For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘cross

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2011, 202 pp.

Cross and Lynching TreeAlthough it was published in 2011 and represents many of the theological arguments Dr. James Cone has been making for more than 40 years, The Cross and the Lynching Tree feels like it was a direct response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has arisen in the last year. As usual, though, James Cone was just a step ahead, leading the way with new ways of thinking theologically about the experience of black people in the United States.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is exactly what its title implies: a theological analysis and comparison of the cross and the lynching tree. As always, Cone draws deeply from both traditional (white European) theological training and African-American theology and faith practice, including music. The cross, he asserts, offers black people courage to stand up to injustice and hope in the face of death. His case is summarized in the first chapter.

Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they (black people) knew they did not deserve it; yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away. … Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history. … The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross–a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows. (22-23)

The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured. (26)

Cone demonstrates that power of the cross in the theology and faith of black people is precisely because it demonstrates that God is allied with them in their struggles and suffering at the hands of white oppressors.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists–the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. … In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place. (31)

The second chapter is a thorough indictment of Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address the issue of lynching in his own day. Niebuhr was among the leading theologians advocating for social and economic justice in the mid-twentieth century, yet he never addressed lynching and rarely spoke about racial issues. At first, I wondered at a book dedicating so much time and space to attacking the weaknesses and failures of a theologian who has been dead for 40 years. Then, as the arguments in the chapter unfolded, I began to be convicted by them myself. Niebuhr’s work on love and justice inspired Cone’s own theology, but Niebuhr himself seemed blind to the death and suffering of black people, as if he just did not see. As Cone combs through all Niebuhr’s work searching for evidence of some recognition of black suffering in the context of the cross, I was left to wonder if anyone would find such evidence anywhere in my preaching and writing. Sideways, in the critique of a long-dead theologian, my white silence was equally indicted.

Cone’s third chapter looks at the theological legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He analyzes King’s speeches and writings for his own theology of the cross and the lynching tree, drawing especially on the impact of the death of Emmett Till. Cone is critical of King’s view of redemptive suffering, but acknowledges that King fought to end suffering, not legitimize it. Cone writes, “We are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know from where we have come and where we must go.” (92)

The fourth chapter examines the cross and the lynching tree in African-American literature, especially poetry. He draws upon the works of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and others to demonstrate the myriad ways in which they drew parallels between murdered black bodies and the crucified body of Christ.

The fifth chapter focuses on black women’s particular pain and suffering, and the responses held by the black church. He tells the stories of Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” analyzing the way they respond to suffering with protest and courage. He writes,

Black faith emerged out of black people’s wrestling with suffering, the struggle to make sense out of their senseless situation, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible. On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while, on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. (124)

The particular challenge, and power, of these black women’s responses not just to survive, but “to survive with one’s dignity intact.” (139)

Cone’s conclusion points to the necessity of connecting the cross to the lynching tree.

Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. (158)

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 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. (161)

We must see body of Christ in the bodies of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and (in today’s news) Sandra Bland, contemporary victims of lynching. If you want to understand the theological reasons why Christians should be involved in #BlackLivesMatter marches, read this book. It is profound, thorough, convincing and convicting.

Advertisements

A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

First Christian Church, Columbus, IN. Designed by Eliel Saarinen. Photo by revjmk.

The First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is an imposing edifice of concrete block, one of the first churches in the country designed with contemporary architecture. Like most churches, the front is adorned with an enormous cross, the dominant symbol of Christianity and the central fixture of many Christian churches. What is unique about the cross on the front of First Christian Church of Columbus is that it is off-center.

At first, I did not notice. My eyes and brain gazed at yet another enormous cross, and assimilated the cross to its rightful place at the center of the building. Even when someone pointed it out to me, I still had to look at it for a moment before I could take it in.

What does it mean to decenter the cross?

The cross is not neutralized or hidden on the face of the church. Indeed, it dominates the front face of the building. Neither does the cross, though enormous and prominent, overwhelm the other facets of the church. The off-center cross invites attention to the space around it.

The decentered cross has the effect of making room for something more. The cross is monumental, but it is not a fixed point upon which all else focuses. Situated slightly to the side, the cross seems to make way for the resurrection. It beckons you to notice the empty space around it, and the church life it announces. The decentered cross is not the end or the goal or the center—it is the beginning of new life, an opportunity for God’s resurrection and a call to sacrifice in order to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

The decentered cross reminds me that the true power of the cross of Christ is that it decenters us. It displaces us from our self-centeredness and challenges us to look toward the needs of others. It replaces strength with weakness and violence with peace. It overcomes the power of fear and death.

The cross of Christ is always decentered, and decentering. It always points beyond itself to the resurrection, and it always upsets the balance of power. Whenever I contemplate the cross, I feel God’s pull dislodging me from selfishness and returning me to wholeness. Decentered and decentering, always.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,663 other followers

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: