Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The events last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, came as a shock to white Americans. “How can white supremacy still be a thing?” we ask ourselves, while our black siblings wonder how we ever thought it wasn’t.

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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.

When I picked up this book again a few weeks ago, I had no idea just how relevant and timely it would be.

Judging by the price sticker on the back, I first bought this book from the Steeple People Bookstore (a place I still fondly miss) at Trinity Lutheran Seminary while I was enrolled there. I confess… I don’t remember which class the book was for, and in any case, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read it. Not that I didn’t want to, but in seminary, I had a bad habit of not getting through most of my assigned readings, and unfortunately, Dr. James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree was one of them. How I wish I’d read this book years ago!

The title of the book states its premise: that the “lynching tree” (which was not exclusively a tree) of the late 1880s to the late 1900s is theologically equivalent to the cross on which Jesus Christ was executed. The similarities are so striking that, like Dr. Cone, I too wonder how the connection was never made in the public consciousness.

That is, until I remember that I too never made the connection. I of course had heard about lynching, but it was never something that my history classes spent much time on. And it never came up in my theology classes. We as a country, especially we white Americans, have all but forgotten about lynching.

Throughout the book, Dr. Cone addresses the history of lynching and the brutal reality of innocent black men and women dragged from their homes, tortured, mocked, and eventually murdered. Statistics are incomplete, but the best guess is that around 5000 people were lynched after 1882 (when people first started counting and keeping track).

But he also addresses the theological impact lynching had–or, in too many cases, didn’t have–on people. On the one hand, he talks about the incredible faith of African Americans, who looked to Jesus hanging on the cross to give them the strength to persevere while their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters hung from trees, were lit on fire, disemboweled, and beaten to pulp. Jesus’s suffering and death mirrored their own in disturbing ways; they knew what Jesus felt, because they felt it too. He recounts the brave words of blues and jazz singers who used music to bring the haunting reality of lynching into the public sphere where it was already not. He lauds the theologians and Christians who took their experiences of the lynching tree and used them to inspire all forms of resistance to it.

On the other hand, he justly tears into white theologians, especially Reinhold Niebuhr, for their inability or downright reluctance to not only speak out against the evil of lynching, but to take any action. That white Christians were not only complicit in lynchings, but were its chief architects and accomplishers, is one of the fundamental failings of the white American Christian denominations. We were silent; or worse, we were the lynchers. White Christianity very often had no problem with black men and women being murdered in the name of “justice”, just like it had no problem with the institution of slavery for hundreds of years. Dr. Cone uses Niebuhr, arguably one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century, to represent the white Christian’s inability to connect the cross and the lynching tree and our failure to act against the injustice of lynching.

At first, I was uncomfortable with Dr. Cone’s criticism of Niebuhr. But as I read his arguments, I came to realize that I was coming from the same privileged position as Niebuhr. Niebuhr was white, and never had to deal with the reality of living as black in America. Yes, Niebuhr did speak out against racism. But even he admits, “I never envisaged a fully developed interracial church at Bethel [Niebuhr’s congregation]. I do not think we are ready for that.” (p. 43). Dr. Cone argues that while Niebuhr “‘had eyes to see’ black suffering, but … lacked the ‘heart to feel’ it as his own” (p. 41).

And that is the problem with our country’s approach to racism. For people like Dr. Cone, who lived during the lynching era and was terrified every night that his father wouldn’t come home, lynching and the terrible injustice of racism wasn’t just something that was theoretical. It was–is–a lived experience, an ever-present reality. It affected and affects every moment of his life. There is no part of his life that has escaped the threat of being murdered for no reason at all. White Christianity’s unwillingness to listen to the stories of people like Dr. Cone simply because it doesn’t match our story is why Dr. Cone has been accused of being overly negative about white Christianity, even to this day–he has no problem pointing it out.

