevalence of the cross within Christianity. My friend was correct – the cross is completely absent from Mormon symbology and is practically absent from Mormon discourse as well.
Over the years I’ve heard many reasons for this dearth of the cross within Mormonism, but two reasons seem to stand out pretty consistently:
- The early Mormons essentially left their religious traditions behind, which were primarily Protestant, when joining the LDS Church. Most of those traditions used the cross and the cross was the traditional symbol for Christians; however, early Mormons were leaving that life behind and were accepting a “reboot” of Christianity. It makes sense that Mormons leaving a tradition would cease using many of the symbols of that tradition, and the cross symbolized an apostate Christianity being left behind.
- Mormons don’t choose to focus on the dying Christ, of which the cross is the preeminent symbol, but instead choose to focus on the living Christ.
In this post I’d like to focus on the second reason above: that Mormons choose to focus on the living Christ, illustrated by a comment by President Gordon Hinckley in the April 2005 Ensign’s First Presidency Message:
I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ. …
… The lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.
FairMormon also has a write-up about the issue. Whatever the reason for the absence of the cross, it seems that something important is missed when the powerful symbol of the cross is practically ignored. It was stated well in that quote by President Hinckley: “the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ”. Indeed it is, and it is precisely the cross as the method of Jesus’ death which brings incredible power to his atonement, rather than functioning as a device to move the plot from Gethsemane to his resurrection.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul says:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
In several of his letters Paul speaks of people being ashamed of the cross, offended by the cross, or the cross being foolishness. Why would he do so? What was it about the cross that was so scandalous?
To properly answer these questions one must consider the meaning of the cross to a 1st century Jew. Crucifixion was a brutal, horrific death, intended to inflict incredible pain upon the recipient. Prior to being crucified, the condemned person was first scourged. Tied to a pole in the nude, with their back and buttocks exposed, the first few lashes cut open the skin, exposing muscle and ligaments. Subsequent lashes tore into the muscle tissue, leaving a flayed back that would later rub against the wood of the crossbeam and pole. The condemned was forced to carry their crossbeam to the site of crucifixion, enduring the jeers and insults of the crowd there to heap shame upon them during their death. They then had nails driven through their wrists (some were tied) and feet, and were left to die a slow, painful death. What was particularly degrading was that the crucified person had to also serve as their own executioner, for it was when they finally gave up, no longer able or willing to struggle for air, that they would die. In effect, they weren’t even deemed worthy of an honorable execution by another human, but were left to die on a tree like a condemned beast.
Crucifixion occurred in a public location so as to demonstrate to all around exactly who held ultimate power. It was the death of brigands, traitors, rebels, and slaves (Roman citizens were not crucified but executed by beheading). It was such a shameful death that, under Jewish law, it brought the condemned under God’s curse:
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
In a world where pagan gods were powerful, not subject to a shameful death like crucifixion, and where the Jewish God condemned those who were crucified, it was truly foolishness for early Christians to insist that their Messiah and Son of God had been crucified. It is reasonable that so many were scandalized by such a claim; however, it is precisely that scandal which makes the cross so powerful as a symbol, for by dying on the cross (rather than some other death), Jesus took the image of God right to where there was darkness, pain, and suffering – to those marginalized by the injustice of the era’s domination systems. He, as the image of God, died the most shameful death of his day; however, in doing so he concentrated all of the Powers of this world – all the hate, enmity, strife, and derision – onto one man. He concentrated the domination systems of Roman justice and Jewish religious law upon one place and one man. He was killed as a traitor and, because he was judged a traitor, he thus suffered the condemnation of his kingdom. In other words, he focused all the domination systems and evils of human nature upon himself, at that one point. Perhaps that is why the author of 1 Peter said:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
1 Peter 2:24
It is the cross that represents the shame of this world. Jesus’ message and kingdom were condemned by the domination systems of his day, allowing the Powers of this world to render judgement upon Jesus’ work. It was the cross that drew all of these Powers together into one place where they could render such a judgement through the death of one person, but ultimately where they, themselves, would be condemned and judged through God’s raising of Jesus to his right hand. The cross drew the Powers together so their bankruptcy could be demonstrated through God’s vindication of Jesus. The cross was this world’s “no”, and the resurrection was God’s “yes”, to Jesus’ Way. It represented the condemnation by this world’s Powers of Jesus’ kingdom building, while Jesus’ vindication by God condemned the kingdoms and methods of those same Powers.
…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Indeed, the cross represents the dying Christ and was truly a shameful death, but it was through the dying Christ that the Powers of this world were drawn together and crushed – where we were redeemed from their grasp. We cannot have a vindicated Christ without a suffering and dying Jesus.
: Paul frequently speaks of the “powers” of this world, Sin and Death; and when he speaks of “sin” he almost never is referring to a list of things we do wrong, but rather a general power, which we cannot overcome by human action. Basically, he’s referring to the “natural man, which is an enemy to God”.
: Two approachable, wonderful books on this topic are Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by NT Wright, and The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and NT Wright.