The lynching tree–so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha–should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly 5,000 black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.
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, and 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.
The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans 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.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 30-31
Consider this one very small contribution to what is a huge and beyond complicated subject that I would much rather listen than contribute to.
One of the ways to approach this subject is to try to formulate a Christian account of race in light of the Gospel. A key text here is Ephesians 2:14-16–“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.” (NKJV)
In framing the discussion, I’ve heard some who seem be saying “We should talk about this subject as Christians. Not as black Christians or white Christians, but simply as mere Christians. In Christ there is neither ‘Barbarian, Scythian, slave, nor free’, after all. Paying special attention to a black perspective on this subject is divisive to the body of Christ where black and white don’t matter anymore.” And then those commentators who are perceived to maintain this kind of “spiritual neutrality” are praised for their “Christ centered objectivism” and those who “keep bringing up race” are accused of being divisive, and just throwing gas on the fire. “If you would quit bringing it up it would quit being a problem” is the (sometimes) unspoken hint.
I think we need to be careful here that we don’t unwittingly act out an unwarranted, almost gnostic, dismissal of our identity as physical beings in favor of a more “spiritual”, race-less, Christian identity. A robust account of our identity as persons created in the image of God with real physical bodies is essential to staying on course here. God created a physical world and called it very good. He’s not afraid of matter, and he’s not afraid of the physicality of our human bodies. He made us this way, and then he became embodied in physical flesh Himself! When he created humans and later divided them at Babel, he certainly knew of the thousands of different people groups, languages, cultures, perspectives, and skin tones (there are thousands) that would result. He points us to a future, not in which race is “done away” along with the tears and the pain, but one in which re-embodied people distinguished as from every tribe and tongue and people and nation are gathered around the throne praising the Lamb.
God created us in real bodies with real melanin, and that’s a good thing. In the body of Christ, we come from different perspectives that have been informed by our backgrounds, including our ethnic background. That’s a good thing. The mere existence of ethnic differences in the body of Christ is not in itself divisive, but only when those difference are allowed to form the basis for sinful division. Hence, the answer is not to pretend that those differences aren’t real, but to love one another through them, in them (and not “in spite” of them!). The glory of God in the gospel is when His Spirit takes those real differences and makes of them a unity in Christ–but not by pretending that those differences are not real or significant. What kind of glory is that? “Look, these people are getting along! (when they figured out that their skin color is illusory and irrelevant).” The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace across ethnic boundaries is not made more glorious by ignoring those differences, but rather by robustly affirming them. The power of the gospel is not manifest by “not talking about race” but by bringing race to the table in all of its complications and messiness, and working through it in love. When a person becomes a Christian, does their physical body cease to matter? Is it merely an illusion, a distraction,–or worse–a necessary cause of division?
“Not talking about race” is not gospel unity–it’s superficial, and it might even be symptomatic of worse: a subtle denial of our good, created, physical, bodies, in color, no less.
I can’t wait until we have perfect unity around the throne. Until then, as a white-Christian, I need to hear from those parts of the body who can help me see my blind spots, and who are experiencing suffering because they are black-Christians, or otherwise. In my own limited and finite perspective, I need to hear from black-Christians.
I’m not capable of participating in a “race-less” Christianity yet. If I’m reading my Bible right, I don’t think we ever will.