But isn’t it still necessary? The events last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, came as a shock to white Americans. “How can white supremacy still be a thing?” we ask ourselves, while our black siblings wonder how we ever thought it wasn’t. As Dr. Cone reminds us (p. 164):

In 2005 the U.S. Senate formally apologized for its failure to have passed an anti-lynching bill. Did the apology get rid of the hate? What happened to the indifference among white liberal religious leaders that fostered silence in the face of the lynching industry? Where is that indifference today? Did the hate and indifference vanish so that we no longer have to be concerned about them? What happened to the denial of whites who claimed that they did not even know about lynching, even though many blacks were lynched during their adult years? Unless we confront these questions today, hate and silence will continue to define our way of life in America.

Dr. Cone has been criticized for many things: his overly negative view of white Christianity, his overly positive depiction of black Christianity, his primary focus on male theologians and relatively secondary importance given to black womanist theologians. But in this, I think he’s absolutely right. The hate that he lived through didn’t go away. It never has. The events of Charlottesville are nothing new, but just the latest in the long, scandalous history of white supremacy in our country.

There are still lessons we need to learn, if only we could put away our pride and our white fragility and listen. Dr. Cone’s book might be shocking to people who’ve never had these conversations before, but The Cross and the Lynching Tree lays it all out there, and for that, I’m grateful to Dr. Cone for his commitment to racial justice and black liberation.

Racism, Sexuality, Sin, and Grace

It’s never really been a secret that we live in a messed up, broken, constantly-changing world: just look at this week. And we know God is out there! We tell ourselves that every week, or even every day. But slowly, God’s abiding presence goes unnoticed, pushed away and covered by everything else happening in life. Where is God when a gunman massacres people in a church? Where is God when anger and hate get in the way of love? It can feel like God isn’t present at all.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 5B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

It’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it.

Because I’ve been on vacation, it’s been three weeks since I stood in this pulpit. And in that time, we’ve been rocked by monumental happenings.

A week and  a half ago, I was sitting on the porch of one of the cabins at Camp Luther near Conneaut, OH. Reception out there is difficult to get, so getting enough signal to access the Internet was a real challenge. Still, I had seen a few headlines mentioning a shooting in Charleston, SC., but, unfortunately, in our current societal climate, it didn’t shock or surprise me.

One of the other clergy present at the camp came up to me and said, “Did you hear about what happened in South Carolina?”

“Yes, a little… I saw there was a shooting, right?”

“Nine people,” he said. “Nine people were shot in an historical black church in Charleston yesterday. I thought you should know.”

You see, that week, while I was on vacation at Camp Luther with my family, I was also serving as chaplain for the week. That meant that I was in charge of worship, but also for providing pastoral care if necessary to campers. This is not what I needed on my vacation.

“There’s more,”he said, which I couldn’t’ believe, but I listened anyway. “The shooter? He was one of us. He was a member of an ELCA congregation.”

Yes, you heard that right. Dylan Roof, a man who proudly waved a Confederate battle flag, a flag flown by armies explicitly fighting for the right to treat Africans and their descendants as less-than-human, a man who lamented the end of white-ruled apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa, a man who walked into a church and spent an hour in Bible study and prayer with 12 other people before standing up, pulling out a gun, and killing 9 of them: this man attended worship at an ELCA congregation.

I don’t know why I was as shocked by that as I was. The ELCA is in no way perfect. But we tend to live in a perpetual state of denial, that these sorts of things only happen “out there”; it couldn’t ever happen here, could it? Dylan Roof proved that it could. That not even we are immune to hate and violence, even though we are a church that preaches grace and mercy and forgiveness. Even we fall short.

It is for this reason that part of our service this morning comes from a Service of Repentance and Mourning, a service that our Presiding Bishop Rev. Elizabeth Eaton and the worship staff of our Churchwide unit put together just this week.

If that had been all that happened in the past ten days, that would have been enough to rock the nation. That was enough of an upheaval. But there was more in store.

