In Search of Life-Giving Christian Symbols

A ViewPoint by Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD

Artwork from a medieval codex depicting Hildegard of Bingen’s vision of Ecclesia and Sophia.

News of the atrocities committed by the Islamic State has me thinking again about all the violence done in the past and present in the name of Christianity, including wars and witch burnings and domestic violence.

Just as the extreme violence of the Islamic State distorts the peaceful teachings at the heart of Islam, the extreme violence done in the name of Christianity distorts the peaceful teachings of Jesus at the heart of Christianity.

Do our Christian symbols contribute to violence or to the peace, abundant life, and inclusive love that Jesus taught?

In his article “The Death of Christianity,” Lawrence Swaim, Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, calls for the replacement of the symbol of the cross at the center of Christianity. The cross as the central icon reinforces the doctrine of blood atonement, which he believes supports aggression and systemic evil. Swaim asserts that the “patriarchal doctrine” of blood atonement “makes God out to be a vengeful, homicidal deity who can be satisfied only with the death of his son, and portrays the state terrorism of the Roman Empire (the crucifixion) as redemptive.”

Swaim goes on to say that every Christian theology of which he is aware maintains this doctrine. He must not be aware of feminist theology, other liberation theologies, and creation theology that have challenged this doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Nor does he seem aware of the early church fathers and mothers who developed other theologies of the crucifixion.

Although I disagree with Swaim’s generalizations about Christian theology, I agree with his questioning the cross as the central symbol of Christianity. For many years I have also believed that a symbol other than the cross should be at the center of Christianity.

The emphasis on the cross leads to the glorification of violence and death rather than the love and abundant life that Jesus taught.

From personal experience I also agree with Swaim that crucifixion images can “traumatize the believer.” As a child, I had nightmares from singing hymns such as “Are You Washed in the Blood?” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” And one of my sons, when he was a child, was traumatized by a picture of the crucifixion in his Bible storybook. Would Jesus want the cross, the instrument of his death, used as the central symbol of the Gospel? If the Romans had used a sword to execute Jesus, would we make the sword our central Christian symbol?

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland.

The Apostle Paul affirms the centrality of the resurrection, not the cross, to the Christian faith: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). I believe that new life and hope come from Jesus’ resurrection and loving ministry, not from his violent death.

In Saving Paradise, theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker assert that the early Christians focused not on Jesus’ death as a “ritual symbol of faith,” but on the risen Christ, who “transfigured the world with the Spirit of life.”[i]

Where now are the symbols of the resurrection? Why isn’t the empty tomb, instead of the cross, at the center of Christian symbolism? And if the empty tomb is harder to represent visually and to put on jewelry and on walls of churches and homes, then why isn’t another symbol of resurrection, like the butterfly, central to Christianity? Or what about the dove as a symbol of Jesus’ peaceful mission?

As a universal symbol to replace the cross in Christianity, Swaim proposes a picture of a woman holding a child. In addition to this symbol and to butterflies and doves, I recommend other life-giving symbols such as Sophia (Greek word for “Wisdom,” linked to Christ in the Christian Scriptures), Black Woman, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Sophia is a resurrected biblical female divine image that opens new possibilities for peace, justice, and new life. Writers of the Christian Scriptures link Christ to Wisdom, a female symbol of Deity in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul refers to Christ as “the power of God and the Wisdom (Sophia) of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), and states that Christ “became for us Sophia from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

The book of Proverbs describes Wisdom as the “way,” the “life,” and the “path to peace” (Proverbs 3:17, 4:11-13). The writer of the Gospel of John refers to Christ as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and as the giver of peace (John 14:27). In The Divine Feminine, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott writes that “the Bible equates justice with Wisdom and Wisdom with the Christ.”[ii]

In She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Elizabeth A. Johnson states that the symbol of Sophia evokes “gracious goodness, life-giving creativity, and passion for justice,” and that Jesus’ death occurred not as redemption for sin but as a consequence of his faithfulness to “Sophia-God’s shalom.”[iii] Thus, Christ-Sophia is a peacemaking, life-giving, inclusive linguistic and visual Christian symbol that could replace the symbol of the cross. One visual symbol of Christ-Sophia could be artist Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People,” a picture that is inclusive of genders and races.

