Easter and the Offence of the Cross

By now most people would have heard about how police in Geelong broke up a Christian display of the crucifixion over Easter. While most people today associate Easter with bunnies and chocolate eggs – and sadly many churches do too – one Christian church in Geelong decided it was time we get people to think about the real meaning of Easter.

So they had a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus near a shopping centre. The Australian a few days ago described the situation this way: “Police in Victoria say they were responding to public distress when they pulled the plug on a re-enactment of the passion of Christ in the Victorian city of Geelong.

“With a fervour that would have done Mel Gibson proud, the Heaven On Earth Christian Church (whose website carries ‘miracle videos’ such as blind girl sees, deaf five-year-old boy hears and deaf mute girl healed) took their bloodied Christ on to the streets of Geelong over Easter. The re-enactment included a semi-naked ‘Jesus’ covered in fake blood being ‘crucified’ on a large wooden cross. Police said yesterday they acted under laws forbidding obscene, indecent or threatening language or behaviour in public, carrying a maximum two months’ jail sentence.”

The article continues, “‘The closing down of the display was not about religious beliefs; it was due to numerous complaints from the public regarding offensive behaviour,’ a police spokesman said. But pastor Sarah Kenneally said the purpose of Saturday’s re-enactment, using liberal amounts of body paint, was to ‘get people to stop and think about what Easter was really about’. She did not believe it was offensive. ‘How do you define what is distressing or offensive?’ she said.”

The story continues to make headlines. A story in yesterday’s Herald Sun said this: “Church leaders behind a graphic crucifixion re-enactment will go to Victoria’s police chief Simon Overland to challenge what they say is unfair treatment of religious demonstrations and double standards. Heaven on Earth Apostolic Life Ministries say police have apologised for stopping the gory re-enactment in a busy shopping area in Malop Street, Geelong on Easter Saturday.”

Senior minister Reverend Rory Lennon said, “They apologised to us. We’re happy (now) with the conduct of the local police, but for us there is a bigger issue. We want to clarify … what safety measures do we have if we are going to get harassed every time we do some overt demonstration and not keep it quiet.”

The article continues, “Mr Lennon has attacked the double standards of police who participate in demonstrations supporting gays and lesbians, including Melbourne’s Pride March, and did nothing last month to stop World Naked Bike Ride participants’ ‘lewd’ behaviour.”

He said, “The gay mardi gras or parades and things like that, the (police) commissioners walk in those and there were complaints there, but nothing was done. We want to clarify what the standards are with the commissioner. We’re confused on why one thing is dealt with like we were, yet another thing isn’t.”

As is often the case when Christians seek to stand up for Christ in the public arena, some other Christians were eager to criticise the display. Admittedly, one can debate the merits of such a public and high-profile display of Christian convictions.

And details seem to be sketchy here. The church claims they were not aware of any child being offended or in distress. And police later admitted that they only received two complaints. It seems that the organisers have a point: we have far more offensive public displays occurring all the time, offending far more people, yet the police don’t intervene on those occasions.

While we all need wisdom, tact and discernment as we seek to make public our faith in Christ, I for one am glad that some believers are willing to take a stand. There are far too many armchair critics who are doing nothing to publicly stand up for Christ and the Kingdom, but are all too happy to take pot-shots at those who are.

Some Christians may not feel comfortable with such a display, conducted in such graphic fashion. That is fine. We do not have to all think alike here. But since I happen to be one Christian who is on the frontlines all the time, seeking to make an impact for Christ, I am well aware of fellow Christians who simply want to criticise me from the comforts of their own safe environment.

There are plenty of such critics who are not putting their necks out for the Kingdom, not risking anything, and are simply seeking to be men-pleasers. But they are always happy to condemn other believers who feel called of God to take a stand, even if it means rocking the boat and ruffling some feathers.

As I said, believers can rightly differ on how wise or productive this particular Easter display was. I don’t find any major problems with it. What I do find problematic are all the armchair Christian critics who are so quick to judge, yet they seem to be unwilling to lift a finger for the cause of Christ.

