Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross

“Lebenskreuz,” or “Cross of Life,” depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy found in Matthew 25:35-40. Wartburg College campus.

“These are the days of maximum grace.”

This is what I found myself telling my students repeatedly over the past four weeks. As our life together turned upside down and inside out because of the coronavirus pandemic, deadlines faded away, boundaries dissolved, campus became a ghost town, home became school, and we all experienced repeated seismic shocks.

The last day I was in a classroom with students was Friday, March 13. Rather than being unlucky, the day was a gift—to be in a room with them (the last time for how long?!), talking in-person about the online move I anticipated us making. One student came late to class still nursing tears over an injury suffered during what would become the last athletic practice of a college career, freshly stung with the news of cancelled spring sports seasons. Another student in another class wrote a note on the back of a reading quiz, where normally I encourage doodles and puppy cartoons as they wait for others to finish, saying plainly “just let us leave Wartburg please.” These were the days where the situation changed daily, sometimes even hourly. Administrators struggled to keep up with the current best advice from elected officials and public health experts, because what was “best advice” kept changing.

The first day I was teaching in what many now refer to as “Zoom University,” in the middle of our class session, the campus community received the news via email that all course instruction would move to remote delivery at the end of the next day, with an earlier scheduled end to the semester. Still practicing my new tech skills, I shared my screen so that we could all read the president’s memo together. I had no answer for my students asking what this would mean, and what they should do next. I couldn’t even make a decision for us about the next day’s assignment. I’m rarely that raw and dumbfounded in students’ presence, and I could only put my hands on my head and say, “I just don’t know.”

The last day I met with one group of students online, I cried. They cried. We were reading an unexpectedly appropriate book chapter on grief and love and resilience (Jacqueline Bussie’s Love Without Limits). Several of them now have parents who have been laid off, family businesses that have been forced to close, and have found themselves otherwise under-employed. The trauma comes closer every week, every day. We can only navigate it together.

Martin Luther’s understanding of a theology of the cross has been very present on my mind during all of this, in part because it’s already embedded in my Lutheran feminist theology, and in part because we spent a lot of time on it in two of my classes this semester. I always wrestle with Luther’s claim that “human beings must utterly despair of their own abilities before they are prepared to receive the grace of Christ” (15), as do many of my Lutheran feminist sisters (see, for example, Deanna Thompson’s Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross (Fortress, 2004). It is essential to remember that for Luther, one does not have to seek suffering and despair; he knew that it comes to us all, unbidden. For him, the good news was that in the midst of that despair is precisely where God is present, known, and revealed. It makes no sense. And it is the only thing that can make sense.

I still don’t love aspects of being a theologian of the cross, but here and now I am beginning to understand what a pedagogy of the cross might look like: Teaching at the foot of the cross where forces beyond our control inflict pain, suffering, and anguish. Teaching in the shadow of the cross where failures to adhere to scientific wisdom lead to unjust and inequitable trauma. Advising while facing the cross where job opportunities vanish and graduate school funding evaporates. It is a moment that calls for maximum grace, compassion, and space to hear the litanies of grief that are just below the surface if they are not right out in the open in front of us.

The student who suffered an injury at that last practice appeared on our screens the next week with a black eye, the bruise growing and expanding as part of the natural healing process. I said that she looked like we all felt: battered, bruised, tender, and vulnerable. The cross is in our midst, unbidden, and overwhelming. To be a teacher here and now means that we call things what they are, lament the many deaths encircling us, and cry out “my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

Many people have written in recent months about the renewed relevance of Luther’s 1527 letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” (See “What Martin Luther Teaches Us About Coronavirus” in Christianity Today from back in January for one example). Re-reading the letter, as I figure out what a pedagogy of the cross might mean now, I notice repeated reference to Matthew 25 and the seven acts of mercy that Jesus commands of his followers. At one point, he says “if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. … And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me.’ [Matt. 25:40].”

The author, “Zooming” with students.

Who would have ever thought that it would make sense to contemplate staying away from each other as an eighth act of mercy, sitting in the shadow of the cross and figuring out how to teach online? When suffering and trauma come to us unbidden, as they inevitably do, this is our call.

The Christian commemoration of Good Friday reminds us that we are called to sit at the cross not because we have to go there to find some suffering, but because that’s where we already are. We can’t move quickly to the celebration of Easter that everyone prefers, especially this year, because we’re called to stay tucked in our tombs and homes and online. This cross isn’t going away easily or soon. But it is where we find each other and God.

So, here I sit, I can do no other. We teach, we lament, we Zoom, we love each other as best we can.

Caryn D. Riswold is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Before joining the Wartburg community in 2018, she taught Religion and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College for sixteen years. She is the author of “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2015) where she considers the intersection of vocational discernment with issues of race, class, and gender identity. She has previously written for blogs like Patheos and you can now find her work at For other blog posts by Caryn, click here.

2 thoughts on “Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross

  1. A lovely meditation for this Passover and Holy Week, especially the reference to Luther’s advice on plague.
    How are you all responding as it becomes ever more obvious that this pandemic is NOT an equalizer, that while some of us in the NetVUE community are indeed “laid low,” many others–including myself–are essentially just inconvenienced. Yes, suffering is indeed inherently part of life; for Christians, that means every person finds themselves, sooner or later, at the cross. And yet, can we begin to imagine social isolation without wi-fi, Zoom, Amazon prime and salaried tech support? As the weeks go on, will I cling to our own pandemic suffering? Or could Covid19 be the hard mercy, calling out the lie of equality–and amplifying the uncomfortably truth that my suffering is cushioned by a multitude of “essential workers” whose presence I take for granted?

Leave a Reply