The Cross and the Lynching Tree
In the â€œlynching era,â€ between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these â€œChristiansâ€ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.
Although white southerners lost the Civil War, they did not lose the cultural warâ€”the struggle to define America as a white nation and blacks as a subordinate race.
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 nationâ€™s collective historical memory. â€”W. Fitzhugh Brundage
Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a â€œrecrucifiedâ€ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.
The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered.
If the God of Jesusâ€™ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history.
The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.
The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the worldâ€™s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.
These questions, demanding Godâ€™s explanation for black suffering, sit at the nerve center of black religion in America, from the slave trade to the prison industrial complex of today. Black religion comes out of suffering.
The Christian gospel is Godâ€™s message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world.
The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanityâ€™s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanityâ€™s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized peopleâ€”the losers and the down and out.
While the lynching tree symbolized white power and â€œblack death,â€ the cross symbolized divine power and â€œblack lifeâ€â€”God overcoming the power of sin and death.
The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about Godâ€™s presence in Jesusâ€™ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.
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, â€œto take the crucified down from the cross.â€May we commit ourselves to taking the crucified down from the cross. The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanityâ€™s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanityâ€™s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Click To Tweet
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