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Reflecting on White Crucifixion

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

A couple of months ago, we spent a couple of weeks finding God in popular culture. We thought about what the animated film Kubo and the Two Strings has to say about becoming a new creation, and we considered how the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are enriches our understanding of the story of the prodigal son. We returned to that theme again on Sunday, looking at Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion and asking how this striking painting might bring a new perspective to a familiar image.

This is an idea I was keen to return to because it is one that has had a huge impact on my theology and my spirituality. As those who are part of the Wednesday house group have probably realised by now, my faith has been impacted and shaped by the films I’ve watched and the books I’ve read to a significant degree. As I said when we looked at Kubo and the Two Strings, the whole of creation is God’s and so there is no part of it that God cannot use to reach us and to teach us. And culture is such a vital part of how we experience and understand the world, that it stands to reason that God would use it. Of course we need to be thoughtful about how we engage with culture, because not all of it speaks with the voice of God, but if we have ears to hear then we may find great insight and blessing in what it is saying.

I chose this painting for this morning because it is one that I have kept coming back to and thinking about since I first saw it four years ago. It may be more obvious where we find God in this than in Kubo and the Two Strings or Where the Wild Things Are, so this may feel like a slightly different exercise, but then finding God doesn’t have to be like playing Where’s Wally, and there is a great wealth of religious art that we can look to for inspiration. Having said that, this is no ordinary depiction of the crucifixion, and there are details here that may surprise and challenge.

White Crucifixion is a work by the French-Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. He was a pioneer of modernism, working in stained glass and tapestry as well as on canvas, and religious themes recurred throughout his work. He said of the Bible “I did not see [it], I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by [it]. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time”. As a Jew, his religious imagery was drawn mostly from the Hebrew Scriptures, but he also painted a number of crucifixions. White Crucifixion was his first, painted in 1938 in response to the events of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and businesses and synagogues were attacked across Nazi Germany, and thirty thousand Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

That event is depicted in the painting, with Christ surrounded not by thieves or Roman soldiers, but by burning buildings and fleeing refugees. That’s not the only way in which Chagall redrew the traditional image of the crucifixion. He replaced Jesus’ loincloth with a prayer shawl and his crown of thorns with a headcloth, and instead of the mourning angels that would more usually surround him, we find three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch all clad in traditional Jewish garments. The candelabra at the bottom both invokes the menorah lit as part of the Jewish festival Hannakah, and recalls the candles placed on many church altars, giving the whole picture the feel of an altarpiece which is at once familiar and strange. This is one of the central images of the Christian faith recreated by a Jewish hand, and I think it is utterly fascinating and rich with meaning.


I want to start at the centre of the picture, with the figure of Christ, here represented in no uncertain terms as a Jew. The fact that Jesus was Jewish is something we know but perhaps don’t often think very consciously about. We forget that nothing he said hinted at any desire to start a new religion, but instead seemed aimed at revitalising and opening up the tradition he came into. Of course that’s not how things played out, and it’s too late now to wonder what might have been or try to start over, but I have often wondered if our attitude towards Judaism has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. There were certainly things that Jesus challenged and changed about his religious culture, but he didn't junk the whole lot, and I do think there are parts of his religion that we really ought to be holding onto.

I think we need to relearn the pattern of sabbath, not as a chore but as a gift. I remember watching a Jewish family share their shabbat meal as part of a documentary, and I was struck by how celebratory it felt, and what a relief it must be not to feel guilty about not doing the washing up. Rest is part of the fundamental rhythm of creation and we ignore it or undermine it at our peril. I also think we have a lot to learn from the Hebrew Scriptures about the importance and language of lament. There's a really difficult tension to hold between being honest and being hopeful, not despairing but not disguising either. The pattern we see in the Psalms in particular gives us permission to weep and mourn and gnash our teeth and then encourages us to praise God anyway. And I think our theology would be greatly enriched by a greater willingness to view scripture as a conversation partner, as in the midrashic tradition. We have more freedom than many think to challenge and interpret and open up spaces in the text, and it is amazing what we find when we use it. I have even heard a rabbi squeeze a blessing out of the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter, a story that on first reading is completely irredeemable, so it is well worth the work.

Going back to the painting, seeing Jesus surrounded by these depictions of Jewish persecution suggests a deep identification with the suffering of the Jewish people, and for me that is a powerful reminder that Jesus is not ours alone. Again, it’s something we know but don’t always practice, or at least not as fully as we should. I used to worship in a church that only ever included specific intercessions in services for other Christians. I’m not sure if the ministers or the worship leaders realised that was what they were doing, but I found it deeply troubling, because intentionally or not it said that we thought God was most interested in those who were like us, and that is a false and damaging theology. As the hymn ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy' has it, “the love of God is broader / than the measure of our mind” but “we make his love too narrow / by false limits of our own”.

I believe Jesus feels a deep identification with all who suffer, and I would push that even further than Chagall necessarily does. Jesus doesn’t identify with the Jews because he was a Jew, which would be a narrow reading of what the painting is saying. He identifies with humans because he was human. That’s important, because otherwise we risk adding groups in one by one instead of recognising that there is no in or out. Christ felt the pain of the Jews in the Holocaust, and he also feels the pain of the Palestinians under occupation. He weeps when a cathedral is bombed, and when a gunman opens fire in a mosque. And because we are the Body of Christ, we should feel what he feels and weep when he weeps. We need to stand in solidarity with the pain of the world, being willing to put ourselves in the midst of it and even suffer to act against it, whether that is as dramatic as putting ourselves in harm's way to physically defend another, or making financial sacrifices in order to consume more ethically.

