Monday, March 9, 2015

Lent 2015 - The Cross and the Lynching Tree - Chapter 2

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.


Near the beginning of this second chapter, James Cone forcefully underlines the deep connections between crucifixion and lynching in a searing and convicting passage that must be quoted in full: 

"As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. 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. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. 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) 

He ends this litany with a quote from NT scholar Paula Frederickson, "The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience." (31) Then he makes the crucial and convicting statement for this chapter: "The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection." (31, emphasis mine)

The implication of all of this is that, though lynching was a "public spectacle" with "an audience," the vast majority of people in the United States have turned a blind eye to its reality. Even worse, those of us who call ourselves Christians have failed to ignite our imaginations on behalf of those suffering, in prison, hungry, naked and poor—those in whose midst we find Jesus (Matthew 25). 
It is not a given that theology (both in its academic and congregational forms) will attend to current context and lived experience. There are theologians, pastors and lay people who, though formed by their context, do not address it. Our theology can be powerful when it attends to lived experience explicitly. It can also merely reaffirm the status quo, if it is blind to the experience of those on the margins. 

Cone uses this second chapter to dive deeply into a case study of a white theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who had every reason and opportunity to act in true solidarity and love alongside his black brothers and sisters, but who all too often chose to pay a glorified amount of lip service in the spirit of gradualism. Niebuhr explicitly argued for attending to "the facts of experience." (34) He attended closely to the cross in his theology and wrote at length about American history. Yet, Cone argues, Niebuhr's witness and his Christian imagination were hindered by the limits of his experiential engagement with his black neighbors—so close both in his parish setting in Detroit and his academic setting in New York—and with black thinkers, authors, poets, and preachers in his writings.

The lack of Niebuhr's engagement emerges most forcefully in a conversation he had with the author James Baldwin after the bombing of a church in Birmingham. Baldwin feels the full extent of black rage at the killing of black children. Niebuhr seems detached from the situation, coming at it reflectively instead of with outrage. Lynching, like crucifixion, engenders an emotive response. Jesus "cried with a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?!' that is, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!'" (Matthew 27:46) Throughout most of his career, despite advocating for "a sublime madness in the soul," in order to confront other matters of ethical import, Niebuhr settled for racial prejudice to "slowly erode," in the name of "justified pedagogical expediency." (56, 48, 46) 

What Cone is calling for here is not just academic theological engagement. That is the bare minimum. That theologians do not engage with black theology, black poetry, or black lived experience is difficult to understand in and of itself and should be addressed. But Cone is making a more forceful argument here. He contends that in order to truly engage with our black neighbors through our theology, we must feel alongside them. Near chapter's end, he compares Niebuhr's restraint to the torn apart heart of Brigitte McColluch, a German woman who responded with grief to hearing Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit." 

During their conversation, Baldwin says, "the bulk of the white...Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know....I don't suppose that...all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they're mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself." (55) The convicting comparison is implicit, but important. Just as Pilate, a man with much power, "washed his hands before the crowd," afraid of the mob and acquiescing to their violence, so those of us who "wash our hands" of responsibility for the lives of our brothers and sisters sin through our silence. (Matthew 27:24) The crucified cry—My God, My God!—is born of solidarity in love, of sorrowing in "solidarity with them even unto death," alongside our suffering savior. (21)

To return to the convicting statement with which Cone begins this chapter, I wonder what blocks my Christian imagination. What are the the limits of my courage, my time, my energy? What excuses do I find for disinterested theologizing and gradual justice? 

I, unfortunately, have a litany of excuses almost as long as Cone's litany of comparisons between the cross and the lynching tree. I'm busy. I have two young children. There's only so much time to read, to think, to write. I'm afraid. I don't always know what I will, can, or should say. I feel inadequate to the task.

But one of my primary excuses remains my lingering mixed emotions as a biracial person in a multiracial family. I still feel alienated within myself from my brothers and sisters from Asia. This alienation has choked my voice when speaking about race. 

I am perhaps being dramatic, but ultimately, truthful, when I say that so often when I read literature about race, I feel like a nonentity. In much of this literature, I am not a person. I am not a part of the conversation. All too often, writing about race takes a black and white stance, without a thought for rainbows or grays. This book, indeed, is written to a black and white audience. But not to an audience that is Asian, or Latino, or biracial. We may be implicated, but we are not addressed. Perhaps in the United States, with its history, this is understandable. But, I feel only half acknowledged when Cone writes about theologians and pastors who did not respond. It is for this reason that I often feel tongue-tied. I am convicted that I should be writing and teaching, reading and taking action on issues of race. But I am fumble-footed. 

Yet it is also for this reason that my heart reaches out when Cone writes about the utter despair of people who do not want to be themselves. (21) It is, in fact, for this reason that I should be crying out loud. Because the previous paragraph was an excuse. It is a part of my experience with which I must wrestle. It is an important statement about who I am and how I feel. The often binary way in which we talk about race is an issue that I am committed to confronting. But ultimately, all of this is an excuse, a washing of the hands, a form of "irresponsibility."

And this is why I am undertaking this blog series. I cannot remain silent. 

Yet, even as I type this, my actions seems maddeningly abstract. After I posted my blog last week, the Department of Justice released a report validating those who have experienced racism at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri. Meanwhile, social media erupted in a #BlackOut day, flooding twitter, instagram, facebook, and tumblr with images and stories of black people. This was followed by a recording of fraternity members chanting with racist language about lynching. It is more than evident that not just Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 20th century, but all Christians today must talk frankly about race and, yes, about lynching. 

Reading a book is a good first step. But Cone challenges us to do more. Solidarity requires not just reading a book, but loving my neighbor. It requires reaching out beyond myself. It requires reaching out not just to "black people," but this black person—my neighbor, my friend, my colleague. It requires painful (though also joyful) conversations. It requires cross-bearing and even suffering. (Matthew 16:21-28) But, like Peter, we don't want to hear this. We don't want to suffer; sometimes we don't even want a savior who suffers. But we will be known as Christ's followers by our love and there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend. (John 13:35, 15:12-17)

What other blocks must I remove in order to free my imagination for loving solidarity? What is blocking you? When will we ignite our imaginations and allow our hearts to be torn apart for those who are our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors?


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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