Culture and Theology: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

On 19 October 2006, Harvard Divinity School hosted James Cone, Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, to present the 2006 Ingersoll Lecture. Cone, as many might know, is/was a promoter of Black Liberation Theology, first bursting onto the scene with his book, Black Theology and Black Power, in 1969. He seemingly has mellowed since those days; however, he still provides a call to look at the community’s theology through their own cultural experiences. I will not debate whether or not that is good or even impossible to completely do away with, but I believe that it is needful to remember that our experiences can shape our own understanding of God. Sometimes this is a good thing, as it helps us to associate more easily with those in the biblical texts, and other times, we allow our experience override the biblical message.

I am not a Liberation Theologian (not really even a Theologian), however, I believe that there is a truth in the words below. I believe that many see the Cross as a symbol without recognizing how the death of Christ on the cross was perceived by those who first witnessed it and then who heard the story. Christ could have died in numerous ways, but the cross was a public humiliation where everything about the person was put on display, mocked, beaten, and inhumanly killed. Yes, the Death is the most important part of the Cross, but in the Death we find the intended purpose of the cross – temporal humiliation for our eternal redemption.

What follows is an essay based on the speech Cone delivered. His subject was provocative, as is typical with Cone: the cross and the lynching tree.

 

One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy.”Christianity,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is a faith which takes us through tragedy to beyond tragedy, by way of the cross to victory in the cross.”

What kind of salvation is that? To understand what the cross means in America, we need to take a good long look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history — “the bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” that “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about, “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ.

The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, usually reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves, and rebels against the Roman state and falsely accused militant blacks who were often called “black beasts” and “monsters in human form” for their audacity to challenge white supremacy in America. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree.

“Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock…. Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame” (Hengel). The crowd’s shout, “Crucify him! (Mark 15:14), anticipated the white mob’s shout, “Lynch him!” Jesus’ agonizing final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) was similar to the Georgia lynching victim Sam Hose’s awful scream, as he drew his last breath, “Oh my God! Oh, Jesus.”

In each case, it was a cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death.

The cross and the lynching tree need each other: the lynching tree can liberate the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians.

The crucifixion was a first-century lynching.

The cross can redeem the lynching tree, and thereby bestow upon lynched black bodies an eschatological meaning for their ultimate existence.

The cross can also redeem white lynchers, and their descendants, too, but not without profound cost, not without the revelation of the wrath and justice of God, which executes divine judgment, with the demand for repentance and reparation, as a presupposition of divine mercy and forgiveness. Most whites want mercy and forgiveness, but not justice and reparations; they want reconciliation without liberation, the resurrection without the cross.

As preachers and theologians, we must demonstrate the truth of our proclamation and theological reflection in the face of the cross and the lynched black victims in America’s past and present. When we encounter the crucified Christ today, he is a humiliated black Christ, a lynched black body.

Christ is black not because black theology said it. Christ is made black through God’s loving solidarity with lynched black bodies and divine judgment against the demonic forces of white supremacy. Like a black naked body swinging on a lynching tree, the cross of Christ was “an utterly offensive affair,” “obscene in the original sense of the word,” “subjecting the victim to the utmost indignity.”

In a penetrating essay, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about “the terrible beauty of the cross.”

“Only a tragic and a suffering love can be an adequate symbol of what we believe to be at the heart of reality itself.” The cross prevents God’s love from sinking into sentimentality and romanticism. “Life is too brutal and the cosmic facts are too indifferent to our moral ventures to make faith in any but a suffering God tenable.”

The gospel of Jesus is not a beautiful Hollywood story. It is an ugly story, the story of God snatching victory out of defeat, finding life in death, transforming burning black bodies into transcendent windows for seeing the love and beauty of God.

The church’s most vexing problem today is how to define itself by the gospel of Jesus’ cross as revealed through lynched black bodies in American history. Where is the gospel of Jesus’ cross revealed today? Where are black bodies being lynched today?

The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of 18 and 28 are in prisons and jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. One-half of the two million people in prisons are black. That is one million black people behind bars, more than in colleges. Through private prisons, whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America. One can lynch a person without a rope or tree.

The civil rights movement did not end lynching. It struck a mighty blow to the most obvious brutalities, like the lynching of Emmett Till and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

But whenever society treats a people as if they have no rights or dignity or worth, as the government did to blacks during the Katrina storm, they are being lynched covertly.

Whenever people are denied jobs, health care, housing, and the basic necessities of life, they are being lynched. There are a lot of ways to lynch a people. Whenever a people cry out to be recognized as human beings and society ignores them, they are being lynched.

