Cross and the Lynching Tree

In Jame H. Cone’s new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Orbis, 2011) white, Christian theologians are taken to task for failing to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree. Cone references Acts 10:39 – “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree” – then details the pervasive history of lynching in the U.S. which occurred in virtually every state. Lynching emerged immediately after the emancipation and was a way for the white population to terrorize and control the newly freed black population.

Cone takes on theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr (Chapter Two) for Niebuhr’s extensive reflections on the cross, white supremacy and racism – yet noting Niebuhr’s failure to link Christianity and the cross over against white supremacy and racism. Later Cone quotes Niebuhr, “‘People without imagination really have no right to write about ultimate things'” a condemnation of Niebuhr’s white, racist theology itself (94).

Cone writes, “Walter White, national secretary of the NAACP and the author of several novels and the important book Rope and Faggot, indicted Christianity for creating the fanaticism that encouraged lynching. ‘It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity,’ he [White] wrote. ‘Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynching law . . ., but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching'” (112).  Take, for example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacy organization promoting racism and committing acts of terrorism that openly identifies as Christian. In fact, a cross burning occurred in April of this year – right here in Minnesota.

Lest we mistakenly think that lynching involved only black men, in Chapter Five Cone details similar violence against black women. “Although women constitute only 2 percent of blacks actually killed by lynching, it would be a mistake to assume that violence against women was not widespread and brutal. Black women were neither incidental objects of white vigilante violence nor marginal participants in the black resistance against it. Like black men, they were tortured, beaten and scarred, mutilated and hanged, burned and shot, tarred and feathered, stabbed and dragged, whipped and raped by angry white mobs” (122).

Quoting Ida B. Wells, “pioneer of the anti-lynching crusade” Cone writes ‘Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation?’ she asked. White Christianity was not genuine because it either openly supported slavery, segregation, and lynching as the will of God or it was silent about these evils” (131). “As far as she [Wells] was concerned, white Christianity was a counterfeit gospel – ‘as phony as a two-dollar bill,’ as blacks often said in Bearden” (133). “She therefore challenged white liberal Christians to speak out against lynching or be condemned by their silence” (131).

Cone charges white Christianity: “White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both of them outside of Christian identity. I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher” (132). Further, “White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people. One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s great sin.” (159).

Cone brings to our attention the sexual violence of slavery still evident in the ongoing genetic linkage of whites and blacks. “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. (italics author’s 165). “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” (166).

I believe Cone’s book can be summarized, in part, with this quote, “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” (166). Cone is correct that white Christianity utterly fails as a religion in its refusal to oppose or even acknowledge chattel slavery, on-going systems of white supremacy and the restitution required to begin healing both.

You may also like “Minnesota Nice” & Cross Burning.

Xenophobia is Pronounced “Fear”

Photo modernlifeblogs.com

Our culture is infected with acute xenophobia (pronounced “zee-no-fo-bee-ya”). It means “fear of strangers.” It’s often confused with being an introvert. This is incorrect. To be introverted means to be better at relating to people one-on-one. Being an introvert is the opposite of being an extrovert, or someone who easily relates to more than one person at the same time. Neither of these has anything to do with xenophobia.

In my family of origin there was acute xenophobia along with racism, sexism and homophobia – just to start. Symptoms of xenophobia I remember included statements like “our friends are our family” or “only family should watch my children.” These are typical statements of extreme xenophobia. Generally family members simply didn’t relate to anyone who wasn’t part of our family. An exception might be people they worked with, but these relationships didn’t extend much beyond work.

The ability to listen and share in order to relate intimately and develop empathy for others is an essential part of our humanness. Xenophobia, like other psychological and emotional illnesses, short-circuits this process.

Because of xenophobia no one in my family of origin was very involved in civic or community activities. No one volunteered much or contributed to non-profit organizations. There was no sense of contributing to the wider community in gratefulness for all we had received – both fairly and unfairly (through unearned privilege). There was little sense of caring for others in need. No one offered to serve in the capacity of leadership in any way – even though nearly everyone in my family – especially the men – benefited greatly from both public and private education, college, and all the benefits of white privilege. This meant that we never lacked for food, healthcare, clothes or home ownership.

