Since the dawn of Christianity, the Cross has been a metaphor for suffering. However, in certain parts of the world, the true meaning of that metaphor has been diluted. In regions of the world where this metaphor is especially true, such as Asia, few people outside these countries understand or even know about the depth of suffering experienced by these “crucified peoples.”
In his lecture, “Crucified Peoples: Rethinking the Cross for Our Times,” Rev. Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., Ph.D., S.T.D., this year’s holder of the St. John’s University Vincentian Chair of Social Justice, brought home the message that oppressive regimes in countries such as Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and North Korea have wreaked havoc on their populations—but news blackouts leave much of the world blind to this suffering. The lecture was held on March 10 in the D’Angelo Center on St. John’s Queens, NY, campus.
“The Cross is the fundamental symbol of Christianity,” noted Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “It evokes the total giving of Jesus to the will of the Father throughout his life. A sinful humanity crucified Him. Fr. Pilario’s lecture taught that followers of Jesus can, and do, experience the same fate. A sinful and selfish humanity still crucifies the innocent for its own goals and values.”
In Laos, people have no political and religious rights—no elections, no opposition, no independent legislature and judiciary, and no freedom of religion, Fr. Pilario stressed. Churches must ask permission each time there is a large religious gathering like Christmas or ordinations. The government can cancel an event the day before—even after everything has been prepared.
Fr. Pilario said that in North Korea, 10 million people are considered food insecure, and 140,000 children under five suffer acute malnutrition. Nearly all diplomats and relief agencies have left the country.
“With news blackouts and government repression, you can only imagine what is happening on the ground,” he offered.
In Myanmar, during a military coup which occurred last year, soldiers entered villages and shot civilians inside their houses. “I had students there who kept messaging me as these things happened on the ground,” Fr. Pilario recalled, adding the suffering in Asia only scratches the surface of crucifixion in our times. “Millions more worldwide—in Ukraine, Madagascar, and Afghanistan—suffer disease and hunger, injustice and death, as we speak.”
Fr. Pilario stressed the importance of the Cross in today’s world, especially during Lent. “I often think that we have ‘domesticated’ the Cross, made it less painful and more palatable to our taste. We wear crosses as earrings, bracelets, pendants, and tattoos. We decorate it with laser lights on steeples and buildings. We even consider our toothaches or arthritis as crosses we need to bear.”
All these expressions trivialize the experience of Jesus, Fr. Pilario observed. “What does His death, passion, and resurrection mean for us? This was the first question that the disciples encountered. They were perplexed why Jesus needed to suffer and die. Going to Jerusalem was always difficult to accept. How were they to make sense of his otherwise senseless death?”
In modern times, Fr. Pilario said, the question is asked, “How can a God be so cruel to demand a sacrifice of His own son just to restore the honor due Him?”
He added, “To drum up the violent language of ransom, sacrifice, and victimhood on people who are already beaten, trampled upon, and abused by the dominant powers does not sound like good news at all to these people. This popular theological framework to consider Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection could neither explain God’s compassion nor truly liberate the poor communities from their suffering in Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, and elsewhere. Yet, in my experience with working in these communities, these handed down theologies reinforce guilt and legitimate oppression—to the point of blaming themselves for their suffering or passively accepting suffering as payment for their sins and those of their families.”
Fr. Pilario said fighting for justice, working for social transformation, and alleviating poverty take crucified peoples down from their crosses. “It is only through their presence and witness that the Christian community can fully understand the meaning of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In short, the ‘crucified peoples’ is where Jesus is fully present in our times.”
Sophomore Business Analytics major Jamal Reed said, “These are all problems that can be fixed were it not for human greed. When I am in a position to do something about these issues, I will. I want to use the education I have received to make a difference. No human being should live a life that is less than others.”
Bea San Juan, a senior Environmental Sustainability and Decision-Making major, and native of the Philippines like Fr. Pilario, stressed that because of her background, she was not exposed to the depth of poverty found in her home country. “Fr. Pilario has opened my eyes to the corruption. I would really like to go back there and do something that helps create change.”