“Rally Round the Standard of the Cross”

In his opening devotional this fall, President Worthen expressed concern that at BYU “our sense of community has lessened, and our sense of loneliness and isolation has increased.”  The solution he proposed to our waning sense of belonging is to knit our hearts together in a community that gives more weight to what we have in common than what separates us.[1] In another recent blog post for the Humanities Center, Jarom Hickenlooper wrote beautifully on this theme, exploring the role of unity and diversity in both architecture and biology.[2] I heard echoes of Jarom’s musings and the University’s statement on belonging in our recent General Conference, as Elder Renlund taught about strong and peaceful communities where “contention and enmity disappeared because they placed their discipleship of the Savior above all else. Their differences paled in comparison to their shared love of the Savior[.]”[3] Elder Renlund encouraged members of the church to ask themselves, “What can I do to lessen contention and to build a compassionate and caring Church community?”[4]

That question is becoming ever more important to me as my wife and I witness more of our friends become bitterly opposed to the church and to BYU as an institution. On the subject of belonging, Elder Holland recently told BYU faculty that as leaders “we are trying to avoid—and hope all will try to avoid—language, symbols, and situations that are more divisive than unifying at the very time we want to show love for all of God’s children.”[5] Sadly, it was the very same talk that some of our friends misunderstood, and Elder Holland’s words (taken out of context and misinterpreted) were used to justify verbal attacks on social media against members of the community who already felt marginalized. This has caused me to reflect on the challenge it can be to maintain commitment to standards of acceptable behavior in a community while, at the same time, strive for compassionate belonging and mutual respect. When so much of our history is constructed on the duality of “us versus them,” how can we even begin to construct a society where there is truly room for everyone?

*****

In my personal search for “language, symbols, and circumstances” that are more unifying than divisive and show love for all of God’s children, I have been drawn to the symbol of the cross. Until recently, and like many other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,[6] I didn’t think much about the cross or even the Crucifixion of Christ. Dr. John Hilton III in BYU’s department of Ancient Scripture published an excellent book earlier this year asking members to “consider the cross” and perhaps to rediscover the salvific importance of the Crucifixion as taught in the scriptures and by modern prophets.[7] While taking Dr. Hilton’s class, understanding what it meant that Jesus died for me on the cross became one of the cornerstones of my faith and a recurring theme in my devotion.

I learned that Jesus cares about the cross. Almost without exception, when Jesus introduces Himself or explains His gospel, He speaks of His death and the wounds He received when He was lifted up to be crucified. For example, in the Doctrine and Covenants when the Lord foretells how He will introduce Himself at his coming, He says, “These wounds are the wounds with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. I am he who was lifted up. I am Jesus that was crucified. I am the Son of God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:52)[8] Once I started noticing imagery of the Crucifixion in the scriptures, I found myself drawn to images of the cross in art. Like so many students I know, my experiences in an Elliott Wise classroom transformed the way I approached devotional art, and rather than creating discomfort, images of the death of Christ prompted gratitude, profound humility and, somewhat unexpectedly, the desire to invest more in my community of believers.

For Medieval and Renaissance Christians, a common set of symbolic images used to visually characterize Jesus include the Arma Christi, or the spiritual coat-of-arms that served as a recognizable emblem of Christ. Like a knight, Jesus was thought to be the protector of the faithful, and His weapons—the instruments He would use in our defense—were emblazoned on His flesh. In a classic Christian paradox, rather than fighting against His enemies with weapons He would wield Himself, the Arma Christi consisted of the weapons used against Him—the crown of thorns, the nails of the cross, the spear that pierced his side. In other words, Jesus defends us from death and hell by taking our wounds upon Himself. His body on the cross is our spiritual defense. Through the image of the cross, we remember that He was lifted up upon the cross so that we would see Him and be drawn to His sacrifice. He draws us to Him by encouraging us to look, to “behold the wounds” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:37) and, by looking with faith, to be healed.[9]

Of course, I’m not suggesting that The Church of Jesus Christ today suddenly adopt the image of the cross as our institutional symbol. The image of the Thorvaldsen Christus statue in an archway is a beautiful reminder of the Church’s unique relationship to Christ and its distinct mission in the latter-day gathering. But for those among us who are hesitant to use the cross in their daily life, to speak of it in their interactions with friends of other faiths, or to ponder images of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in their personal devotion, I would say that we need the cross.

As we seek to reconcile the need for valiant testimony and defense of gospel principles with the call for a community of belonging, I can think of no better standard than the standard of the cross. “We are all enlisted” the hymn says, “till the conflict is o’er,”[10] but this conflict—which has for so many, many years been person against person, neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend—can be understood as a wrestle “not against flesh and blood,” (Ephesians 6:12 KJV) but against our own weakness and the imperfections we see in our campus community. Our struggle is against violence itself, and against fear, division, and hate; our standard is the one Jesus gave us: meekness, compassion, and love. In that effort, I have found tremendous strength and hope as I “rally round the standard of the cross.”

 

This post was written by Joseph Rowley, an undergraduate Center fellow.

[1]   Worthen, Kevin J. “Hearts Knit Together in Love,” BYU Devotional Address, Sept. 7, 2021.

[2] https://humanitiescenter.byu.edu/deviating-beauty-in-stones-plants-and-words/

[3] Renlund, Dale G. “The Peace of Christ Abolishes Enmity,” General Conference Address, October 2021. Interestingly, Arthur Brooks described something similar in his book Love Your Enemies, encouraging Americans to change the culture of contempt by building on shared core values. Avoiding contempt, for Brooks, is not so much about disagreeing less, but disagreeing with respect for the other, and acknowledging the humanity in those who express their values in ways that seem foreign to you.

[4] Emphasis added

[5] Holland, Jeffery R., “The Second Half of the Second Century at BYU” University Conference Address, August 2021. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/jeffrey-r-holland/the-second-half-second-century-brigham-young-university/ Emphasis in original.

[6] For a thorough exploration of Latter-day Saint aversion to the symbol of the cross, see Michael G. Reed, Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo (Independence, MO: John Witmer Books, 2012), 1-7.

[7] In the early chapters of the book, Dr. Hilton outlines the history of Church teachings about the Crucifixion and use of the cross as a symbol. He finds that while the teachings about the Crucifixion have been consistent across the whole history of the church, the cultural attitude toward the symbol has gone through stages, and the taboo associated with it today is actually a product of recent decades. Unfortunately, the cultural de-emphasis of the cross as a symbol has potentially contributed to a corresponding de-emphasis of the doctrine of the Crucifixion of Christ. Church members in informal surveys conducted across the country (and BYU students in particular) demonstrated a preference for images about and references to the garden of Gethsemane, and in many cases actually expressed enmity toward the cross and Crucifixion.

[8] For a more thorough examination of the scriptural teachings regarding the Crucifixion of Jesus, particularly as they compare to references of Gethsemane, see Hilton, John III, “Teaching the Scriptural Emphasis on the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ” (2019). Faculty Publications. 3255. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/3255

[9] See Alma’s discourse on the relationship between looking, believing, and healing in Alma 33.

[10] “We Are All Enlisted, Hymns #250

Popular Articles...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.