Consistently most family members avoided relationships with people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds, different interests or lifestyles. Living this way results in an extremely narrow and impoverished life.

Generally, by adulthood, if an individual hasn’t managed to extend most of her or his friendships or relationships beyond family members, something is drastically wrong.

Our families are meant to be the training ground where we learn how to trust others, thereby allowing us to extend ourselves outward to those who are different in the world. Take a look around you. If your most of your social life and friendships involve family members – you, too, are xenophobic.

For Christians, Christianity calls us to be on mission – extending ourselves through hospitality and friendship to those who are very different – culturally, socially, racially, and more. These interactions change us, making us more of who we are meant to be. To fail to extend ourselves to others, is to fail – in part – to be fully human, fully whole. In the image of our Trinitarian, relational God, diversity is a necessity for us to thrive too.

How to counter xenophobia? Reconsider how you spend your time. Shut off the radio. Shut off the TV. Shut off the computer. Take that time and ask to meet a neighbor for coffee. Join a book club. Volunteer to teach English as a second language. Meet others – beyond where you work. Stop and ask yourself if you even know your neighbors. If you’ve lived somewhere more than a few months, introduce yourself to those living near you.

People are infinitely interesting. The vast majority are happy to offer friendship and hospitality, particularly those recently arrived from other cultures. For those of us from a xenophobic background, extending ourselves isn’t easy. However, for our own health and development we need to make the effort. Introduce yourself. Invite others into your life. Be inclusive. Resist family and cultural xenophobia. It’s not inevitable. It’s not the way it has to be. It’s not who we are called to be.

Do something good for yourself and someone else. Get to know someone new today.

You may also like Is Family Everything? and Celebration of Family.

Confusing “Literal” with “True”

Our U.S. American culture tends to conflate and confuse the words “literal” and “true.” Using the bible as an example, many believe that in order for something to be “true” it must be understood only as “literally happened.” This results in some very bizarre interpretations of biblical literature.

The bible is a compilation of many books of various literary genres including poetry, song, narrative, lament, metaphor and many other literary forms. We would not read a poem and insist that it be interpreted as literally factual. Why, then, would someone do this with scripture?

Using symbol and metaphor in literature, including in scripture, actually deepens the nature of the truths recorded there. Because something is symbolic doesn’t mean that it is fictious or not true. Quite the reverse. It means that something is true at a very deep level.

Children’s fairy tales are a good example to demonstrate this. The story of Hansel and Gretal (children alone in the woods are in danger) teaches children about a deeper truth: that the world can be dangerous for children alone – they need parents to guide them.

The symbolic nature of scripture allows us to access the deeper wisdom present there. The story of Exodus can be understood as a historical event where the Israelites leave Egypt to wander in the desert finally arriving in the promised land.

But this same story has many other interpretations. It can also be understood as our spiritual journey as a faith community: we leave the dominant culture or the land of our egos (Egypt) to enter a time of confusion where we must walk by the Spirit (time in the desert) – learning to allow Spirit to emerge from within ourselves bringing peace and a new, other-focused perspective on reality (promised land).

Best of all with scripture, we needn’t be limited by just one interpretation. Symbols have many meanings and speak to us in different ways at different times. God speaks to us afterall, through the events of our lives. God is present and acting through history.

Literalism is a modern development that restricts our ability to understand. It flattens meaning, limiting “truth” to that which similiar to a “video of an event.” It is reductionistic.

Expand your world. Think symbolically. Ask a better question.

Here are wise words from a seasoned professor I know. “All of the bible is true, and some of it actually happened. Therefore, instead of asking ‘Is the bible true?’ it’s wiser to ask, ‘Where’s the truth in the bible?'”

