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The Strange Fruit of God

One Wednesday of this week (April 1), a noose was found outside one of the hubs of activity at Duke University. The following words and prayer were offered by the Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, Dean of Duke Chapel. (Originally posted here.) We offer them as a fitting prayer for Good Friday, along with the visual reflection #LastWords.

Dean Powery’s Prayer for Duke Community Following Noose Incident

Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of Duke Chapel

Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of Duke Chapel

After reflecting upon the events of last night where a noose was hung on a tree in the Bryan Center Plaza, and after attending the lecture today by Dr. James Cone at the Divinity School on “The Cry of Black Blood” as well as the university forum held today on the Chapel steps, I offer this prayer for the whole Duke community:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far along the way; Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray today. We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered. Many today come with tears of sorrow, tears of anger, and tears asking challenging questions. We ask our own question to You, God, “Why this, again?”

We remember what happened last night on campus calling to mind how – as Billie Holiday sang:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

We remember,
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.

We remember,
[This] strange and bitter crop that still bears its rotten fruit even at major research universities, dangling from a Bryan Center Plaza tree.

I am reminded also, as a Christian minister, that this is Holy Week and we are approaching the Friday when we will even gaze upon the strange fruit of God hanging from a tree on Mount Calvary.

Yet, we stand in solidarity at the foot of the cross with our feet firmly planted on the ground of crucified hope and as we cry out for justice and cry out for truth and cry out in despair, we ask that we may look for ways to sow seeds that will bear the fruit of love, justice, mercy, righteousness, peace, understanding, and hospitality, and that we might lift every voice until they ring with the harmonies of liberty and freedom. Set us free.

In the name of our crucified God, Jesus Christ, who cried out for us. Amen.

In Peace,
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery
Dean of Duke Chapel

The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail (repost by Christena Cleveland)

For Holy Thursday, we have a repost from Christena Cleveland’s blog. Original here, from 17 August 2014. Reposted with permission.

The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail

by Christina Cleveland

[Content note: discussion and photos of lynching and other forms of brutality]

Young protestors lighting and preparing to launch a Molotov cocktail at Ferguson police

Can you see the Imago Dei in these young men? Can you see the suffering Christ in their rage?

This morning at church, the black female preacher said aloud what many of us have been thinking: that Ferguson could have happened in our community. It could still happen in our community. Our north Minneapolis neighborhood is so much like Ferguson, it’s scary. Both communities are lower income and predominantly black. Both have overwhelmingly white police forces. Both have a history of police misconduct toward people in the community, especially lower income black men.  And if you hang around long enough, you’ll feel the rage that many blacks carry in response to long-standing injustice.

Yesterday, my neighbor broke down while we talked about the realities of police brutality toward young black men. Her hands trembled and tears showered her face. Experiencing the unique mixture of rage and sorrow that black moms know well, she described the numerous ways in which the local police have already treated her 8-year-old son like an animal.

Based on data from communities all over the U.S., a recent study found that local police officers kill black men nearly two times a week. Beyond this, black men suffer from the crushing indignity of being regularly stopped and frisked,harassed by the police for simply “driving while black”, and generally assumed guilty before proven innocent.

Describing the way black men were treated during the lynching era (1880s -1960s), historian Joel Williamson wrote, “Their blackness alone was license enough to line them up against walls, to menace them with guns, to search them roughly, beat them, and rob them of every vestige of dignity.”[i]

Williamson might as well have been writing about the way black men are treated in 2014. The present-day experience of black men is not much different that the experience of black men who lived and died during the lynching era.


To those who are willing to receive it, black thinkers and artists have already provided the imagery needed to see the suffering Jesus on the lynching tree. Poet Countee Cullen wrote Christ Recrucified in 1922:

The South is crucifying Christ again
By all the laws of ancient rote and rule…

Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,
The sin for which no blamelessness atones…

And while he burns, good men, and women too,
Shout, battling for black and brittle bones.

1930 Lynching of two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, IN.

Theologian James Cone notes that by seeing the suffering Christ on the lynching tree, lynching-era blacks experienced the presence of God in the midst of unbearable suffering. “In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”[ii]

It’s not difficult to look at the photo above and see Christ’s powerlessness, suffering, indignity and innocence hanging from the tree.  But various theologies of respectability[iii]– theologies that suggest that oppressed people have to act “respectably” (according to middle-class, white standards) in order to be seen as victims — have prevented many people from seeing the suffering Christ in black suffering unless it’s communicated in a “peaceful,” “appropriate,” “respectable,” “non-violent” way.

