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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Part 3: #Justice4Trayvon)

This is the final post of a three-part series examining James Cone's 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree.' Originally drafted before the Zimmerman verdict was announced, I now re-read it convicted anew.

The silence of the body of Christ in the face of Jim Crow violence is striking. How did they not see the injustice? What is it that white Christians are also blind to today?

The demonization that black men underwent during the era of lynching actively morphed the stereotypes against them from docile ‘Sambos,’ into violent hyper-sexualized predators. This stereotype was actively encouraged in order to justify Jim Crow violence in the name of protecting women and ‘family values.’ This legacy forms the basis for many modern prejudices about black men today.

This 'dangerous black male' stereotype is at the root of our preoccupation with the potential violence of a black victim, rather than the actions of his killer. It is why the victim might be tested for drugs, but not the aggressor. It's why the media wrings its hands about over the sensationalized potential for reactionary rioting, rather than on the reality of innocent loss of life. It is also why public opinion over racialized murder trials are almost always split by race.

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As in the Jim Crow era, juries continue to convict and sentence black folk very differently than white folk for the same crime (See the other Florida 'Stand Your Ground' case). We continue to treat racialized trials as though race doesn't matter or that white folk are unbiased arbiters in such cases. The legacy of pathologizing people of color, while excusing the violence of whites, is now more strongly institutionalized. But it’s also more subtle, with no individual blatant acts of bigotry to raise alarms. This is how modern Jim Crow survives.

How else is the gospel of Jesus’ cross revealed today? "The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons.” (163) The persistent 'dangerous black male' stereotype results in a 13x greater prison rate for black men over white men with the same charge.

This legacy is also why 90% of the people stopped and questioned by police in New York City are Black or Latino. Of the Jim Crow era, Joel Williamson notes that “their blackness alone was 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.” (6) The same could easily be said for stop and frisk policies today.

Jim Crow lynching was a regular reality within your, or certainly your parents’, lifetime. This is not a distant past with perpetrators dead and gone. We exist in a society that has come of age, and been molded by, racialized violence. This proximate legacy effects all of the interpersonal dynamics in our law enforcement, our sentencing laws, our judicial system. Indeed, white folk “still reap privileges from the society that lynching created” (137)

Cone observes that “if the lynching tree is America’s cross and if the cross is the heart of the Christian gospel, perhaps… [it] has something to teach America about Jesus’ cross.” (64) Jesus told us that whatever we have done to the ‘least of these,’ we have done to Him, and thus “every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus.” (158) Indeed, “when we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. “ (161)

The cross and the lynching tree are inextricably linked in American Christianity. The reality is that “few African Americans are more than a few degrees removed from a similar narrative and the experience that it creates” (Ray). “The cross needs the lynching there to remind Americans of the reality of suffering—to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. …yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope…beyond the reach of the oppressor.” (161)

Niebuhr’s lack of empathy in his time reveals a cognitive dissonance not unlike our modern perspective. On the one hand we believe in the sanctity of each life in Christ. We believe in justice and equality. But we live in a country that maintains huge economic, political, and health disparities on the basis of race.

It is often the silence in the face of oppression that is most appalling. In many ways, it is the Peter's denial that is more inexcusable than the physical brutality of Roman guards.  I do not presume that I would have the insight or fortitude to go against the masses then. But let’s challenge ourselves to do better now.

We may want to otherize Jim Crow racists. But if we ask ‘where were the white Christian voices then?’ we must also ask, ‘in what ways do we remain silent now?'

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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