Monday, March 16, 2015

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

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.


What does it mean to bear a cross? 

I spent this past week with my extended family in North Carolina. My eldest nephew has an arsenal of Nerf guns and loves to play Nerf wars. We shoot harmless styrofoam bullets at each other while running around my parents' large basement. He is over five feet tall and is solidly built. Despite my sister’s heroic efforts to get him to wear denim and a polo shirt, he also most often heads out of the house in black sweats and a black hoodie. He is 12. This is the same age as Tamir Rice. Until this year, our silly Nerf games and his fashion sense meant little to me. Now I’m doing everything to encourage him to wear jeans and a polo shirt and I don’t really want him to play Nerf outside (even though the weather was beautiful).

The reality that Tamir Rice could have been either of my nephews spurred me to begin making major changes to how I engage race. But that my thought was about my nephews and that I have never thought the same about myself demonstrates the difference in experience between those who benefit from white privilege and those who suffer from it.

In his third chapter, James Cone narrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to live into what he perceived as his prophetic responsibility by overcoming fear through trust in God’s promise. He begins the chapter by briefly recounting responses to the brutal killing of young teenager Emmett Till in 1955. Cone reflects upon his and other young black men’s reactions by writing, quite starkly: “I remember saying to myself, ‘Emmett Till could have been me!’” (67)

Those of us who could not say this sentence will never understand what has been happening for decades in the United States and what is now happening among young black people with renewed vigor until we can come to grips with lives lived under the shadow of this realization: “Emmett Till could have been me.” “Michael Brown could have been me.” “Renisha McBride could have been me.” “Tamir Rice could have been me.” What will it take for us to see young black men and women, old black men and women, gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered black men and women, criminals and law professors alike, as our sons and daughters, our beloved children, our sisters and brothers in Christ?

What does it mean to bear a cross? 

This fundamental question of discipleship, at the core of what it means to be a Christian, runs like fire through this third chapter.

“Martin King lived the meaning of the cross and thereby gave an even more profound interpretation of it with his life. Reinhold Niebuhr analyzed the cross in his theology, drawing upon the Son of Man in Ezekiel and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah; and he did so more clearly and persuasively than any white American theologian in the twentieth century. But since he did not live the meaning of the cross the way he interpreted it, Niebuhr did not see the real cross bearers in his American context. The crucified people in America were black—the enslaved, segregated, and lynched black victims. That was the truth that King saw and accepted early in his ministry, and why he was prepared to give his life as he bore witness to it in the civil rights movement.” (73)

King overcame fear of death, fear for his family, fear for his reputation, because he believed in God’s promise. “In taking up the cross of black leadership, he was nearly overwhelmed with fear.” (77) King bore two crosses: “white supremacy and black leadership, one imposed and the other freely assumed.” (81) He chose this second cross out of “a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.” (76)

At the heart of King’s story is this theological insight: there is a fundamental difference between suffering in general and suffering in discipleship. Suffering in general is often not chosen and is something that should be alleviated. King fought nonviolently, out of love, to end the suffering of his people and to combat the sickness of racism that infects our country. Not all suffering is “redemptive” or a part of “discipleship.” But discipleship often leads to suffering because those of us who call ourselves Christians follow a savior whose radical love goes against the grain of our sin, violence, tribalism, anger, and hate. The choice, then, is not really for one suffering over another, but for God who can redeem suffering, even though more suffering may be a part of this redemption.

“Love and hope, which Martin King found in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, did not erase the pain of suffering and its challenge for faith. No black Christian could escape the problem of evil that has haunted Christians throughout history. That is why the cross and redemptive suffering are not popular themes today among many Christians, especially among womanist, feminist, and other progressive theologians, who often criticize Martin King on this score….Have not blacks, women, and poor people throughout the world suffered enough? Giving value to suffering seems to legitimize it. 
“Whatever we may say about the limits of King’s perspective on the cross and redemptive suffering, he did not legitimize suffering. On the contrary, he tried to end it, sacrificing his life for the cause of others.” (91-2)

