Monday, April 23, 2018

"The Cross and the Lynching Tree": Conclusion

A cross in front of a sunset. Image source.
[content note: lynching]

Here we are at the conclusion of James Cone's book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone begins the chapter by talking about "wrestling with faith"- he says black Christianity is a paradox where faith gives people courage and hope in the face of suffering, but suffering calls faith into question. "Belief in a good and just God was no easy matter for any black person living in the so-called Christian South," says Cone.

Cone says he also struggled with the question of how God could allow suffering. But then he had this experience:
It was as if a transcendent voice were speaking to me through the scriptures and the medium of African American history and culture, reminding me that God's liberation of the poor is the primary theme of Jesus' gospel.
And as an ex-evangelical, I'm like, what?

Like.... wow... Cone's theology is so astoundingly different and better than what I learned in the white evangelical church. I'm just shocked by how he says it so matter-of-fact-ly, as if obviously Christians believe that "God's liberation of the poor is the primary theme of Jesus' gospel."

The god I used to have a "personal relationship" with would NEVER have said ANYTHING like that.

And a few more quotes from the chapter, along those same lines:
The Christian gospel is God's message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world.
The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Salvation is broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness.
Wowww yes. This is good. This gospel is way better than the gospel I used to believe in.

Throughout this chapter, I found myself saying repeatedly "THAT'LL PREACH," so I'll just go ahead and type up those quotes too:
But we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.
Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God's own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified body of Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.

God must therefore know in a special way what poor blacks are suffering in America because God's son was lynched in Jerusalem.
White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus' cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.
The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity's salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity's salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.
As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ's suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering-- to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of this cross we are called to more than contemplation and adoration. We are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, "to take the crucified down from the cross."
And then the book talks about how lynching is still happening, though not in the same way it did back then. Nowadays black people are victims of mass incarceration, and the United States legal system still has the death penalty, which is carried out disproportionately on people of color.

And this:
When I heard and read about the physical and mental abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, I thought about lynching. The Roman Empire that killed Jesus at Calvary was similar to the American Empire that lynched blacks in the United States and also created the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many white Americans seemed surprised and even shocked that such torture and abuse could come from the U.S. military. But most blacks were neither surprised nor shocked. We have been the object of white America's torture and abuse for nearly four hundred years.
Wow. Remember, if we are torturing prisoners, we are torturing Christ.

Next, Cone addresses people who may wonder why we still need to talk about lynching- isn't it better to just forget about it, because it was so bad? In response, Cone asks:
What happened to the hate that created the violence that lynched black people? Did it disappear?
What happened to the indifference among white liberal religious leaders that fostered silence in the face of the lynching industry? Where is that indifference today? Did the hate and indifference vanish so that we no longer have to be concerned about them? What happened to the denial of whites who claimed that they did not even know about lynching, even though many blacks were lynched during their adult years?
As Fitzhugh Brundage reminds us, "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 memory."
Yes. We can't just assume everything's fine because lynching doesn't happen anymore (at least, not in the way it used to). American society needs to actually do the work of unlearning that hate and racism. We need to seriously confront that history and understand why it was wrong. We need to work to prevent similar things from happening in the future, and to try to bring justice to people who were affected by lynching.

One more quote I want to show you:
In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice. Just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary, so black people had no choice about being lynched. The evil forces of the Roman state and of white supremacy in America willed it.
... what???

Again, this is a glaring example of how Cone's Christianity is so completely different from the Christianity I used to believe in. Jesus had no choice? What's that about? The way I learned it was, Jesus was so perfect and sinless and didn't need to come to earth and suffer and save us, we certainly didn't deserve it, but he chose to do it because he loved us so much, and he totally could have gotten down from the cross if he wanted, but he chose to stay there and die. Because the bridge diagram and all that.

In summary, you should all read this book. For me, it was eye-opening, and I'm seeing how important it is that we learn history. Not just learning "this event happened in this year" but the reasons why, the attitudes that white people had, the way they justified their racism. It's not some long-ago thing that's completely unrelated to our modern world. Our country was built on this racism, on violent white supremacy, not freedom. And that's still playing out today.


Posts about The Cross and the Lynching Tree (by James H. Cone):

Reading US History Inerrantly
Ending Slavery Didn't Address the Real Problem
For the Sunday School Kids Who Never Heard About "the Curse of Ham" Or "Black Simon" 
Dr. King and What Taking Up the Cross Actually Looks Like
"The South is Crucifying Christ Again"
"Strange Fruit"
"The Cross and the Lynching Tree": Conclusion

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