Ways of the Cross: Passion and Protest as Public Theology

“From the Good Friday Via Crucis through the streets of the border colonia of Cameron Park in Brownsville, TX, to gay communities’ uses of the ritual to mourn persecution and death during the height of the AIDS epidemic, this project explores how communities on the margins of church and society ritually reinterpret Christ’s passion to claim divine solidarity. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Susan Bigelow Reynolds Candler School of Theology, Emory University Contact Me

About this project grant for researchers

Through a multi-site ethnography of Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) rituals across racially and denominationally diverse U.S. communities, this study examines public ritual as a site of theological agency for communities on the margins of church and society. In turn, I ask how conceiving of ritual as theological work reshapes the way we think about public theology and its agents. The Way of the Cross is a Lenten devotion of medieval origin in which participants meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death by ritually recounting fourteen moments in the story of the crucifixion. While commonly performed within church sanctuaries, the ritual is sometimes staged publicly as an act of protest, mapping contemporary social injustices onto the story of Christ’s passion. Often, the fourteen stations are represented by places—apartment stoops, street corners, bus stations—where suffering, death, and new life have visited the local community. The Via Crucis offers a ready template and host of broadly legible, evocative symbols through which communities proclaim divine solidarity with those who suffer today.

Drawing on fieldwork, interviews, and archival research in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Brownsville, TX, and beyond, this project examines passion protests staged by churches and other Christian communities in response to five contemporary social wounds: gun violence, structural racism and anti-Black violence, homophobia, injustice toward migrants, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Interpreting passion protests as practices of lived theology, this study seeks to reimagine the category of public theology for a wounded church. As the center of gravity of the church in North America shifts toward margins of many kinds, this project considers how communities on social and ecclesial peripheries reinterpret traditional rituals to practice prophetic, subversive theological agency in the public square.