Take up your cross and follow me.
That’s what Jesus tells his followers to do. Those words offer a basic summary of what the Christian life is about. Most of us translate “take up your cross and follow me” to be about making sacrifices—you know, not doing things that other people are allowed to do like smoke, drink, cuss, or have sex outside of marriage. Some of us also have the impression that we’re supposed to be persecuted, that if we’re not Jesusy enough to make people actively dislike us, then we’re not being a very good Christian.
But is that what Jesus really had in mind? I think there’s a much more radical meaning to this basic call that few Christians today are actually living out.
Jesus asked his followers to pick their cross and follow long before he was crucified. At the time, the cross wasn’t a symbol of anything related to Christianity or the spiritual life.
In fact, to the those who Jesus was speaking to, taking up a cross meant one thing: A cruel and brutal death at the hands of the Roman Empire. Every week, these men and women watched as condemned prisoners picked up their crosses and marched out of the city gates, condemned to die. They knew what Jesus meant. Jesus was asking them to become nothing, to embrace a reality in which they would lose their identity, lose their legacies, lose their self worth, lose their social standings. The picture Jesus painted with those words was not the glorious spiritual pursuit that we often make it into today. In many ways, Jesus was asking them to become like those condemned prisoners, to take on an existence utterly without social legitimacy.
How different would Christianity be if Christians understood that their basic vocation is to be illegitimate?
Among the evangelical tribe where I come from, one of core doctrines that gets drilled into us more than most is “justification by faith,” a spiritual understanding that suggests we can’t do anything to earn our way into heaven except put our trust in Jesus Christ.
Properly understood, this doctrine is beautiful: to be justified by Christ should mean that we exist in a reality where we stop trying to justify ourselves and rather embrace fully and completely our illegitimacy. And while most of us evangelicals would say that we are justified by Christ, our lives showcase a much different story, one of proving ourselves, seeking the justification of others, jumping through spiritual hoops for praise and affirmation, and endlessly hoping, working, trying to feel justified.
In the Jewish faith that Jesus practiced, there was one basic mark of legitimacy: circumcision. It was more than just the physical mutilation of an infant boy’s penis; it was a metaphor for a life of being set apart from the world, being clean while the uncircumcised outsiders were unclean.
In Christianity’s earliest days, one of the biggest decisions that was made in the council of Jerusalem of Acts 15 was to renounce the requirement that Gentiles be circumcised, which meant that Christians consisted in the uncircumcised and those who renounced their circumcision by hanging out with the uncircumcised.
And yet, even today, evangelical Christianity is still all about circumcision. Not literal circumcision. But since we live in an ideological age, our “circumcisions” have become things like our positions on issues (political and social), our doctrines (beliefs and theologies), and a myriad of other spiritual, social, and emotional litmus tests.
Do you believe in hell?
Do you oppose same-sex marriage?
Do you believe the Bible is inerrant?
Do you believe that Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath against humanity?
To answer any of these questions incorrectly is to become an “uncircumcised” outsider.
It isn’t only Christians that have “circumcisions” that legitimize us; every sociopolitical tribe of people does this. There are things you’re supposed to say, ideas that you’re supposed to agree with; fashion that you’re supposed to wear in order to show that you belong to the tribe. People obey the scripts and litmus tests of the tribes they want to be a part of and they police each other for deviating from the script. But when Christians play the “circumcision” game, we’ve lost the one thing that is supposed to be our liberation: Jesus’s command to be illegitimate.
Most of my favorite parables of Jesus are about embracing illegitimacy: the Samaritan heretic who cares for the wounded man because he’s not worried about keeping himself clean like the priest and Levite (Luke 10:25-37); the tax collector who beats his breast and receives God’s mercy instead of worshiping his own righteousness like the Pharisees (Luke 18:9-14); the father who humiliates himself by picking up his skirts and running to throw his arms around his prodigal son who had so utterly disrespected him (Luke 15:11-32); the banquet where the king invites only the people without status because the VIP’s won’t come (Luke 14:15-24).
Almost every evil in the world can be explained in terms of peoples’s needs to legitimize themselves. How many kids get into fights or even shoot each other every year on the basis of defending their honor? How many marriages end because two people who really did love each other once can’t admit when they’re wrong? How many stupid wars have killed millions of people because of the needs of nations to assert their legitimacy?
Being illegitimate means that we must stop being defensive and stop needing to win every argument in order to show how “circumcised” we are. It means that we’re able to see beyond our own honor. There is no more desperately needed freedom in our world today than the freedom to be wrong. Through his cross, Jesus says to humanity: you’re all wrong, every single damned one of you, but put the blame on me so you can be free!
I’m not suggesting that we’re supposed to try to make our illegitimacy legitimate, to revel in a sort of cynical filth like a floor full of heroin addicts in a mid-nineties Fiona Apple video. The illegitimacy to which Jesus calls us means living in the perpetual astonished perplexity of knowing that we are infinitely loved without merit. It’s one thing to say that God loves everybody; it’s another thing to live every moment in the truth of God’s love for you.
The rare few who have actually discovered and embodied the beautiful secret of God’s rich unconditional love have no inhibitions that prevent them from loving unconditionally themselves. They stop for wounded travelers; they clothe the naked; they welcome the stranger; and they don’t do it for points or photo ops. This doesn’t mean that they’re doormats who enable abusers. It just means that winning arguments and being justified in every circumstance are needs they have been liberated from having. If that’s a gospel worth sharing, then share it with the Christians you know so they can be set free from their litmus tests and paranoid boundary policing to join the uncircumcised, cross-bearing followers of an illegitimate king.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Northern Virgina. He blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.