On Friday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, ruled that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, under its equal-protection clause, guaranteed the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. It ruled that the same amendment to the United States Constitution prevented states from enacting laws or constitutional amendments of their own to ban same-sex marriages and required states to recognize the same-sex marriage licenses issued by other states. An intense legal battle that arguably began to take shape in 2003 ended on Friday.

For some, Friday was a day of unqualified celebration. It marked the end of at least one leg of a lifelong struggle for equality in marriage under the eyes of the law. It meant that their relationships would no longer be valid or invalid depending on which state they lived in. It meant that they as human beings, including their sexual orientation, were finally accepted fully and completely. It was a great, momentous day.

For others, Friday was a day of unqualified disaster. It marked the end of at least one leg of a lifelong struggle for the upholding of their religious values. It meant that relationships contrary to their beliefs would now be held on the same high level as their relationships. It meant that human beings who strayed from their particular religious virtues regarding sexual orientation would be allowed to continue straying. It was a terrible, momentous day.

Both of these events, in different ways, have sent seismic waves through our society and through our church. Things are changing. And changes this big are always accompanied by a companion. That companion’s name is fear.

In the wake of the Charleston shooting, a nationwide call to address racial tensions took the country by storm. The massacre was compared to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, an act of terror in Birmingham, AL, committed by white supremacists that killed four young girls and galvanized the Civil Rights movement. Within days, calls to remove the Confederate battle flag, a symbol appropriated by white supremacist groups representing the ideals of the Confederacy, were answered, and in many public places across the southern United States the flag was removed. Fearing that the symbol would continue to promote racism, retailers began pulling anything and everything related to or depicting the Confederate battle flag, as if in an attempt to erase that horrible bit of our national history.

On the other hand, supporters of the public display of the flag rattled the sabers to defend their symbol. Fearing the loss of their heritage, they fought back, claiming that the flag stood for nothing more than “Southern Heritage” and the pride that those who live in the south have for their land. Fearing the sins of the past, they claimed that the flag did not stand for the racism that was the bedrock principle of the Confederacy, and shouldn’t be associated with it.

There are also those who feared that this attack in a church is but the start of places of faith being targeted. In a sense, this may be true. At least two, maybe three predominately black churches in Georgia and the Carolinas have suffered fires in the last week that are being investigated as arsons. In addition, some people have called for guns to not only be allowed, but welcomed in churches and other houses of worship, and some are advocating that pastors be armed during worship and ready to defend worshipers if someone comes in to harm them. I will never be one of those pastors.

Tensions are still high, with both sides (and all those in between) afraid of what will happen next.

The same can be said of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday. Those who joyfully accept the ruling are afraid that this is only the beginning—that there is still a long fight ahead. That now that the question of same-sex marriage has, it seems, been settled, people will find other ways to discriminate against them. For example, 18 states do not have anti-discrimination laws for employment, meaning a person can be fired without consequence based on their sexual orientation. There are a host of other barriers set against those with a non-heterosexual orientation, such as in the realms of adoption and donating blood.

Those who reject the ruling are afraid that this is only the beginning—that there is still a long fight ahead. That now they will be forced to acknowledge same-sex marriage, or worse, participate. Some vendors have been forced to go against their principles, they claim. Will church pastors be next? Will they be forced to participate? Is this another sign that our country is losing sight of its morals and ethics?

We live in a culture of fear, and frankly, we’re bad at dealing with it. We are. It seems like our response to fear in our society is to batten down the hatches. We withdraw into ourselves and trust no one. We arm ourselves, figuratively and literally, against any opposition. And then we wait.

Maybe if we wait long enough, our fear will just go away on its own. Maybe, someone will try to come and attack us, and when we repel the attack, we will be safe. Maybe the fear will never go away.

I wish I could simply pull up some words from the Bible that would make all of our fear, especially around monumental change, go away. Our reading from Lamentations this morning is a perfect word of comfort.

