The Cross as Perversion

“When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us, ‘I don’t want anything from you!’ we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification, ‘…except your very soul.’ When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being.”

-Slavoj Žižek  

I stumbled across this quote reading Mona Siddiqui, a Muslim scholar, in her writings on the cross of Jesus. Having seen what the cross can mean for Christians, Siddiqui explains that that cross creates no desire in her. She protests that the cross can have other meanings than sacrifice for sin, which is flatly offensive to her, and offers up the above quote from Žižek as an example of how the death of Jesus can be construed as “an act of perversion.”

What is perverse about it? Apparently, at least in part, its dishonesty. It claims to ask for nothing yet asks for everything; it claims to be easy, but is actually impossible. But dishonesty itself is not perverse. Where perversity comes in is that what it asks is immoral or indecent. It is too high of a demand to give your whole self to someone else.

I was so refreshed to see that Žižek understood clearly what the call of Jesus Christ really is—a call to complete surrender. Would that every Christian understood that call with the same open eyes!

At the same time, I reject that this understanding of the gospel is dishonest, much less perverse. Was not Jesus brutally honest about the cost of following him? What else is it supposed to mean, when he declares that it is only that person who will lose their life for Jesus that will find it? Or when he teaches that a true disciple must take up their own instrument of execution, with their very hands and will, in order to walk behind Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who famously gave his life trying to stop Nazism, understood this. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The life of a Christian has never been less than Galatians 2:20.

It is only because of two other dishonesties that the call to give your full self to Jesus can be construed as a bait and switch.

The first is easy-believeism, that poisonous yeast that has long worked its way through evangelicalism. There is no life in a prayer offered once in fear or ecstasy, which is followed by no relationship with Jesus, no fruit of the abundant life that always flows from that connection. To be surprised at the totality of Jesus’s claim on you is to have never heard it. Someone lied to you—and it may have been you yourself.

The second dishonesty is that it is impossible and perverse to give your whole self to someone or something outside of you. Our worship of the autonomous individual makes us hate the idea of any source of authority outside the authentic self. It preaches that the only way to be true to oneself is to be able to fully construct the self, independently of any external constraints. But this is madness; no one lives like this.

We cannot escape our birth, our cultural moment. We can tell ourselves that we are bold prophetic voices, when all we are doing is marching to the drum of the faddish new theological impulse.

But even apart from this, our most powerful love stories continue to be about the complete giving of ourselves, willfully, to someone else. The allure of being wooed, of possessing our beloved and being possessed, fills our songs and movies, our fanfiction and TV. It takes a million specific forms, it constitutes the air we breathe. Even causes like environmentalism and social justice can catch up our hearts in entire surrender, and we feel the goodness of it.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. It is not impossible to give the core of ourselves to something else—it is impossible not to. Perhaps what is impossible, though, is to give ourselves to the truly good and beautiful. After all no one has lied to you more than you about what would make you happy and fulfilled.

But nothing is impossible for God. Jesus Christ woos us, desiring to possess us and even to be possessed. He calls us into passion, into great adventure, and to lose ourselves in all of it, only to find ourselves again. He has never lied about this, and his call still stands.