Today, we depart from the lectionary readings to reflect on Christ, the Cross, and racialized violence with these paragraphs from James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

James ConeIn its heyday, the lynching of black Americans was no secret. It was a public spectable, often announced in advance in newspapers and over radios, attracting crowds of up to twenty thousand people. An unspeakable crime, it is a memory that most white Americans would prefer to forget. For African Americans the memory of disfigured black bodies “swinging in the southern breeze” is so painful that they, too, try to keep these horrors buried deep down in their consciousness, until, like a dormant volcano, they erupt uncontrollably, causing profound agony and pain. But as with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching. To forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation.

While the lynching tree is seldom discussed or depicted, the cross is one of the most visible symbols of America’s Christian origins. Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin. Taking our place, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave “his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). We are “now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:24-25). The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Highlight of book cover, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings – those whom Ignacio Ellacuria, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. 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 of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

– James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis, 2011, pp. xiv-xv.

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