This image of Jesus suffering in the midst of the suffering of the world is replicated in words by David Gascoyne in his poem Ecce Homo, which speaks of "putrid flesh...hollow red-filmed eyes...thorn-spiked head and spear-struck side", then imagines that the soldiers at Jesus' feet "greet one another with raised-arm salutes" , and (using rather dated language) wonders if those crucified either side of him are a Jew and a black man or a labourer and a political dissident. Like Chagall, he was thinking of those most persecuted in his own time, so what happens if we do the same? What happens if we replace the Jews surrounding Christ with refugees fleeing from Syria or LGBT activists being hunted down in Russia? With low income earners relying on food banks or pro-democracy protestors being met with tear gas? With children dying in detention centres in America or women being trafficked for sex work across Europe?

I think we get an even stronger picture of Christ in solidarity with the world, but I think we also have to ask ourselves a difficult question. What does it mean to speak of redemption in a world which often feels far from redeemed? Christ’s suffering did not save the Jews from the events that surround him in Chagall's painting, or the worse ones that were to follow, and neither has it saved any of the people we have just imagined into that picture, at least not in the sense of keeping them from harm. It was a criticism levelled at Christianity by the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and it is a difficult one to answer, but it is an important one to wrestle with.

Some might say that redemption is not about being kept safe from harm, and that I'm asking the wrong question, but I think that's too easy an out. Redemption is not only about being kept safe from harm, and we can be saved in all sorts of meaningful ways while still experiencing great pain, but I do think that kind of safety is meant to be part of it. After all, Revelation says that there will be no pain or death or crying, and if protection from harm is part of the shalom that God creates for us in the new earth, I see no reason why it wouldn't also be part of the shalom he wishes for us on this earth. And so for me, this image of Christ suffering in the midst of our suffering is a reminder that the work of redemption is not done yet. The cross is not a magic trick but a turning point.

Again, David Gascoyne’s poem catches something of this ongoing need for redemption: "He who wept for Jerusalem/Now sees His prophecy extend/Across the greatest cities of the world...And He must watch this drama to the end./Though often named, He is unknown/To the dark kingdoms at His feet". It all sounds a bit grim, but here I want to introduce an image which has much in common with Chagall's White Crucifixion and Gascoyne's Ecce Homo but offers something rather more hopeful, theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s image of the crucified God. Moltmann was drafted into the German army in 1944, but was horrified by the genocide the Nazis were committing and surrendered to the first British soldier he met in 1945. He spent the next few years in prisoner of war camps, where he was handed a copy of the New Testament and first came to Christianity. I think that background is interesting because it tells us that Moltmann was wrestling with the same conjunction of images as Chagall and Gascoyne - the crucifixion of Christ and the horrors of the Second World War - but came to understand their relationship differently.

He makes plain that the suffering Christ endures and the solidarity he thus feels with the world is not incidental, and neither is it expressed simply as compassion, but it is a deliberate act of love which has liberating force. “When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness...He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” And so the solidarity of the crucified God invites us into a “gracious, presuppositionless and universal community of God with all men”, and is “the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world”.

There is also a sense in Moltmann’s writing that the absolute horror of the crucified God cracks something open. “The one will triumph who first died for the victims then also for the executioners, and in so doing revealed a new righteousness which breaks through vicious circles of hate and vengeance and which from the lost victims and executioners creates a new mankind with a new humanity.” Rene Girard also wrote about cycles of violence and the power of Christ's sacrifice to end them, and Brian Maclaren said that the murder of God reveals us at our absolute worst and so gives us the shock we need to do better. But not every cycle of hate and vengeance is broken at once and it takes time to learn new cycles of love and forgiveness, and so we are back to the idea that redemption is still being worked out. Moltmann himself talks about the vicious circles of poverty, force, alienation, pollution and senselessness, which need to be ended by social justice, democratic human rights, respect for one another, peace with the earth and lives filled with significance. The life and death and risen life of Christ give us the tools we need to do that, and the spirit of God gives us the wisdom and the creativity and the power, but the work is ours to accomplish. Even Gascoyne's poem dares to look ahead and hope that suffering will finally be redeemed, ending thus: "Not from a monstrance silver-wrought/But from the tree of human pain/Redeem our sterile misery...That man’s long journey/May not have been in vain".

There is one last thing I want to say about this painting. For Chagall this image of suffering and death may have been the whole picture, but Moltmann knew and we know that it is not, for "the theological foundation for Christian hope is the raising of the crucified Christ.” If the cross was not a magic trick, then neither was the resurrection, but it is a foundation which gives us confidence that suffering and death are not the whole or the end. Perhaps Chagall saw hopelessness and even futility in the sight of Christ crucified, but we can come to his work with new eyes and see in it the solidarity of the crucified God, which calls us into life-giving and hope-bringing communion and breaks our old cycles so that we can twist them into new ones. Moltmann ends his study of the crucified God by talking of both the sighing and liberating spirit of God, and the explosive presence of God. What could be more liberating than to know that our redemption is being worked out from the unlikeliest of places? And what could be more explosive than the knowledge that we are called to be part of that work even if we seem to be the unlikeliest of people?

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