Written describing the events after the Babylonian exile, Lamentations is a window into the minds and emotions of the Jewish people of the time. The exile, being forced out of their homeland and their capital city destroyed, was a tragically monumental and world-shattering event for the people of Judah. The book of Lamentations, then, is an attempt to make sense of that tragedy and loss and put into words the trauma that afflicted the Jewish people. It includes such hopeful words as this:

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

And later:
For the LORD will not reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflicted
or grieve anyone.

Such powerful words of comfort gave hope to the exiles that their suffering was not in vain—that this life-altering change wasn’t the end of the world. Whether or not those words actually DID give comfort, I don’t know. But they were meant to. They were written to.

Will they offer us comfort? If I went back and read the entire first lesson again this morning, would it make a difference? Somehow, I doubt it. So I won’t.

But what about our Gospel reading? Jesus Christ is, perhaps—no, I take that back—Jesus Christ is absolutely at the heart of the single greatest world-shattering change in the history of the universe. God incarnate, word become flesh, God literally walking among us. In his life, Jesus lived and walked among a people living in perpetual fear and anxiety about their future under the Roman Empire. He attracted enormous crowds, performed amazing miracles. He rocked the boat like storm waves on the Great Lakes. So intrusive was he to the established order of life that he was executed for it.

He brought others back to life, and wherever he went, people would be desperate to touch him in the hope that they would be healed. And Jesus responds—he heals the woman with the hemorrhage in our story this morning. He raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. And when he himself was executed, just to mess with everything everyone ever knew about life, he goes and rises from the dead. Nothing, absolutely nothing was out of the realm of possibility with Jesus Christ—he changed everything.

And yet, somehow, I doubt when we read this story this morning, that there was a general feeling of awe and wonder at the amazing works of Jesus. We are too afraid to hear it today. We are too anxious.

This is what fear does. It shuts us down, it locks us out. It makes us numb and immune. I am as numb and immune as anybody. Remember, when I first heard about the Charleston massacre, it barely fazed me. That’s who I’ve become—that’s who we’ve become. I am incapable of dealing with these things on my own. And so, I have to turn it over to God. Which is why, even on this day of repentance and mourning, that I am grateful, for little Bo.

When Brad and Kayla and I set a date for Bo’s baptism, we didn’t know that all of this stuff was going to happen in these past week and a half. And as these events unfolded, and in response to the Charleston massacre our Presiding Bishop called for a day of repentance and mourning, many of my colleagues scrambled to adjust our services this morning, wondering how they would accommodate any special events happening today. I did, too.

But I am glad, so very glad, that today, we get to see our God at work in a way we don’t often get to witness—through the gift of Holy Baptism.

It’s never really been a secret that we live in a messed up, broken, constantly-changing world: just look at this week. And we know God is out there! We tell ourselves that every week, or even every day. But slowly, God’s abiding presence goes unnoticed, pushed away and covered by everything else happening in life. Where is God when a gunman massacres people in a church? Where is God when anger and hate get in the way of love? It can feel like God isn’t present at all.

But not today.

Today, we get to see the grace of God poured out like a waterfall, a rushing river spilling over rocks. Today, we acknowledge the faith in God that little Bo has, that intimate trust he has in his creator, and God’s faith in him. We get to celebrate with his parents, and his family, and his friends, as he is marked a child of God and as the Holy Spirit descends upon him, just as happened to Jesus at his baptism.

Today, we get to see the grace of God in full force, piercing through the thick clouds and darkness that surround us today. We get to see, thanks to God’s grace.

A prominent speaker at the funeral of one of the victims of the Charleston massacre said it this way:

“According to Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.

“As manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace—as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

“He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and short-sightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace.”

Baptism is the clearest example of that grace, that overflowing love of God that both makes us see where we’ve fallen short, and then fills us with the power of God to go out and do something about it. To get away from fear and stand in the love of God, to speak boldly with the words given by the Holy Spirit, to declare our freedom in Christ from the captivity of sin that binds our world in abject terror. It is an act of God that will not be stopped by ignorance, age, or the ability to form a single word, let alone our own failings such as our racism and our hatred for those we perceive as different.