But it has always been the case that those who are willing to stand up and risk all for Christ are the ones who will get most pilloried by fellow believers. Jesus faced the same thing. Can we expect anything less? If being right with God means being unpopular with men – even other Christians – then so be it.

A. W. Tozer once said, “The true church has never sounded out public expectations before launching its crusades. Its leaders heard from God and went ahead wholly independent of popular support or the lack of it. They knew their Lord’s will and did it, and their people followed them – sometimes to triumph, but more often to insults and public persecution – and their sufficient reward was the satisfaction of being right in a wrong world.”

Or as A. B. Simpson warned, “The chief danger of the Church today is that it is trying to get on the same side as the world, instead of turning the world upside down. Our Master expects us to accomplish results, even if they bring opposition and conflict. Anything is better than compromise, apathy, and paralysis. God give to us an intense cry for the old-time power of the Gospel and the Holy Ghost!”


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25 Replies to “Easter and the Offence of the Cross”

  1. Interesting comments, Bill.

    I’m surprised you didn’t see it as a case of free speech vs nanny authorities, although i guess the fact that the police apologised helps. 🙂

    You make a good point – it’s far too easy to pick on everyone else’s efforts & approaches whilst not actually doing anything productive yourself…

    Alison Keen

  2. Thanks Alison

    Yes it certainly was a case about freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But yes, the police have now backed down somewhat. The church in question is right to take this further, to stand up for these various freedoms which we should be freely enjoying.

    But refer to my previous article where I discuss how these very freedoms are now directly under threat in Victoria, unless all believers stand up and be counted: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/04/07/don%E2%80%99t-mention-that-%E2%80%98h%E2%80%99-word/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Given the passion is the archetypal narrative of human history, what stage are we at now? To publicly strip someone is to shame him and remove his standing (expression of Christian beliefs is now offensive?), crucifixion follows soon after. Herod paid and appointed co-religionists know deep down what discipleship means and hate you for reminding them. There really are fools who, with alacrity, take the evil parts in the re-capitulation of the Passion in our day. Its so blindingly obvious that Our Lord could only describe them as sown weeds.
    Martin Snigg

  4. Bill
    It is important you bring these issues to the public attention as I did not hear about it in Brisbane.
    It is good the police apologised. Any depiction of the crucifixion can have its distressing moments. There is no doubt the flogging of Jesus and his crucifixion was a horrible barbaric act which would have repulsed anyone. There is no doubt that it could cause concern but Jesus so loved us that he suffered this for us for our sakes. We need to be reminded of that. For those who take offence they normally do so not because of any genuine feeeling of revulsion but because they do not want the truth to be publicly demonstrated.
    I agree there are too many arm chair Chistians. However it was pleasing to note record crowds in our archdiocese attended churches so be encouraged that more are taking it seriously.
    David Grace

  5. Whilst I probalby wouldn’t agree with this churches pentecostal theology, good on them for being a public witness. As a result there was a great deal of talk back discussion on 3AW about Jesus and about free speech. I also am amazed that the public display of flesh at marches such as the Mardi Gras can be considered as unoffensive. If the authortities were really serious about prohibiting publicly offensive behaviour, the Mardi Gras would be the first event to be banned.
    Martin Turner

  6. I wonder if the organisers know who they are dealing with when they approach Simon Overland, well-known for protecting and marching with gays and lesbians. What sort of objective position is he likely to put in relation to “offensive behaviour” or the like?
    Lindsay Smail