In White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, Jacquelyn Grant asserts that African American women best represent “the least” (Matthew 25: 31-45), with whom Jesus identifies, in that they are the “oppressed of the oppressed.” They suffer from the triple discrimination of racism, sexism, and classism.[iv] Thus, symbolizing Jesus as a Black Woman is biblical as well as life-giving and empowering. Monica A. Coleman, in Making a Way Out of No Way, writes that “womanist theories of salvation state that Jesus Christ can be seen as a black woman,” and that “postmodern womanist theology argues that a black woman is often Christ,” showing how ‘the least of these’ can lead the way.”[v]

Our Lady of Guadalupe
“Virgin of Guadalupe” by Isidro Escamilla – From the Brooklyn Museum Online Collection

The Black Madonna is also a powerful and popular symbol of liberation, peace, and justice. Moving beyond meek and mild Virgin Mary symbols, the Black Madonna has often been conflated with traditional African deities, and has been depicted not only as black but also as a woman of diverse colors and cultures.

Another liberating, life-giving Christian symbol is Our Lady of Guadalupe. Latina women, like other women of color, suffer from the triple discrimination of sexism, racism, and classism. Our Lady of Guadalupe has been empowering for these women, and has also been an important symbol for other people. She is the most popular religious and cultural image in Mexico and is growing in popularity in the United States.

In many churches, such as Cathedral Guadalupe in Dallas, Texas, symbols of Our Lady of Guadalupe are more prominent and plentiful than symbols of Jesus. Drawing from the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the symbol of Our Lady of Guadalupe transcends a submissive Virgin Mary. One of the most popular icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe depicts her standing alone, wearing a blue mantle covered with stars, surrounded by rays of light, and supported by an angel with eagle’s wings. The Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, a Latina Episcopal priest, declares that the “Virgin of Guadalupe unites people and is responsible for bringing peace to various cultures,” and that “she is always at the forefront of immigration marches and other justice actions.”

To replace the cross, that for too long has supported and/or sanctioned violence, I believe we need peacemaking, life-giving Christian symbols, such as doves, butterflies, Christ-Sophia, Black Woman, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. So I advocate within churches and other communities for liberating, life-giving sacred symbols, and I write them into my hymns and other liturgical resources. “Ancient Wisdom, Mother of Earth” (sung to the tune of “We Three Kings”) includes some of these symbols:

Ancient Wisdom, Mother of earth, bringing all creation to birth,
with Her power, we will flower, feeling our sacred worth.
O now return to Her for peace; hope and justice will increase.
Re-creating, liberating, She will all our dreams release. 

Black Madonna, Mother of all, loving us whatever befall,
always guiding and abiding, within our hearts She calls.
O now return to Her for peace; hope and justice will increase.
Re-creating, liberating, She will all our dreams release. 

Guadalupe, Lady and Queen, from Her holy treasure we glean;
She is healing and revealing more than we’ve ever seen.
O now return to Her for peace; hope and justice will increase.
Re-creating, liberating, She will all our dreams release. 

© 2010 Jann Aldredge-Clanton, lyrics used by permission



[i] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), xi. In Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), Brock and Parker also challenge the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion is the core of Christian faith, showing that this belief sanctions violence. (back to article)

[ii] Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 104. (back to article)

[iii] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 157,158. (back to article)

[iv] Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 216. (back to article)

[v] Monica A. Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 170. (back to article)

© 2014 by Jann Aldredge-Clanton and Christian Feminism Today

Jann Aldredge-Clanton
Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD, is an author, teacher, and chaplain who serves as adjunct professor at Perkins School of Theology and Richland College, Dallas, Texas. Jann is a widely published author and hymn lyricist. Read about her newest book, She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World on Christian Feminism Today. Professor Stephen V. Sprinkle, PhD, describes Jann as “the leading voice standing at the crossroads of feminist emancipatory theologies today.”


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