I have had the opportunity to walk the famed Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Suffering.” This was the path walked by Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem on the morning as he headed to the cross. It’s not a lengthy route, half of a mile, from Rome’s Antonia Fortress to the execution site called Golgotha.
But what the walk lacked in distance, it more than made up for in intensity. Jesus carried his cross, at least the crossbeam portion, through narrow streets no wider than a modern urban alley. Onlookers and morning shoppers would have been so close to him, they could have reached out and touched him, his blood and sweat splattering on them as he went.
Roman soldiers, ablaze in red tunics and freshly polished armor, were constantly pushing the execution party onward. Cursing, kicking, sadistically laughing at the victims, jabbing and prodding with their spears from time to time.
Jesus would have been a mess, a bloody spectacle, which is exactly what the Romans would have wanted. They used these parades of brutality as a propaganda tool, a form of malicious advertising: “This is what we do to rebels in our Empire. This is what we do to those who refuse our authority and go against the grain,” they were saying.
So it was, that no one being sent to his or her crucifixion could do so with so much as a shred of dignity or subtlety. The one crucified was a marked man, a marked woman, and could not mask this fact by hiding in the crowd. Presciently, Jesus made this point to his would-be followers multiple times.
He turned to the massive crowds following him around the countryside, and speaking like the prophet he was, not the politician they hoped he would be, he challenged them. “If you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple,” he said.
This is a hard statement, shocking to the senses. Jesus was demanding — and “demanding” is the correct word — clarity. By means of a rhetorical confrontation, he was informing would-be followers that their beliefs, values, and direction should match those of the one they claimed to follow, and that it was a path that led, quite obviously, to the giving of one’s total self.
This challenge remains relevant today, for much that is called “Christian,” isn’t. It is nationalism mixed with capitalism. It is sanctified narcissism and naked ambition. It is crass moralizing and the baptizing of individualistic, white middle-class respectability. It is impulsively saying “God Bless America” in tough times, and applauding the empty pageantry of a few “prayer” breakfasts.
Jesus lived and taught humility, justice, mercy, peace, and generosity. He was marked — in life and death — by forgiveness, grace, and sacrificial, unselfish love. We can’t take his values, and organize ourselves in the opposite direction, and call it “Christian,” for a culture wearing a cross around its neck, is not necessarily walking the path of the cross.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.org.