  7. Oh, and soft-porn billboard displays seen in certain parts of Melbourne aren’t offensive……
    Jane Petridge

  8. All too true with the arm chair critics Bill, well said. I have two churches engaged in regular weekly street evangelism in Victoria and we have had our fair share of various local council’s seeking to exalt laws above the National Constitution and the Bill of rights, which mind you, clearly nullify any laws made to impede freedom of religion, however, having said such, I understand there is a duty of care that local council’s need to take to continue to have those within their community live in harmony together. But as with the case of this church there is a serious double standard. All but Christianity is allowed to express its view! Our standard methods of evangelism differ nothing from a peacful protest to someone simply handing a flyer with a smile, and just like the man that shouts at the market ‘5kg bag of potatoes for $2’ if you dont want potatoes just walk on by respecting the views of others. Yet of one community we are in there have been hundreds of official complaints about shop window nudity, opposed to 6 official complaints against us in 6 years with no substantiation except ‘I dont want them to do that’, and yep you guessed it, we were pushed upon and sought to be stopped. We are currently taking further the words ‘we will grant you this permit for a rally but (get this) WE WILL TELL YOU WHAT YOU CAN AND CANT SAY’. We immediately challenged an official meeting and the person then got back to us stating they would grant the permit and forget about what they said, we are currently taking this further, but Bill, if we didnt challenge all of these things and kick up a fuss about them, we would not be heralding the Gospel any longer. These issues are not about right style or wrong style in evangelism, they are about the double standards, absolute and total failure to respond to anything lewd and immoral when the complaints against such far outweigh anything else and the freedom of expression of religion.
    Dorian Ballard

  9. On a positive note, I am glad that my church in Melbourne, King’s Way Christian Fellowship, have had the support of the police and the council with our witnessing outside Myer on Burke St. We don’t hold back, preaching the seriousness of sin and presenting Christ.

    Police have been called on a number of occasions from shop owners etc. Perhaps some police, who are on the front line and are constantly facing the lewdness and moral decay in our society, appreciate that there are some people who are taking a stand against it. I know that was the case for one of the policemen we spoke to on the streets.

    David Clay, Hamilton

  10. I am uneasy about this street performance, as I was about Mel Gibson’s, film, The Passion. I think it sensationalises and in some ways trivialises something we will never understand, i.e. what Christ really went through on the Cross. We also have to ask what effect Gibson’s film had in regard to turning our nations around, apart from desensitising people even further to the sufferings of others. Though I agree whole heartedly with pointing out the double standards of the police (who have an impossible job of balancing old currency, Christian values with those of cultural Marxism – and let us not forget our own hypocrisies before we go accusing others), I think that if the organisers had put up real pictures of aborted babies and juxtaposed these with pictures of the Mardi Gras, this might have made more impact and got the church into real trouble. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion was real and it did have an impact on those who witnessed it, in the same that the burning of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer did in Britain, during the 16th century. What I am trying to say is this, in the eyes of some, this might have just been a stunt, something to move the emotions rather the whole person.

    Were there double standards? Yes there were. Was this the best way to present the most important event in history, in such a way that it cut people to the heart and caused them to cry, “Brothers, what shall we do”? I am not sure. But I stand to be corrected, gently please.

    David Skinner, UK

  11. Bill,
    The sad thing is that many churches have voluntarily removed “sensitive” words and symbols from their names and premises. Words like christians and symbols like the cross and others are removed to make the church less offensive to others. Their new name and logo looks more like that of a corporate organisation than a church. Sermons are toned down. (No names to be mentioned.) It’s all about the seeker sensitive image and a seeker sensitive gospel, one that is regarded as ‘respectful’ of the unchurched and people of other beliefs. So it is the church itself that is partly responsible for initiating and creating the public expectation that they be sensitive and respectful of others who don’t share the same beliefs as them. So why are we so shocked by the hostile response in the “insensitive” public Easter display? Shouldn’t we be more sensitive? Sometimes we can be a confused lot. We need to speak up more against this trend within the church.
    Barry Koh

  12. Thanks David

    Leaving aside The Passion for the moment, I am not sure how this re-enactment “sensationalises and in some ways trivialises” the work of Christ at Calvary. It simply seeks to remind people what Easter is in fact all about. But Christians can disagree about these matters.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Thanks Barry

    Yes you are quite right. As is so often the case, the church is its own worst enemy here. We offer an anaemic Jesus and a watered down gospel, so no wonder non-believers find the real deal offensive. As H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “The liberal gospel consists of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Bill, I am getting myself into deep water here. The crucifixion has been the subject of countless works of art and great music such as that of Bach’s St. Matthew’s and St. John’s Passions. Rembrandt produced some profoundly moving etchings of Christ hanging between the two thieves. Artists and composers didn’t just realistically replicate the event. With The Holy Spirit, working within them, they skillfully used the abstract elements of vision and sound to convery a powerful message, that went beyond shocking people.
    But perhaps the people of Geelong should be asked what effect the performance had. If this resulted in just one person being saved, then I will shut up.

