A general introduction to this blog series can be found here, and an index and schedule for the series can be found here.
Yesterday was Easter Sunday, the yearly celebration that remains central for what it means to be a follower of Christ. Without the resurrection, there would be no Christianity. But the resurrection is inexplicable without the cross. Jesus rose from the dead, but not just from any death. 2000 years on from that event, it can be difficult for some Christians to imagine the paradoxical foolishness of a savior who was crucified (1 Corinthians 1-2). Some of us have become numb to the radical scandal of the cross.
Yesterday was also the first Sunday of the month, which meant that my church celebrated communion, the breaking of the bread. We read the story of the "Walk to Emmaus" (Luke 24). Two of Jesus’ disciples could not recognize the crucified and risen Christ in their midst. It was not until bread was broken that their eyes were opened. This breaking of the bread awoke their memory of a few days earlier, when Jesus had broken bread and said “do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
Throughout The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone has been pulling to the forefront of our collective memories the broken bodies of black people, pointing to them in order to lead us to the cross. Throughout he has been defending the claim that our identities as followers of Christ are incomplete without wrestling with the history of slavery, segregation and lynching in the United States. The cross in our time cannot be understood apart from the suffering of black people.
“The cross of Jesus and the lynching tree of black victims are not literally the same—historically or theologically. Yet these two symbols or images are closely linked to Jesus’ spiritual meaning for black and white life together….Neither blacks nor whites can be understood fully without reference to the other because of their common religious heritage as well as their joint relationship to the lynching experience. What happened to blacks also happened to whites. When whites lynched blacks, they were literally and symbolically lynching themselves—their sons, daughters, cousins, mothers and fathers, and a host of other relatives. Whites may be bad brothers and sisters, murderers of their own black kin, but they are still our sisters and brothers…. All the hatred we have expressed toward one another cannot destroy the profound mutual love and solidarity that flow deeply between us…. We were made brothers and sisters by the blood of the lynching tree, the blood of sexual union, and the blood of the cross of Jesus. No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God has joined together, no one can tear apart.” (165-6)
There is a strong message here of resurrection, of beauty wrung out of brutality. In this powerful conclusion, Cone reminds us that memory is key to the Christian faith. If we cannot see the radical scandal of the cross, perhaps it is because we have not been looking hard enough at the suffering around us. As Cone notes in Chapter 5—and I expressed earlier—we must take seriously the cautions of womanist theologians, that suffering is not in and of itself redemptive, and to use Christ’s suffering in order to normalize the suffering we impose on others is an abomination. Suffering does, nevertheless, point us to the God revealed in Jesus Christ—a God who sent Jesus to a marginalized people on the edge of an empire. Among these people, Jesus would care for the poor, heal the sick, comfort the oppressed, and eat with sinners and outcasts. Jesus' radical, scandalous love and prophetic message to those in power led to his death. Until we look for Christ among those who have suffered, both a century ago and now—including the 1 million black people in prison and the hundreds who are killed each year, both “legally” and illegally—we will remain blind to the risen Christ among us, working to bring redemption out of that suffering. It is when we forget Christ’s suffering and the context of that suffering and how it echoes into our context that we become blind to the resurrected Christ. “Oh how foolish you are,” says Jesus to the two disciples, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-6)
Of course, the two disciples were also blind because they could not believe the testimony of another marginalized group: women. They fully admit to Jesus that they had already heard of the resurrection, from the account of the women who went to the tomb (Luke 24:22). Yet they cannot see a risen Christ in front of them. It is important that Cone lifts up the central work of women in both suffering for and working to end suffering for the black community. He quotes Andy Young as describing women as “the spine of our movement.” (142) The bulk of Chapter 5 is spent detailing the undertakings of Ida Wells, Billie Holiday and Fannie Lou Hamer and pointing to the many other women—often silent saints—who tirelessly prayed, wept, suffered, died, and survived. It is crucial for us to remember this in our day. It has been all too easy for many to ignore that the current Black Lives Matter movement would not exist but for the efforts of women of color.
To truly hear the voice of our living lord takes an effort. It takes poetic imagination, an imagination that is actively attentive to the voices that are being effectively silenced. The simple actions that I’ve taken over the past couple of months are an example of this. By turning off the cacophony of facebook for a few weeks in order to listen to voices that are straining to be heard, I’ve been able to hear the voice of Christ. I cannot recommend too strongly once again that, if you haven’t been reading along with me, you need to read this book for yourself.
It is in that spirit that I end on a personal note. The past few months have been very difficult for me. I entered deeply into a trial of faith out of which I am still emerging. But, paradoxically, one of the primary things that has gotten me through this time has been reading this book—this book detailing a sordid history of suffering and pain that runs right up to the present. How could this book give me hope? Because, as I wrote a few weeks ago, it is a miracle that black Christians could love a God who was introduced to them by the very people who enslaved, mocked, killed and silenced them. I can honestly say at this moment that I would not have faith today had I not encountered the faith of black people through ongoing friendships and through this book. I write this not to somehow fetishize the black experience; the ultimate point of this book is not to sustain my relationship with Christ, but to spur us all on to recognize and participate in the ways God is working to end suffering in our midst. Nevertheless, I want to acknowledge my experience of Cone’s claim that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding [and by this I think he means both intellectual and personal knowledge] of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.” (xv) I am glad that James Cone chose to write this book, to challenge those of us—including myself—who have been blind to the reality of lynching and its relationship to the cross of Jesus. I am glad that he lifted up the voices of so many who have come before us in the faith, whose lives give testimony to “the tragic and hopeful reality that sustains and empowers black people to resist the forces that seem designed to destroy every ounce of dignity in their souls and bodies.” (xv, emphasis added) This is the tragic and hopeful reality that Christians celebrate every Easter and remember every time we break bread—the crucified Christ, resurrected.
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.