And so, in the midst of our pain and our suffering and our anger and our hurt, I give thanks for Bo, because today, he reminds me that we, sinful people, are forgiven through no effort of our own. Through Bo, I see the grace and power of God at work even in our darkest days. In Bo, when I fail to find God on my own, when like today the words from the Bible I have heard a hundred times bring no comfort, I see God taking the initiative and sending grace anyway.

We have a long way to go. Racism is not dead, and is in fact alive and well; yes, even here. We will be fighting over issues related to sexual orientation and equality for many years to come. I am sure that the fights will be passionate, and they will be destructive. Things will change, and they will change in way we can’t yet imagine. But as we are about to see through little Bo, that will not stop God from delivering grace, and sending the Holy Spirit to work wonders in the world through our faith and trust in God.

And Bo? He gets it. He knows the love God has for him, and he knows God will always be there for him. May we be reminded also that God loves, and God forgives, us. Thanks be to God for the grace that is sent through no merit or cause of our own doing, grace that wakes us up, grace that forgives, and grace that brings us home.

Featured Image: “Baptismal Font” by Cliff is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Cut It Out

“This is not an altogether cheery or happy metaphor, Jesus. Because whether or not we are good, fruit producing branches or bad, dead branches, being a part of the vine of Jesus involves cutting back, stripping away, and losing something we were holding onto.”

Fifth Sunday in Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

We long ago established that I am not a gardener. Yesterday, Debbie went out into the garden to tend to her plants and flowers, and I dutifully stayed away while she worked, so that I wouldn’t accidentally kill anything.

The truth is, when Jesus talks about being a vine and producing fruit and pruning, I don’t always pay attention. I know what pruning is, and why it’s important—by cutting off growth in certain places, you allow new, better growth, to flourish—but I couldn’t tell you about any of the techniques involved, or how you know what to prune when, or any of the details. Plants are not my thing.

So let me approach this metaphor from another angle.

High school, college, and seminary are all four year programs. You enter as a first-year student, and assuming everything goes smoothly, without interruption, you leave four years later. I’m not saying anything shocking or revolutionary, am I? Good.

We see this system every day, so it seems only natural, the way it should be.. As the older students leave, newer students come in.

Now, imagine for a moment if, after you started high school, college, or seminary, you never left. Four years go by. Five years. Eight years. Every student who enters never leaves, but more students keep entering.

Is this a healthy schooling model? Will the school be able to support all of these students? And worse, are these students, who never leave, becoming the people they were meant to be? Probably not.

In order for schools to function properly, and to continue producing good, graduated students, students have to leave. There’s no choice. They can’t stick around just because they want to. They’d become too much of a burden, the entire system collapses, and now, there’s no students learning and no good graduates being produced.

This sort of cycle, this action, is inevitable. You can’t just keep adding and adding, holding on to anything and everything, and expect new growth to happen. This is why a gardener has to prune a vine or a fruit-producing tree. The tree has to let go of some of its bulk and weight and make room for new growth if it is to continue producing fruit.

This is one of those times when Jesus comes out and tells the disciples what his metaphor means. “I am the vine,” he says, “YOU are the branches.” The gardener, in this case, God, cuts off any branch that doesn’t produce fruit—it’s dead weight, and useless.

But even the good branches, the ones that produce fruit, need to be cut back. They need to be pruned, having some of their unnecessary parts cut away so that they can continue to grow new life and produce fruit.

So the branches, the disciples, the many followers of Christ, need to produce fruit or be cut away. But even those that do, even those who react to the presence of the Spirit in the vine and who take that nourishment and turn it into good, powerful action; even they need to be cut back every once in a while, or else they, too, can be become dead branches.

