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.


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.

Take Heart

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 19:1-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

For two days in a row now, I have walked around feeling very much like Elijah.

For two nights in a row now, I have gone to bed feeling very much like the disciples.

For 48 hours, I have been afraid. I have known fear. And so we’re going to talk about fear.

Fear is generally defined as a rational, unpleasant feeling that is a response to a perceived or real threat to a person. It is one of our most very basic emotions, a primal response to stimuli in our surroundings, that causes us to either try to escape from the danger, confront it, or freeze.

Rational fears help keep us alive by keeping us out of danger. Irrational fears are called phobias, and they are responses to stimuli that aren’t dangerous, but are still perceived to be. The fear of getting shot when someone is holding a gun to your head is a rational fear. The fear that your goldfish is going to hurt you is an irrational fear, a phobia: and it even has a name, ichthyophobia.

Fear permeates our scripture readings this morning. Elijah is running away because he’s afraid. It’s a rational fear: he has every good reason to be afraid. He has just executed as many prophets of Baal as he could, prophets loved by Queen Jezebel, who also worshiped Baal. And he has just received a message from the Queen basically saying, “I swear on my life: because you killed my prophets, expect that by tomorrow, I will have killed you, too.”

I don’t know about you, but if the leader of my country sent me a message saying that they were going to use all of their power and authority to have me killed by tomorrow, I’d be terrified too.

In response to this well-founded, rational fear, fear for his life, Elijah runs. He runs for over forty days, so far away that he ends up in the desert, at the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb, where God met the Israelites after liberating them from slavery and formed the covenant with them. Here, he hopes he can finally be out of reach of Queen Jezebel and her vengeance. Thinking himself the only person left in the kingdom faithful to God, he hopes that here, God will keep him safe.

The disciples, too, experience their share of fear. They have gotten into a boat, on a lake, and are caught in a storm. Now, I’ve never been in that exact situation—perhaps some of you have, and can attest to the horror of it. But my wife is a big fan of Deadliest Catch, and I’ve seen clips of their boats caught in storms, and it is the last place I’d want to be.

I once made a hobby of studying the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—the real event, not the song. I know the names of ships like the Carl D. Bradley; or the Argus, and the Henry B. Smith, just a few of the 19 ships destroyed and 19 ships stranded during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, resulting in the loss of more than 250 lives. Being on the water during a storm is a terrifying experience, and a very rational fear.

It’s no surprise then that the disciples, caught in this perilous situation, think that the sight of Jesus walking towards them across the water is actually a ghost. And it’s no surprise that they cry out in fear. It’s a rational response to the danger they found themselves in.

Of course, we know that fear is alive and well in our world today. It’s been brought into sharp focus over the last 48 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia, so much so that I, too, am afraid.

Friday night, hundreds of white supremacists bearing torches, intentionally calling to mind images of hooded KKK members marching with their torches in the heyday of the Klan, marched on the campus of the University of Virginia. They shouted “Sieg heil!” and “Blood and soil!”, two slogans of the Nazi party. They shouted “White Lives Matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They fought with counter-protesters, and the police had to break up the fights.

They surrounded St. Paul’s Memorial Church, where the Charlottesville Clergy Collective held a prayer meeting and had set up a station to help care for people wounded during the protest, and the people inside held each other in fear that the hatred shouting and marching past their door would burst through it at any moment to attack those hiding inside.

Yesterday morning, hundreds more white supremacists marched on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. They waved Nazi flags, the symbol of one of the worst perpetrators of genocide in modern history. They waved Confederate flags, symbols of an army whose sole purpose was to fight for the right of white Americans to own Africans and African Americans as property, as slaves. They came armed in camouflage body armor bearing assault weapons, claiming to be militias sent to “protect the peace.”

In an act of domestic terrorism, a car drove straight into a crowd of people opposing the white supremacists, killing one and injuring nineteen others. More than a dozen others were injured in skirmishes across the day. The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has declared a state of emergency so that he can mobilize state resources to deal with the crisis.

People are afraid. They are terrified. And they have good reason to be. The KKK used to wear hoods to hide their identity when they burned crosses on people’s lawns and lynched them. Now they and other white supremacists who share their ideology of hate walk and chant openly, spewing their hate and bigotry with pride. They have been empowered and emboldened to share their hate. And they are acting on it.

Like Elijah fleeing in terror because the one with all the power sought to use that power to hurt him; like the disciples caught in a storm that they alone couldn’t resist, the targets of the hatred of these white supremacists—of this evil—are afraid: genuinely, rationally, in fear.

And I am afraid–afraid of the truth that my own silence makes me complicit. That our own silence allows this to continue. That we as white Americans have a lot of work to do, and most of us are unwilling to do it.

