Monday, April 9, 2018

"The South is Crucifying Christ Again"

W. E. B. Du Bois. Image source.
[content note: lynching]

This week we’re looking at chapter 4 of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which is called “The Recrucified Christ in Black Literary Imagination.” In this chapter, Cone talks about how black artists and writers connected the crucifixion of Jesus with the injustice of lynching in their own society.

The chapter starts off with the poem “Christ Recrucified” by Countee Cullen:
The South is crucifying Christ again
By all the laws of ancient rote and rule:
The ribald cries of “Save yourself” and “fool”
Din in his ear, the thorns grope for his brain,
And where they bite, swift springing rivers stain
His gaudy, purple robe of ridicule
With sullen red; and acid wine to cool
His thirst is thrust at him, with lurking pain.
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire,
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women too,
Shout, battling for black and brittle bones.
Cone says that white pastors were silent on lynching, and black pastors sometimes talked about it but not as directly as black artists did. He asks, “What prevented these theologians and ministers, who should have been the first to see God’s revelation in black suffering, from recognizing the obvious gospel truth?”

Oh. Hmm. Well on the one hand, yes, lynching was basically the same thing as what happened to Jesus. And as I’ve said in previous posts about this book, I’m kind of angry that nobody in the church ever mentioned that to me. So yes, we can ask this question along with Cone, and be astonished that white Christians weren’t making the connection.

But… um. Actually, I kind of know why they didn’t recognize that lynchers were “crucifying Christ again.” Or rather, I can give an answer from the perspective of the type of white evangelical Christianity I was taught.


Reasons Why Christians Don’t Conceptualize the Unjust Suffering and Death of Marginalized People as “Recrucifying Christ”:
  1. Jesus was “innocent.” In the Christianity I learned, a big deal was made about how we are all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell- with Jesus being the one and only exception. Jesus suffered and died even though he was 100% innocent and didn’t deserve it. Regular people suffer and die and that’s a sad thing but they technically do deserve it- we all deserve it. (And to be honest, when I started reading this book, I was getting a little stuck when Cone refers to a lynching victim as “innocent”. In the Christianity I learned, there’s no such thing as an innocent person- though it may be the case that the victim was innocent of the specific crime they were accused of.)
  2. Jesus’ death was “God’s Plan.” My impression, from reading this book, is that Cone views Jesus’ death as much more of a bad thing than white evangelicals do. We talk about it in grand spiritual terms, find symbolic meaning in each part, and go on and on about how it was so graphically violent and how it HAD TO be that way because of this or that theological reason. I’ve never heard anyone say anything along the lines of “isn’t it terrible that Jesus was so brutally murdered when he was innocent?” We don’t see it as a bad thing. We don’t see it as an injustice. It’s called “Good Friday” for god’s sake. On the other hand, when we see injustices like lynching in our own world, we wish those things didn’t happen. We wish we could prevent them. They are the result of sin, whereas Jesus’ death was the result of “God’s Plan.”
Yes, in my church I heard people talk about “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” and how we have a responsibility to help poor people in other countries because it’s the same as helping Jesus. But there was never anything anywhere near as direct as the “Jesus is a lynched black man” idea that we here in this chapter.

Moving along- on page 100, Cone says, “In competition with each other, both the NAACP and the Communist Party sponsored anti-lynching exhibitions in 1935 featuring drawings, paintings, and sculptures by many participating artists.” I found images online of some of the artwork that Cone mentions. Here they are:

"By Parties Unknown," by Hale Woodruff. A drawing showing a lynched man left on the steps of a church. Image source.
"The Lynching," by Julius Bloch. A painting showing a black man tied to a tree (that looks like a cross) surrounded by a mob of white men. Image source.
Cone also talks about W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote stories depicting Jesus as a black man in the United States, and Langston Hughes, a poet who wrote poems along those same lines. Here’s one part from Du Bois I thought was interesting:
[content note: N-word]
Whites become exceedingly angry when they hear Joshua [the Jesus character] preach: “Blessed are the poor; blessed are they that mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are the merciful; blessed are they which are persecuted. All men are brothers and God is the Father of all.” Whites complain bitterly: “He’s putting ideas into niggers’ heads.” “Behold, he stirreth up the people.” Then “they seized him and questioned him,” saying, “What do you mean by this talk about being brothers—do you mean social equality?” “What do you mean by ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’—do you mean the niggers will own our cotton land?” “What do you mean by saying God is you-all’s father—is God a nigger?” “Joshua flamed in mighty anger,” appropriating the words of Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospels, calling the whites “hypocrites,” “serpents,” “generation of vipers” who will not “escape the damnation of hell!”
This was surprising to me because I read Joshua’s words as cliché Christian platitudes, or bible verses I’ve heard so many times they seem mundane to me. But the white characters in the story took them as threats. And, yeah, if Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven, then that is a threat to those in power who are oppressing people. I believe the gospel is good news- but not for the oppressors.

And check out this quote from page 108:
It is one thing to think about the cross as a theological concept or as a magical talisman of salvation and quite another to connect Calvary with the lynching tree in American experience.
Wow, yes, wow. Well said. Christians should all think about that.

Also this, from page 115:
That is what Jesus’ life, teachings, and death were about—God’s protest against the exploitation of the weak by the strong. 
So, uh, I was raised in the white evangelical church, and uh, that’s totally not what we thought “Jesus’ life, teachings, and death were about.” Like, not even close. Back then, I might have said something like “That is what Jesus’ life, teachings, and death were about—God’s mercy saving sinners who didn’t deserve it.” We also believed we should help poor people and try to make the world a better place, but that was a secondary concern. That wasn’t the point of what Jesus did. That wasn’t “the gospel.”

But now I am the type of Christian who agrees with Cone here. And I think the “gospel” that I learned was a convenient way for people with privilege to ignore systemic injustice. Emphasizing that we’re “all sinners” so we’re all the same along the dimension that matters most. That stuff about ending oppression is just a temporary earthly concern, it’s negligible next to the eternity in hell we are all facing if we don’t believe the correct things about Jesus. …Yeah, what a convenient excuse.

One more thing I want to say: Cone talks about how there were essentially 2 different versions of Jesus in American Christianity- white Jesus and black Jesus. “The White Christ gave blacks slavery, segregation, and lynching and told them to turn the other cheek and to look for their reward in heaven.” Several of the poems Cone quotes in this chapter even talk about how white Christians were the ones doing the lynching. White Christians ignored lynching, condoned it (“to protect the purity of the white race” [page 99]), or actively participated. In contrast, black Jesus was the victim of lynching and all the other injustices that black people suffered.

This chapter emphasizes how important the roles of artists is. They find meaning and make connections that others ignore or don’t notice. Black artists called out the United States for crucifying Christ again.


Lynching is STILL HAPPENING NOW. Just in the past week or two, Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell were killed by police- even though they were unarmed. Christ is crucified again. #BlackLivesMatter


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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