Monday, February 23, 2015

Lent 2015 - The Cross and the Lynching Tree - Introduction

NOTE: Throughout these blog posts, I will mostly be able to write through the narrow lens of my own experience. I am not well versed in critical theory, the study of race, or the discipline of history. Although I consider myself a practical theologian and a Christian, I would not say that I have the skill set of someone schooled in doctrinal, dogmatic or systematic theology or even ethics. I will probably stumble over ways of talking about what I am reading and my reactions to it. With these caveats, I would like to think that this is an appropriate place from which to engage this book. I would hope that this book would be read in churches and seminaries, classrooms and even homes, by people not well-versed in any of the disciplines I mentioned above. I am reading this book for the first time, and so my words, though I hope reflective and thoughtful, will be first time reactions. 

A general introduction to this blog series can be found here, and an index and schedule for the series can be found here.


Take a moment to read this NYtimes article and these responsive letters. Sit with them for awhile.

Okay. Now gauge your response. Are you shocked? Outraged? Numbed? Unsurprised? What emotions does this information evoke in you? Guilt? Anger? Sadness? Pity? In some ways, your response will be shaped by the extent to which the history of lynching in the United States has been taken up as a part of your own history.

In one of the epigraphs to The Cross and the Lynching Tree, on the page facing the Table of Contents in my paperback edition, James Cone quotes W. Fitzhugh Brundage from Lynching in the New South:

"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 historical memory." (emphasis added)

One of the epigraphs to Cone's Introduction, from Richard Wright, hammers home the same point:

"Theme for Negro writers will emerge when they have begun to feel the meaning of the history of the race as though they in one lifetime had lived it themselves throughout all of the long centuries." (emphasis added)

At least one claim that Cone makes in his introduction is that the presence or absence of this felt historical memory and how it informs our present actions and reactions lies at the root of the tangled discourse about race in our country. If we do not collectively make a conscious effort to remember the horrors of slavery, segregation, and, in this book, lynching, our attempts to converse about racism in the United States and to live into God's gift of reconciliation in Jesus Christ will remain mired in misunderstanding and talking past one another. As Cone admits, this remembering is painful for both blacks and whites—and I would add, people of other races, cultures and ethnicities (xiv). Yet, he argues, it is necessary. Unless we truly hear the depth of these lived experiences of "tragedy and hope," and accept this history as a part of our history too—with all the ramifications that this might entail—we will continue to perpetuate racism and exacerbate the racial divide in this country (xv). The difficulty, as Cone notes, is that few people who are not black make the effort to consciously remember (xiii). This experiential gap contributes to the different responses to, for instance, the dead body of a young black man, killed without trial, lying in a street for hours. Those who have not taken up the history of lynching in the United States as a part of their history will not be able to understand the horror that this image evokes in those who have.

One other key claim that Cone makes is that white supremacy negates anyone's Christian identity: "How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?" (xvii) A parallel, though not exactly the same, way of expressing this was written by one of my favorite authors from a few centuries ago:

"No man [sic] is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  
(John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII)

As a Christian who lives in the United States, I participate in all that those words connote, and the history behind both. Christians were responsible for slavery, segregation and lynching. Christians gave Christian justifications for these actions. Christians participate in white supremacy still. Christians also suffered because of these actions and justifications. White supremacy attempts to negate the life and embodiment and identity of those who are not white. Yet, because those who are not white are also human and beloved by God, this negation is a negation of Christian identity. These justifications and actions are also contrary to the love for us manifested in the birth, ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As such, they are in opposition to what it means to be a follower of Christ. If I, as a follower of Christ, do not wrestle with the ongoing history of white supremacy, I will be hindered in following the living Christ, who continues to act in the concrete context in which I live.


I remember when the reality of white supremacy and racism against black people began to become real to me. My first reaction was confusion. I was confused because I was still trying to understand my own racial identity and my family and what it all meant for me personally and theologically. I admit that I still wrestle with this. In most ways, I interact in my world as a white male, with the privileges and experiences that this entails. Yet, in truth, I am a biracial person, the son of two immigrants—one from China, the other from the Netherlands. I have encountered racial prejudice in various forms. During my senior year of high school, my eldest nephew was born. He is multiracial—black, Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Dutch. By physical appearance, he will participate in life as a young black man. When he was born, racism, slavery and segregation (though not lynching)—topics that I had briefly encountered through history classes—became evident to me as living and present realities through the difficulty some people I knew had with demonstrating love to this beautiful young child. This provoked confusion. How could people not love him? What did this mean for my own reality as someone with a Chinese name who was always asked, "what are you?"

In college and during my earliest years of seminary, this confusion became guilt. The more I studied about the history of racism, the more I read biographies and autobiographies of oppressed people, the more I became cognizant of the ways in which I participated in practices and social structures that perpetuated oppression—whether or not these practices and structures were intentionally or consciously "hateful"—the guiltier I felt. I began to realize that I was uncomfortable with black people and my guilt only increased my discomfort. What could I say? How was I to interact? I also began to learn more about racism (both subtle and overt) directed toward people who are not black or white, and the different forms this racism takes.

This knowledge transformed my guilt into anger. I was and still am angry about racism in all its forms. I am angry about the ways that people of color are so often pitted against each other—take a moment, if you will, to research the term "model minority" and ponder how it has operated to alienate particular Asian people from their black brothers and sisters. I also became angry that our discourse about racism is so often only about black and white, ignoring people of other races and those who are bi or multiracial. This anger made it difficult for me to open my ears and my heart to any conversation about race. It also enabled me to subsume recognition of the depth of the horrors that black people have had to endure in this country.

I admit that it took my nephews growing into young men at the same time as the events of this past year—both tragic and hopeful—to transform my confusion and guilt and anger into love. I regret that it took me this long to extend my love for my biological family into my love for those who are my family through the love of God in Jesus Christ. But I know that it is my love for my nephews that directed me to realize that my love for God should flow out into solidarity with and love for my black neighbors and the black community. I say "neighbors" mostly as a reminder to myself that there is no monolithic black or white or any other experience or set of reactions to experiences. I can only really engage with black people in their concrete particularity, as beloved sisters and brothers. And I can only engage them as I become a neighbor to them, because the question is not "who is my neighbor," but rather, "how am I being a neighbor?" (Luke 10:25-37) Yet I also say "community" as a reminder that my love cannot only extend to black people I particularly know or like. God loves us all and calls those of us who follow Jesus Christ to love in the same way.

It is love that now empowers me to speak and to converse with others about race. It has enabled me to take up this history as my history. Confusion, guilt and anger only led me to silence. This silence was not unproductive. It was necessary to enable me to be quiet enough to begin to listen deeply. And this is an important first step in recollecting our historical memory. But I have come to realize that while listening must be my first and primary approach, it cannot end in my silence. By remaining silent, I continue to enable myself and others to forget. By remaining silent, I do not fully participate in the recollection of this historical memory, or the conversation that it should provoke. At the end of the introduction, Cone invites us into this conversation, "so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us. The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive [its original purpose]. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice." (xix)

I hope to offer my reflections on this blog in the same spirit.


NOTE: I encourage thoughtful, impassioned conversation in the comments below. I do not say, "civil," because I think this sometimes connotes "dispassionate." But I would ask that those who comment attempt to engage with thought and reflection. I do reserve the right to delete any comment that I consider harmful. The point is a passionate and meaningful conversation, which means, for me, neither stilted dialogue nor combative debate.

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