This is not an altogether cheery or happy metaphor, Jesus. Because whether or not we are good, fruit producing branches or bad, dead branches, being a part of the vine of Jesus involves cutting back, stripping away, and losing something we were holding onto.

This is a terrible message for churches. Churches hate letting go of anything. I’ve told the story before of the church I worked in that attempted to throw away a ton of junk, but slowly, a lot of it ended up back in storage because somebody just couldn’t let go of each piece of useless junk.

It’s not just items. Church programs are famous for this. Programs continue on long past their expiration date, long past when they are doing any good, because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

We build more buildings, even though gathering in a meeting hall works just fine, because that’s what churches are supposed to do. And then we hold onto those buildings at all cost, because, even though they no longer serve our needs and are killing us, we can’t let them go.

We continue programs like Sunday School, First Communion, Confirmation, Children’s Church, Youth Group, Men’s and Women’s Groups, large numbers of committees, even when they don’t serve any theological or practical purpose; we’ve just always had them.

We see the world and the environment changing around us, necessitating a reorientation of the church, but that means leaving behind old ways of doing and being church, and so we can’t.

Churches are so afraid of what pruning might mean, of what cutting away might bring, that instead of seeing the new life that such pruning will bring, all they can see is the loss. It’s why there are  parishes all over made up of three congregations in three different buildings, and between the three of them, they can’t afford a Pastor—yet they insist on having three services on Christmas, one at each congregation, because they absolutely must have their own.

Churches are so afraid of losing any little bit of themselves to let new life grow that they’d rather become dead branches. At least they’ll be big and whole; but still dead.

What are we afraid of? Have we forgotten that a branch doesn’t exist on its own? That wherever a branch is growing, it is attached to something else, something that nourishes it and provides it with life?

“I am the vine,” Jesus says, “you are the branches.” You see, I’m grateful for that. A branch doesn’t have to worry about getting roots down deep. It doesn’t have to worry about taking in enough sunlight for the vine. It doesn’t have to worry about feeding the other branches, or managing the whole affair of being a plant. It’s just a branch.

The vine itself, the one putting out the branches, that’s where the life comes from. That’s where the branch gets its water, and gets the nourishment it can’t get itself. When it produces fruit, it’s because the vine has given it the strength to do so. And when it’s pruned, when it’s cut back, it’s the vine that makes it grow new life.

That’s what pruning does—it makes room for new life. A properly pruned plant produces MORE and better fruit than a plant that’s never been pruned, that’s never had to let go of anything. It will be continually renewed, flourishing, giving its fruit in abundance precisely because it has room to grow again and again and again.

Some people, like me, are terrible gardeners. A plant that relies on me will surely become one big dead branch. But the church, a branch of the vine of Jesus, is not gardened or cared for by human hands. It is cared for by God’s hands, the very same hands that created the vine, grew the branches, and produced the fruit.

Watered in baptism and fed at the Lord’s supper, the church grows and produces fruit wherever it let’s itself be pruned by God, making way for the good news, the good fruit, good works. But it has to let go. It has to realize that a dead branch is no branch at all, but a piece of wood good for little more than fuel.

We are a branch of the vine, grown out of the good news of Jesus Christ. We are not alone—we are connected not only to other branches, but to the vine itself, given life by the Holy Spirit. This is not of our own doing, but is the gift of God, who tends the vine and rejoices in the fruit it produces.

We are not a dead branch, but a living, breathing part of the body of Christ. We live and grow in spite of our efforts, in spite of our best intentions. We are all clothed in Christ. That is who we are; not lifeless wood, but living products of God’s loving care, care that does involve cutting away to allow room for the Holy Spirit to produce new life.

It’s terrifying. It goes against everything we tend to understand about growing. But by letting go, cutting away, we grow and flourish and produce abundant fruit.

“I am the vine,” says Jesus. “You are the branches.” Cut it out, let go, and get ready to produce good fruit.

Featured Image: “Winter Pruning Complete” by Jim Fischer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.