Today is Holy Monday, the third day of Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the second for those in the Western tradition. It is another step in the narrative toward the arrest, trial, flogging, and ultimately the Good Friday death on the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve heard this story so many times that we often forget the horrific — and public — nature of that death.
New Testament scholar Paula Frederickson reminds us:
Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion, first and foremost, is addressed to an audience.
Now consider that we could easily substitute lynching in the United States in this description for crucifixion.
After being confronted with a revelation, it is the fortunate who wake up to realize they are treading on holy ground. Revelations can serve to open eyes and hearts to new ways of experiencing the world, both seen and unseen. “To paraphrase (Romanian historian of religion Mircea) Eliade, once contact with the transcendent is found, a new existence in the world becomes possible.”
The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) by James H. Cone is a revelation of a book that invites us to see the world through different eyes, those of the world’s marginalized and oppressed. It takes us into this world through one of our most recognized religious symbols, the cross, and one of America’s most terrible national sins, lynching. The pioneer of Black Liberation Theology begins by noting that though both are symbols of death, “one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.”
And we forget that they had the same purpose: to strike terror in the subject community.
This is a deep, penetrating exploration of these symbols and their “interconnection in the history and souls of black folk.” It is a book, writes the president emeritus of Morehouse University, that will “upset your equilibrium in all the best ways.”
“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching,” writes Cone, who died in 2018. “Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
Over those 2,000 years the cross has been detached from “any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings.” It has become a form of “cheap grace … that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.” Cone is out to change that by pointing to the very real connection in the minds of African Americans between the horror of the cross and the suffering of the lynching tree. His life was focused on addressing the great contradiction white supremacy poses for Christianity in America, something we see all too clearly in today’s fascist-oriented Christian nationalism. He wants white Americans to see and understand “the racial context that defined the actual cross bearers in American society.”
Cone takes the reader through the way that the cross and the lynching tree have been seen in the black experience, points to the absence of white theologians in this engagement, holds up the words of black literary leaders, and ends with a consideration of the intersection of the two symbols from the perspective of womanist theologians. Along the way, he brings a variety of individuals — well known and ordinary alike — into the narrative. People like Mamie Till Bradley, the mother of lynching victim Emmett Till; Civil Rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; preeminent 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; social activist Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois; and singer Billie Holiday, who made the song Strange Fruit her own.
Black Americans had to find their own way on this journey.
Cut off from their African religious traditions, black slaves were left trying to carve out a religious meaning for their lives with white Christianity as the only resource to work with. They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to stories in the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God’s siding with little people just like them.
Their language wasn’t the pious theology of white churches. When they consider Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” black cultural critic Stanley Crouch calls it “perhaps the greatest blues line of all time.” It is a language that comes from shared experience and adopts the belief that evil does not have the last word.
Considering the cross and the lynching tree together requires that we speak truthfully about who we are as a people. As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Institute and founder of The Legacy Museum has said so eloquently, that “requires engagement that we have not yet made” because there is a narrative of racial difference that we have not confronted. EJI’s Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror documents more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings of African-Americans between 1877 and 1950.
Yet as W. Fitzhugh Brundage writes, “Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.”
As lynching has ended, violence in the U.S. has continued and escalated, especially with easy access to guns. Increasingly a symbol of white Christian masculinity, “Guns stand for defending home and family against ‘criminals’ — a term which, in the dogwhistle rich environment of the right, means ‘non-white people.’”
If we want to redeem the soul of America, we need wider perspectives, humility, empathy, and a new way of thinking about the stories we tell. James H. Cones’ examination of the cross and the lynching tree is one important step in that journey.
More to come…
Photo by John Mark Arnold on Unsplash
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