It’s relatively easy to see the suffering Christ in black men who are already dead and aren’t threatening to hurt anyone. But can you see the suffering Christ in black men who are still alive and might hurt someone? Can you see the suffering Christ in violent responses to injustice? Can you see the cross in the Molotov cocktail?

The Molotov cocktail is born of the rage of the suffering of black men.


As someone who has walked alongside black men, witnessed their suffering firsthand, lamented with them and fought for justice with them, I can see why black men who have lived under the oppressive boot of society for their entire lives would decide to stop turning the other cheek[iv], refuse to see the police as anything other than the Red Coats, and reject “respectability.”

Can you see the suffering Christ in the oppressed, even the ones who aren’t responding perfectly to society’s oppression? Christ doesn’t just suffer for the innocent, the ones who don’t have the energy to fight back, or the ones who perfectly respond to injustice. He suffers for the ones who suffer now and sin in their suffering.

And make no mistake, our God is a God of justice. The young black men who launch Molotov cocktails at the police are misappropriating God’s justice by taking it into their own hands, but the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.

Seeing the suffering Christ in these young men isn’t achieved by theological gymnastics, deep pity, or altruism. It’s done by listening to their stories, sharing life, standing in solidarity with them, and experiencing their rage.

I’ve written elsewhere that when oppressed people are angry, privileged people should listen up.

Can you learn from the violent protesters as well as the peaceful protesters? Can you see the Imago Dei in both?

[Thanks to Richard Beck for the friendly dialogue that inspired this piece.]

[i] Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation, p. 73

[ii] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 21-22

[iii] For more on theologies of respectability, see Daniel J. Camacho’s extensivesummary.

[iv] During a conversation at Duke Divinity School’s reconciliation institute this summer, a black man stood up and said, “There are no more cheeks. There are no more cheeks to turn.”

So that you may not grow weary or lose heart

Today’s lectionary readings include these famous verses from Hebrews 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

The “Cloud of Witnesses” mural below was painted in 2012 by Jon McDonald, an artist at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University. It features a small number of people who were murdered for their role as workers in mid-century Civil Rights Movement. (Keep scrolling to view more detailed images.)

Reflect on their lives, and offer prayers of thanksgiving for their witness and sacrifice.

"Cloud of Witnesses" (2012) by Jon McDonald, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

“Cloud of Witnesses” (2012) by Jon McDonald, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

Names of those pictured (the links will take you to their stories at the Jim Crow Museum of Ferris State University): Johnnie Mae Chappell, Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Rev. James Reeb, Delano Herman Middleton, Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., Henry Ezekial Smith, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Medger Evers, Ben Chester White, Denise McNair, Adie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Cloud of Witnesses" detail (2012) by Jon McDonald, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

“Cloud of Witnesses” detail (2012) by Jon McDonald, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

Say My Name

by Michelle Armster

I like my name. My first name means ‘close to God’ or ‘gift of God.’ My middle name is for a great aunt, Elizabeth – favorite of my mother’s, who had a call to ministry but because of her faith tradition she left home, went to Bible College, and then planted a church that she pastored until her death.

I also have two other names that were given to me by close sister-friends from the continent of Africa. They come from the Oromiyaa and Swahili languages, and both names have the same meaning although they were given to me years and miles apart. I hold those names dear and close and very few people know them.

Murdered or Missing Women in Canada.

Murdered or Missing Women in Canada.

That is why I have been meditating on the second portion of the first verse of the Isaiah reading, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” (49:1).

Naming is important. Naming is about power. Naming can build or destroy. Racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression deny those who are victimized by the oppression their voice, agency and the right to name themselves or to use the name the Lord gave.

For me, this Lent has been a time of remembering, releasing and reclaiming. Embracing and speaking the names of women of color whose lives do not seem to matter is one way that has brought a taste of healing and hope. This list of women include indigenous and African American sisters whose names, if not spoken, will be forgotten:

Lena Baker
Helyna Rivera
Shantel Davis
Stephanie Pineault
Tanisha Anderson
Sonya Cywink

SAY their names!

Holy One,
You who are known by many names- spoken and unspoken.
Forgive us for silencing the voices of the many who are your children.
Today we slowly and lovingly say the name of these sisters, whom we have ignored and dismissed.

Michelle Armster is a Roots of Justice trainer and the executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Central States.

The Servant of the Lord

by Yvonne Platts

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. – Isaiah 42:1-9

Marchers in Selma, days after Bloody Sunday. (Tuesday, March 9, 1965.) This image is a work of a United States Department of Justice employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. § 101 and 105).

