Monday, March 2, 2015

Lent 2015 - The Cross and the Lynching Tree - Chapter 1

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.


I have to admit that I'm struggling to write a blogpost about this first chapter. The main difficulty is that no words of mine could replace the experience of reading these stories of hope in the midst of lynching. And that is the point of this book. As Cone writes in the introduction:

" primary concern is to give voice to black victims, to let them and their families and communities speak to us, exploring the question: how did ordinary blacks, like my mother and father, survive the lynching atrocity and still keep together their families, their communities, and not lose their sanity? ... I believe that the cultural and religious resources in the black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy and also deal more effectively with what is called the 'war on terror.' If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population—slavery, segregation, and lynching—then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others. Black people know something about terror because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries." (xviii-xix)

So, any hope I might have of saying anything here begins simply in pointing back to these stories, rerooting our discourse in the present to these powerful memories. If you are not actually reading this book along with me, I challenge you, even implore you to do so.

The mosaic nature of this first chapter, story after story after song after song, at first feels random and disorienting. Perhaps this disorientation is intentional. Wave after wave of grief and pain and disbelief at how a whole people could be knowingly subjected to public lynching moves us from complacency and ignorance to love and hopefully solidarity. When put together, this cavalcade of stories gives a portrait of black life in the lynching era. And this portrait says something about God, something theo (god) - logical (word, reason). These stories of the lives of black people give concrete content and context to the theological claim that

"The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world'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." (2)

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

Indeed. In the midst of those whose deaths are proclaimed acceptable, a matter of public celebration (!), by a system that is bent toward their destruction, God is. (2-3, 7, 9) We should be looking for God there. It seems that this message of hope for those with publicly approved deaths resonates today in the words of those calling for a stay of execution for Kelly Gissendaner; but are we (am I?) proclaiming this hope, this love of God for those to whom we are more comfortable giving the label "criminal"? Jesus' death was approved by the legal, religious, and societal authorities of his day. I have little confidence that we are any morally or spiritually better than 1st Century Rome. But this is a moot point, because Jesus demonstrated love toward the thief hanging next to him who knew that he was a criminal (Luke 23:39-43).

The power of this first chapter comes first in realizing the depth of black suffering, but second in comprehending the resilience of hope in the lives of people who have undergone such horrors. We live in a time in which fear is a most potent weapon. Fear has played a major role in fracturing our electorate. Fear is what we purport to be fighting in our ambiguous war on terror. We live in a time of great fear. Fear of disease. Fear of advanced artificial intelligence and its unknown power. Fear of attack. Fear of no hope or future in a broken economy. Fear of failure. Fear of each other. But the gospel is a message of hope that emerges out of defeat and in defiance of the tactics of fear. The gospel "assert[s] loudly and exuberantly their somebodiness" in the face of the "utter despair" that comes when "people do not want to be themselves, but somebody else." (14, 21) Cone makes the strong claim that we must first reconcile with our history of using fear to oppress in order to be finally set free from the terrors that come at us daily.

"Hope in black possibility, in the dream of a new world, had to be carved out of wretched conditions, out of a world where the possibility of violent death was always imminent." (15) This hope, Cone admits, seems like foolishness. "One has to be a little mad, kind of crazy, to find salvation in the cross, victory in defeat, and life in death." (25) One of the primary expressions of this hope is in "near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." (13, Cone is here quoting Ralph Ellison) The logic of blues, of spirituals, of song, is the paradoxical logic of the cross. "That God could 'make a way out of no way' in Jesus' cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folks....Christ crucified manifested God's loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life." (2) While hope in salvation from suffering often rings a primary note in our theologies, Cone points out that it is hope emerging, paradoxically, in the contradiction of terror and suffering to which the cross points, and to which the lives of black people in the lynching era give witness. This hope is in a savior who brings "salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death." (21) 

We come to a seeming impasse. As Cone admits, this lyrical-paradoxical logic emerges from experience, which is why "white Protestant evangelical hymns did not sound or feel the same when blacks and whites sang them because their life experiences were so different." (23) This experience gap may be evident in responses to Darren Wilson's testimony about his recollection of the events that led to his fatal shooting of Michael Brown last August. For those with no historical memory of the ways in which language defending the practice of lynching portrayed black men as "menacing black beast rapists," (6) Wilson's fear at being attacked may seem nothing special. But with the knowledge that black men have been portrayed in bestial or even demonic terms in an effort to provoke the fear that could lead to approval for lynching, Wilson's description of his outsized fear of Brown becomes worrisome. Wilson described Brown "grunting," seeming like a "demon," being "aggressive," and making Wilson feel like "a five-year old holding onto Hulk Hogan," even though Wilson and Brown were the same height and both over 200 lbs. I have no doubt that Wilson was afraid. But did his fear have racist undertones? This question will seem more or less serious based upon your experience and historical memory.

Which leads to a question: Can white people sing the blues? The author of the linked article says, with caveats, "yes." At one point, Ray Charles said, "no." I have to admit, I don't know. I do not know if the experience gap is too large for those of us who did not have to undergo lynching to sing authentically the songs that emerged from that era alongside a community for whom lynching in more subtle forms is still a reality. But of course, the first step must be listening. We learn a language best, and especially a musical language, by being immersed in the life, in the concrete context and historical reality, of the community out of which that language emerges. Only by truly listening to and engaging with, living life not just beside but with our black neighbors can those of us who wish to join Jesus in solidarity with those who are being crucified every day begin to learn to sing the spirituals and the blues.


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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