    David Skinner, UK

  15. Thanks David

    But why do you suggest that the Geelong event was about “shocking people”? And how does a live depiction of the crucifixion differ from other depictions of the same event?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. I would say because it is not real. I believe that in San Pedro Cutud in the Philippines, people actually have themselves temporarily nailed to crosses. Penitents and flagellants also take part. A lot of blood flows. This is a Catholic tradition, that emphasises the death of Christ rather than His resurrection. Again, I am getting myself into deep water here, one can drive all over France, still essentially a Catholic country in spite of the Revolution, and see images of realistic crucifixions, in hamlets, villages and cities, but I don’t think that these have had one iota of difference on the French population, apart from convincing themselves that Christians are barbaric. Even Steve Chalk called the death of Christ, child abuse. Indeed there a lot of Christians who don’t believe a loving God could do that to his son or send us to hell.

    As I say, I think the church would have made more impact, more shock and caused more offence if it had managed to juxtapose images of gay parades along with those of real aborted babies. People then might start waking up to the state of our nations.

    Sorry I am not expressing myself well here.

    David Skinner, UK

  17. Thanks David

    But it is a package deal: there is no resurrection without the cross, and there is no cross without the resurrection. The NT emphasises both of course. Why falsely make us choose one or the other? Just because some Christian groups may have over-emphasised one of these is no reason for us to go to the other extreme. That is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Cor. 1:18
    “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Gal. 6:14

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. I am not disputing or disagreeing with you here, Bill, for didn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” ?

    Perhaps my aversion to such images is my protestant blood. Paul did not rely on the arts of eloquence, or trompe l’ oeil, but on straight preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    David Skinner, UK

  19. Someone said to me one day “It’s great if you have strong opposition, you must be on the right track!” To reconstruct the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is a most beautiful & truthful and amazing thing! The agony the blood etc may lead many to be scared and confronted, however those who have not seen this before I believe will be trully enlightened, knowing that our Lord Jesus Christ is prepared to give up his life for each and everyone of us! He loves us so much! We all need to pray for our Victorian police!!
    Jane Byrne

  20. Yes, had this been an “art” event run by Australia’s equivalent of, say, Tracy Emin, with Jesus as a homosexual, and lots of anal intercourse in evidence, then the authorities would have ignored any complaints.
    John Thomas, UK

  21. I agree with David’s sentiments. If we are not to be ashamed of the cross of Christ doesn’t this mean we are willing to let people know we are Christian, i.e. we are resting in what was transacted on that cross as the ground of our eternal hope? I doubt Paul had Medieval passion plays in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians.

    John Nelson

  22. Re comments about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”. I agree it is brutal. Yet crucifixion was a brutal death. Lee Strobel, in his book “The case for Christ” goes into some detail, and it is very possible that Mel Gibson understated the brutality. Why do I watch it on the Thursday night before each Easter? I cringe at the floggings, turn away often, but am reminded that at any time Jesus, or His Father, could have called 10,000 angels to stop it. At any time. Yet it just shows how much love God has for us that he endured it. Its so easy to have sugar coated Christianity, which completely misses the truth, the seriousness, and the incredible joy, of our walk with God. For me, the violence in the movie is not the main message, but the pointer and reminder to the love and sacrifice that Jesus made for me, and everyone. But I also understand completely why my wife doesn’t want to watch it, and why my kids will not watch it for a long time…..
    Peter Baade

  23. The reason the police move on christian events and not homosexual ones is simple. Christians don’t act like homosexuals. If they acted against the mardi gras, the homosexuals would bring all manner of accusations and discrimination law suits.

    Apart from the fact that satan always backs evil.

    Roger Marks

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