People who have never been lynched by another group usually find it difficult to understand why blacks want whites to remember lynching atrocities. Why bring that up? That was a long time ago! Is it not best forgotten? Absolutely not!

The lynching tree is a metaphor for race in America, a symbol of America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the theological meaning of the cross in this land. In this sense, black people are Christ-figures, not because we want to be but because we had no choice about being lynched, just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary. Jesus did not want to die on the cross, and blacks did not want to swing from the lynching tree. But the evil forces of the Roman State and white supremacy in America willed it.

Yet God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree upon the divine self and transformed both into the triumphant beauty of the divine.

If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy, with repentance and reparation, there is hope beyond the tragedy — hope for whites, blacks, and all humankind — hope beyond the lynching tree.

According to Cone, who is more White? Herman Cain or Barack Obama? #p2

I am not a liberation theologian, but in Intro to Theology, we have to read James Cone. Cone, as you know, makes a case for liberation theology in which black (oppressed, regardless of color) is set against white (oppressors, regardless of color). But there is a sin for blackness, in that black participates in the oppression by white by trying to be white. It is, as a wise man once said, submitting to assimilation and oppression which is the black sin.

So, we have take a look a Herman Cain’s words this weekend:

“I don’t believe there is racism in this country today that holds anybody back in a big way. Is there some… are there some elements of racism? Yes. It gets back to, if we don’t grow this economy, that is a ripple effect for every economic level, and because blacks are more disproportionately unemployed, they get hit the worst when economic policies don’t work. That’s where it starts. Grow this economy and it’s going to help everybody get jobs and to get back in the workforce.”

He further denies the idea of institutional racism and says that many Black Americans on the same playing field as White Americans.

Now, before we move on, examine the President’s use of the oppressive systems instituted by former administrations. He doesn’t support Palestinians, catering to Israel. Economic losses for African Americans have been greater than White Americans and racism is on the rise, again. Further, we are still in war, using more drones, albeit more effectively, among other things. Gitmo is still open. We are engaged in more theaters of conflict. This is one of the reasons why Liberation authors, even African Americans, are challenging the President because they view the fact that he hasn’t used his position to relieve oppression, and instead cater to Business and the Neo-cons and inherently sinful.

I’m not saying whether I agree or disagree with their sentiments, but I am up for exploring the viewpoints of Liberation Theology in the current political context.

What sayeth ye?

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Willimon on Substitionary Atonement

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Willimon doesn’t take kindly to PSA. He writes, on 112-113:

The salvation that once was corporate and social was made private and personal.

This is but one of the problems with the substitutionary atonement— salvation is separated from ethics.

Salvation is thus construed as mainly about rescuing us for some other world.

Thus James Cone, a founder of the black theology movement, charged that the substitutionary atonement contributed to the perverse world in which slave owners could preach salvation to the slaves while in no way threatening the present master-slave establishment.

Scripturally speaking, I cannot get around the fact that a sacrifice was needed to reconcile us to God, but I do not think that the image of Atonement is limited to the sacrifice. But, I do think that it has contributed to some very mad actions in the West. Maybe that’s unfair – instead, maybe it is the use of it by those who seem more ‘court’ empowered instead of focusing on the humility of the sacrifice.

 

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Beck, Cone, Cheap Grace, Theologians and everything else

First, from here,

In his latest attack on the Social Justice, Glenn Beck slams the work of James H. Cone and Black Liberation Theology. On the surface, what Beck says may be appealing; Cone does make people uncomfortable. With a black man in the White House and talk of a “post-racial” America, who wants to hear about lynching, of all things? Yes, it was horrible, but haven’t we put that behind us? Aren’t people who still want to bring “that” up just trying to stir up trouble? If Beck can somehow prove that Cone is wrong about the gospel—and probably a communist as well—we can dismiss him and feel a whole lot better about ourselves, our country, and our faith. The problem is, the Bible itself sounds more like Cone than Beck.

The author goes on to show several biblical examples of social justice in the New Testament (plenty in the Old too). My main concern in with Liberation Theology is often times, the focus is on the Temporal, which in some aspects – don’t shoot me – mirror soft-dominionism.

Rodney might disagree with me but at least he disagrees with Glenn Beck too:

Beck V. Cone: A Case for Reading Theologians Fairly and In Context | Political Jesus: Journeys in Non-Resistant Love.

Union Theological Seminary wishes to Liberate Glenn Beck

Thanks to Rodney for this (via Facebook)

Now, it is very funny, etc… and I don’t buy into Liberation Theology although I think it has something to offer. It is funny, nonetheless.