We were talking about symbols in class last week, and Layne, the smartest human in the universe (at least of all the ones I've met), talked about the way symbols can be manipulated or re-narrated as to their meaning. That got me to thinking about the cross.
Symbols aren't just objects that stand for something else, like a street sign with an arrow. In a cultural framework or religious system meaning is stored in symbols. Symbols shape us into certain kinds of people. For the next minute or two, forget that you've seen a cross around the neck of every hoochie who ever graced MTV. We're talking about symbology within the church for a minute.
I think Yoder, McClendon, and the rest of the Anabaptists are right that the cross is about the way we should live. The meaning of the cross is that it shows me the trajectory of my life; I'm living toward crucifixion. I may never have to face it, but I live toward it nonetheless. Selflessness, sacrifice, obedience, holiness, and other crazy religious words are tied up in the idea of living toward crucifixion. Jesus doesn't go to the cross "so I don't have to" or "to take my place," in the vocabulary of countless banal CCM songs and three-point sermons; he goes to the cross to show me the way to live, and die if necessary. I've used this expression before and it's applicable again: Jesus is the grammar of God. The way God lives when God walks among us is to live a life toward crucifixion, and one that culminates in crucifixion. That is the grammar we are to live within as well.
In contemporary church circles, the meaning of the cross has been changed. (Mel Gibson's Passion didn't introduce the idea of substitutionary atonement; that was truly a case of art reflecting life.) By focusing on only the substitutionary aspects of the crucifixion, the contemporary churches have reinterpreted the symbology of the cross in such a way that it now represents the reason I need do nothing. Rather than live my life in the shadow and direction of the cross, I now live my life as I choose because "Jesus paid it all." Now, rather than Christianity being a life or a way of obedience, it is a life full to the brim with the rich grace of God, which now means say your sinner's prayer at the altar and you're in. The cross has become the great enabler of all the appeals to cheap grace that fill the church today. It is a pernicious lie.