Marchers in Selma, days after Bloody Sunday. (Tuesday, March 9, 1965. This image is a work of a United States Department of Justice employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. § 101 and 105).)

As a Servant who has been called many times to many places, most recently to take part in a Civil Rights Legacy “Bloody Sunday,” I am always in awe seeing God’s handiwork on display. It was a warm and sunny day when our ten buses from ten different cities arrived well before noon for the rally and march that was to begin at 1pm. Right away my spirit got swept up with joy as preparations were being completed. Vendors had their tables full of cultural and historical displays, charcoal was burning in the massive grills and music pumping through the air.

Yet I knew this was more than just a good time. Fifty years after Bloody Sunday, we can clearly see a continuing pattern of systemic injustice within our police departments and government laws and policies affecting voting rights of the poor, elderly and people of color. Monday morning, I was back to work, though not as usual: this experience has left a profound effect that has changed me forever.

I can no longer be comfortable with the status quo, nor wait on the side-lines for someone else to step-up. Now is the time! Change must come! The time is now! Reclaiming the best from our leaders in Selma who walk, were beaten and bloodied to secure voting rights will help us to organize, move forward and bring justice back to our urban communities.

I am on a personal campaign to register all the 18-year-old youth I come across in my community. I am working alongside others to bring political awareness through identifying candidates who will truly work with us to create a beloved community and are worthy of our vote. I am using my gifts and talents to lift spirits, encourage souls, and inspire minds to stand against injustice anywhere and everywhere.

Oh, God, our Father, continue to fill us with your power to speak out and stand against injustices we see and face within our communities and areas of influence. Let us not miss out on opportunities to share your grace, show your love and be a blessings to others. May we be bold servants for your kingdom, fearlessly speaking the truth in love.

Yvonne Platts is a Roots of Justice trainer and an organizer in the Philadelphia area.

Holy Resistance

by Tim Nafziger

In today’s first reading from the gospel of Mark (10:32-34), Jesus tells his disciples the humiliation is coming. He is telling them that he, their beloved teacher will die at the very bottom of society, condemned by the 1% of the 1%. And most unbelievably, he is leading them towards this end that they all must have feared most.

Resisters in Ferguson, August 2014. Photo by Abdul Aziz. Printed with permission.

This year, Holy Saturday falls on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who moved forward with thread of death hanging above him. The Holy Week of Resistance movement is making connections between these two men in actions like this one in Los Angeles, California. In this video in support of the actions, Cornel West describes how it is made up of “black and brown youth in the heart of American empire who have decided to rise up” in the face of crucifixion by trigger happy police departments. West points us to Jesus’ promise to rise at the end of verse 34. In Jeremiah 33:10-16, we see this same hope of restoration and resurrection linked with the restoration of righteousness and justice through the enduring love of God.

As I think about joining the April 4 march in LA led and organized by “Black & Brown Lives United,” I need to reflect carefully on my role as a white person. This is where Jesus’s conversation with Bartimaeus is so important. For the last few years I’ve been a part of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries community inspired by Jesus’ granting of vision to Bartimaeus. BCM holds that to follow in this way we must “face our personal and political blindness to the realities of human suffering, as well as to God’s horizons of justice.” 

In this story I see a deep challenge to take off the blinders that whiteness has put on my eyes. Blindness to the way police assume the best in me rather than the worst. Blindness to the way my skin color opens the door to economic opportunity. Blindness to the way my story and image are “normal” American while everyone else is hyphenated. Next Saturday, I feel called to listen to those around me and pray for healing of my eyes.

Tim Nafziger is a Mennonite writerphotographer and web developer who lives in the Ojai valley in California. Tim’s vocation is cross-pollination and working with small groups of people committed to social change like the Carnival de Resistance where he is part of the organizing team.

Christ Recrucified by Countee Cullen

Relevant still nearly 100 years after it was first penned….

Christ Recrucified

by Countee Cullen, 1922

The South is crucifying Christ again
By all the laws of ancient rote and rule:
The ribald cries of “Save yourself” and “fool”
Din in his ear, the thorns grope for his brain,
And where they bite, swift springing rivers stain
His gaudy, purple robe of ridicule
With sullen red; and acid wine to cool
His thirst is thrust at him, with lurking pain.
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire,
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women too,
Shout, battling for black and brittle bones.

Illustration by Charles Cullen from The Black Christ and Other Poems by Countee Cullen, 1929. Image from the Special Collections and Rare Books Collection of the University of Missouri Libraries.

Illustration by Charles Cullen from The Black Christ and Other Poems by Countee Cullen, 1929. Image from the Special Collections and Rare Books Collection of the University of Missouri Libraries.