I do not really like the term “redemptive suffering.” (But click here to read an excellent reflection on the term and how our understanding of it might be utilized to confront the realities of oppression.) I’d rather not turn redeeming action into an adjective that can describe suffering. Rather, perhaps, “redeemed” suffering. That is, suffering itself, as suffering, cannot be described as redemptive. But, as God did with the suffering of Joseph (Genesis), suffering can be redeemed. It can be turned toward good, folded into God’s ongoing work to resurrect all of creation through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Acknowledging that suffering can be a consequence of following Christ and trusting in God’s promise to turn that suffering into hope: these two actions remain at the center of discipleship.

What does it mean to bear a cross?

One of the parallel claims of this chapter is that those of us who benefit from white supremacy have the choice to avoid suffering, and, in fact, often do so. So, for instance, the “two white men directly responsible for the shameful act [of killing Emmett Till], J.W. Milan and Roy Bryant, would never see a day in jail, even though they admitted in court to the federal crime of kidnapping. (They were acquitted by an all-white jury after an hour of deliberation.)” (68) These two men escaped responsibility for their actions (though not, I am convinced, the spiritual consequences of murder and hate). Those of us who choose to ignore the reality of racism in our midst are similarly escaping responsibility. That we can escape it, ignore it, disregard it, is an outcome of our privilege.

The truth is that those of us who can choose to escape our responsibility as followers of Christ to combat racism still suffer its effects. For, in the body of Christ, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) And, racism is a disease that runs rampant our justice system, our economy, our politics, our schooling, our lives. We are suffering even if we don’t know it or acknowledge it.

So, what cross is Christ calling us to bear, to endure and come to a greater knowledge of God by living through it? Because, of course, though I have been using the words “might” and “may often” to describe the suffering that is encountered in discipleship, “Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Perhaps suffering, for some of us, is optional. The cross, for Christ-followers, is not.

I admit that it is fear that I must overcome. I do not want to bear a cross. I do not want to suffer. I do not want my children to suffer, or my family to suffer because of how we follow Christ. I recently wrote a poem about this fear and my attempts to trust God to overcome it:

Romans 8
Marcus Hong

Each day I find
something new to dread.
Reading headlines
messes with my head,
uncomforts my bed,
steals my years,
makes me forget
the fear of the Lord dispels all other fears.

Each morning I wind
myself in mourning threads
so tight they bind
me to my bed. 
I have made a friend
of anxiety. My tears
obscure the one who said
the fear of the Lord dispels all other fears.

It’s not all in my mind—
the worry’s real. But bread
and cup are there to remind
me that fear is not the end.
A body—broken, once dead—
reaches across the years
this message to send: 
the fear of the Lord dispels all other fears.

So nothing in this world—neither height nor depth,
nor powers, nor the threat of future years—
can rend me from my love who said
the fear of the Lord dispels all other fears.

I have written over and over again in this blog series about listening. But I know that direct action must follow. Protests. Teaching. Writing. Political involvement. Radical love. Stretched thin as I am—husband, father, teacher, mentor, PhD student, writer—God is calling me to stretch farther to places I’d rather not go, responsibilities for my neighbors, brothers and sisters, that I’d rather avoid. I know that I can only do so from a posture of worship—fear of the Lord, holy awe—and trust.

Martin Luther King described his responsibility as one he could not escape. So, instead of simply suffering under white supremacy (to feel deep sadness or pain), he chose to suffer the burden of the cross (to come to a knowledge of something by living through it, to endure, undergo). He did so, trusting that God would never leave him alone. As Cone relates, King often repeated the following hymn to find strength in the hardest times. (78)

Perhaps it’s most appropriate to end with the lyrics to the third verse of this hymn (not sung in the version I linked above):

When in affliction’s valley,
I’m treading the road of care,
My savior helps me to carry
My cross when heavy to bear;
My feet entangled with briars,
Ready to cast me down;
My Savior whispered His promise,
Never to leave me alone.
No never alone, no never alone, 
He promised never to leave me, 
Never to leave me alone.



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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