InnerPeace – Rewire Your Brain

Photo R. Meshar

Recently Diane Ackerman wrote an article for the New York Times entitled, “The Brain on Love.” Basically it notes that when individuals are in loving and stable relationships they tend to feel safe, secure, content and even blissful. Feeling loved, safe and secure allows us then, to engage the world and others in healthy and productive ways.

But what about people who have experienced a series of unhealthy realtionships? Maybe, even since childhood? The good news is that our brains are endlessly adaptive and we can rewire or change our neural pathways at any time. People may work do this, for example, when they enter therapy – as the article notes.

What the article doesn’t state – is that we don’t actually need to be in an intimate or married relationship with another person. We can  meditate, enter long periods of silence and connect with that unconditional loving part of ourselves that exists deep within our own hearts.

The universe is holy and that holiness exists within us too. We carry it with us. Sometimes unhealthy relationships, work, addictions or busyness simply distract us from connecting with the love and beauty we carry inside ourselves.

This is why meditation, prayer (another word for meditation) and silence offer such an important place of healing. We can heal our distorted ways of viewing ourselves, relationships and reality around us.

Our brain seeks healthy love and compassion to heal itself – which paradoxically – exists within our brain. Meditate, use healthy self talk. Rewire your brain pathways – a little bit each day.

Photo R. Meshar

 

 

Traditions, Teachings and Changes

Photo UltimateBibleReferenceLibrary.com

Occasionally I encounter a Catholic with the strange idea that Church teaching never changes. Any amount of reflection on this faulty assumption should immediately bring to mind numerous changes that have occurred over time. Another strange idea that some Catholics have is that culture shouldn’t influence Church teaching. Both of these ideas can be easily examined and questioned.

If we look at the book of Acts of the Apostles, we see an early Church that taught the practice of pooling and sharing material wealth (Acts 4:32-35) and caring for everyone within the community. This was the teaching and practice of early Christianity. Certainly that practice has changed.

Of course the practice of Eucharist has changed dramatically. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the practice of Eucharist is to be a meal that serves and feeds the poor who are actually hungry (1 Cor 11:17-22). Now there’s a foundational teaching that changed! When was the last time you went to a Catholic mass where the ritual included serving an actual meal to those physically hungry in their midst? Perhaps never. Nevertheless, such masses do occur and I have attended a few.

Other teachings have changed as well, and thankfully for the better. In the middle Ages the Church declared that the practice of slavery was a doctrine and usury was a mortal sin. Both teachings have since been shelved and in fact, reversed.

Now, what about the influence of culture? In truth, the cultures of the day have always influenced Church teaching. First Jewish culture, then Greek, Latin, European nomadic tribes, etc. How could they not? Culture (including language) is the lens through which people view their world.

Cultural influences can be positive. Consider the St. Paul’s Jewish idea that we are all part of the Body of Christ. On the other hand consider the negative Roman idea that governance is best done via a monarchy or imperial oligarchy. Today a negative influence would be unregulated capitalism in our culture. But a positive one could be the concept of democracy or everyone having a voice.

Church teaching is always changing. It is alive. We add to what we understand, how we interpret scripture and dogma (core truths) and continue to build on that understanding with each culture that becomes part of Christianity. Over time our understanding of what is holy, whole and healing changes. Our understanding of what it means to be truly human changes. Our understanding of God changes.

With the idea of “mission” therefore, we do not seek to Christianize Africa. Rather we seek to Africanize Christianity.” We do this by listening and lifting up the ways God is already at work in African peoples and their cultures.

But how will we know which influences are positive or negative? A good way to check is to ask yourself, “Does it benefit the good of all or the common good?” and “Does it have a preference for the vulnerable and weakest among us?”

Not everything in our Catholic traditions should be kept. We need to know, as Catholics, what to appropriate out of our Catholic Christian traditions – and what is best forgotten.

This post was originally published on 5-22-11. You may also like American Catholicism-How’s It Working?, Question the Culture and Truth Or Consequences.