During this Holy Week, which encompasses the crucifixion of Jesus, I found myself thinking back to a remarkable 1980 “Firing Line” interview between journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge and William F. Buckley Jr., on the topic of how does one find faith. Muggeridge — who himself became one of the the most eloquent defenders of the Christian faith — said this:
There's another parable I've often thought of. When St. Paul starts off on his journey, he consults with an eminent public relations man. “I've got this campaign and I want to promote this gospel.” And the man would say, “Well, you've got to have some sign of your faith.” And then Paul would say, “Well, I have got one. I've got this cross.” The public relations man would have laughed his head off. “You can't popularize a thing like that. It is absolutely mad.” But it wasn't mad. It worked for centuries and centuries, bringing out all the creativity in people, all the love and disinterestedness in people, this symbol of suffering. And I think that's the heart of the matter.
For those of us who are Christians, Muggeridge was quite right. The cross is the heart of the matter. But how is it that such a thing — which after all embodies suffering, agony and death — could become the most powerful symbol of the most popular faith on Earth?
Part of it has to do with the fact that this was, according to Christian doctrine, the path through which salvation lay. There had to be a crucifixion in order for there to be a resurrection. There had to be a sacrifice in order for there to be an atonement. There had to death in order for there to be life.
Part of it has to do, I think, with the realization that there can be purpose in suffering, that our own pain and travails — no matter how difficult — are not outside the reach or imagination of God Himself. Because of Calvary, nothing we have experienced can go beyond what God and Jesus have experienced.
And part of it has to do with what the cross reveals about the character of both God and Jesus. “Did ever such love or sorrow meet/Or thorns compose so rich a crown?” is how it is put in the words of an old hymn. For the followers of Christ, the question answers itself. For those who are not, it can be something quite different.
Interestingly, it was an outspoken critic of Christianity who understood the significance of the cross as well as anyone. In a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine, Ayn Rand — the founder of Objectivism and the author of “Atlas Shrugged” — was asked about the cross. Here is what she said:
Now you want me to speak about the cross. What is correct is that I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal. Isn't that what it does mean? Christ, in terms of Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the non-ideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtues was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing would make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrifice the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture.
Torture, I suppose, is one word for it. Grace is another. Whatever you call it, it is something that those of us who are radically non-ideal — who struggle with doubts and with vice, with tongues (and pens) that are sometimes too sharp and hearts that are too cold and sacrifices that are too rare — desperately need.
“Is there in this place any relief for pilgrims that are weary and faint in the way?” asks John Bunyan's main character in his allegory “The Pilgrim's Progress.” For those of us of the Christian faith, the answer is at the foot of the cross.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.