November 10, 2008

The cross, blood and Lenny Bruce

Reverend Tom Mooney is the Union Gospel Mission’s premier in-house preacher. Like the mostly Baptist preachers outside the mission, he has a slot on the rescue mission’s monthly roster. And, like only a few of the other evening preachers, he also participates in the warm-up entertainment section -- with music performed by his band, Last Day’s Harvest. Mooney plays guitar and is the lead singer.

In his evening sermon last night, Rev. Mooney was different than how he usually is. In past months when I’ve heard him, he is mostly very tough on his chapel audience, bringing forward visions of torment in hell and rebuking his audience, telling us to pull our sorry lives together by finding Christ.

Last night, Rev. Mooney was subdued and more reflective. He talked a little about his tough early life, growing up in a home with battling parents that neglected him, but said that many of those of us sitting in the chapel surely have had things worse than he. [I hadn’t; but I can well imagine that many of the guys I know have had lives of financial hardship in homes where there are chronic arguments and substance-abuse issues.]

The cross that masks the lecturn at the front of the pulpit at Union Gospel Mission.
Mooney then spoke for many minutes about something that really surprised me. At the pulpit and then after walking out front of the stage, he talked, generally, about the cross. Without attributing it, he first used a variation on a famous 1950s Lenny Bruce joke, asking If Jesus died today, would people be wearing electric chairs around their necks? Curious thing, there is a very prominent cross, front and center in the chapel that masks the lecturn [See picture].

Mooney is right, of course, in starkly pointing out how peculiar the cross symbol is. It is used as jewelry, often studded with rhinestones, proclaiming a wearer’s Christian belief. But it is a torture devise; Jesus was murdered on a cross at Calvary. While Christ’s harrowing, excruciating death is what provides believers entry to heaven [by a logic I can’t get my mind around], the importance of Christ’s life, including three years of teaching, seems subsumed by concentration of interest in his death followed by his resurrection.

Writes Edward Ingebretsen, culture critic and rhethoric scholar, in his book At Stake:
For motives of class sensitivity, modern believers erase, forget, or else ignore the taint of Jesus’ crucifixion that occludes its representation. Lenny Bruce quips that wearing the crucifix is akin to wearing an electric chair around one’s neck; the nervous, shocked laughter of his audience makes the point well enough. For this audience to think about what the cross means is as much a taboo as speaking about it or representing it in public places. Blinkered from history, then, contemporary believers rarely see the crucifix (or worse, its ideologically sanitized image, the cross) as the insufferable “sign of contradiction” that it is. Indeed, a respected Catholic churchman can say, with a breathtaking lack of historical consciousness, that “the cross coerces no one. It offends only those who are intolerant of the Catholic faith.” To the contrary, offense is central to its meaning.
One curious thing about Mooney’s message being inspired by Bruce’s insight: The idea of an electric chair being the contemporary equivalent of the cross is out-of-date. Electric chairs aren’t used in the United States much any more. According to wikipedia, only Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia allow use of the electric chair, as an alternative to legal injection. In Illinois and Oklahoma it’s the back-up if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional. Legal Injection is now our country’s prevalent death devise. Maybe if Christ had been killed in our day and in our country, his followers would begin wearing necklace pendants shaped like hypodermic needles.

But while I find merit to Mooney’s criticism of the cross symbol, it seems to be contradicted by Mooney’s band’s frequent use of blood in its songs. The songs’ message is consistently one of praising and thanking Jesus for dying as He did so that we may be washed of our sins in His blood.

The blood thing seems to have qualities to object to that mirror those of the cross. Both Jesus's blood and the cross refer to Jesus being crucified. Both the blood and the cross are things that Christians seem to have a strange, loving fascination with -- but it is only the cross that bothers Pastor Mooney.

I understand that Jesus’s death is this vastly significant sacrifice that satisfies a bloodlust that had been met by slaughtering animals. And that Jesus’s death put an end to the practice of sacrifice to God. But isn’t it ghoulish to concentrate our interest in the blood that Jesus shed? Couldn’t/Shouldn't our interest focus, instead, on sorrow we have for the suffering He endured?

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