Contrast that with the phobia—the irrational fear—of the white supremacists. A friend of mine, a deacon in our own ELCA, reported last night that one of his wife’s students in Ohio expressed that he was afraid of black people because he was taught that they were violent. He’s in the first grade. It doesn’t take long for the hate of white supremacy to take root when it’s being taught to our children.

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because white supremacy has in the past, and continues today, to be supported by perverted interpretations of the Gospel. Yes, people still use the Bible to justify white supremacy. When Christians do not speak up against hatred and evil like white supremacy, our silence speaks for us. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when we don’t want to offend. Even and especially when we’re part of the problem. Despite a supposed dedication to diversity, the ELCA is the second-least diverse church in the country. Thirty years after our formation as a church, we are still over 96% white. Why do you think that is? We need to speak out against sin and evil, especially when it’s this important.

And it is important. It’s important because, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, which we read this morning:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

The only way the good news of Jesus Christ will be heard is if we speak up. Is if we shout it. Is if we confront the ways in which it is warped, perverted, and twisted to serve sin and evil.

But why here? Why today? Why do we have to talk about it today? This isn’t Virginia. This is Wisconsin. We don’t have any connection to those folks over there, do we?

But we do. Just as Paul reminds us, “the same Lord is Lord of all”. We are Christians. We are part of the church that exists beyond our walls—which is where the vast, vast majority of the church exists.

We do, because the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

This is the same Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of… racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, ‘These are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ Yes, I love the church… but oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect.”

Because it is true, what the eminent theologian the Reverend Karl Barth once said about preaching: that it is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, interpreting current events through the lens of Christ. And Christians need to stand up to white supremacy just as much now as they did when the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer did during the Nazi regime, and was martyred for it.

Because if we do not speak up and proclaim the Gospel, who will? If we do not speak to those living in fear, like Elijah and the disciples were, who will?

It is up to us. It is our responsibility. It is our calling to be lights in the darkness, to be the cake baked on hot stones and water that strengthened Elijah; to be the great wind, earthquake, fire, and sound of sheer silence that draws attention to God’s presence; to be the voices that calm the storm and remind those living in the grip of such terror that, like Elijah and the disciples, they are not alone; that there are other voices that stand with them.

…That God is present with them.

…That we worship the same Jesus who said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

…That following the example of Jesus Christ, Christians have spent millenia standing up to oppression and injustice, for just like preaching, what good is the Gospel if it doesn’t affect people’s lives?

And that’s exactly what people have been doing—affecting their lives by bringing the kingdom of God with them. As many white supremacists as there were in Charlottesville this weekend, there were many more people there to stand up to them, including hundreds of Christians, lay and clergy, from all across the country. They gathered there to dispel hatred and fear, to stand up to oppression. They prayed. They sang. They marched. They worshiped. They healed–literally, physically helped the injured get well. They stood between different groups of protesters to shield them from harm. They spoke.

They put the good news of Jesus Christ into action. They lived out what it looked like to be the kingdom of heaven here on earth. When we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”, this is what we pray for. This is what we mean. Like a song by the Rend Collective goes:

“Build your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set your church on fire

Build your kingdom here.”

And you know what? The people of Charlottesville, Virginia–they heard. They saw. They heard the voice of God in the voices of hundreds of Christians as they sang and prayed. They saw God’s work in the hands of counter-protesters as they dragged the wounded out of the way, huddled with the afraid in the church, locked arms together to form barriers to protect those targeted by bigotry and hate.

They brought salvation with them this weekend. They proved that the ones in fear were not alone. They became angels, messengers of God, bringing word from all across the country that they were not alone. That thousands of voices—our voices—were with them. That our prayers were there. Our support was there. They brought comfort and peace to the heart of the storm.

Today, we too raise our voices in the name of peace. We too recall the salvation our Lord brought to the oppressed and the captive. We too stand in the way of sin and evil. We too acknowledge that we have a long way to go, and that the road before us is long, hard, uncomfortable. We too stand with our siblings in Christ as we proclaim to those in fear, all those in fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Featured Image: “Congregate Charlottesville Contronts Unite the Right 20” by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. It depicts some of the counter-protesters, including clergy, who stood against the hate groups that were holding a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Where Do I Stand?

It looks like standing up to the perpetrators of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic violence against certain populations in our own country and saying, “It doesn’t matter what our political ideologies are—this must end, and it must end now.”

Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Fair warning: You are going to be offended this morning by the language used in some of what you’re going to hear. I urge you to remember that this is the language used in the original stories, and that it’s important for you to hear it. You need to hear it.

I am proud to call myself a graduate of Capital University, an ELCA university in Columbus OH that just recently announced its intent to reunite with my seminary, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, right across the street. The education I received there in music and religion was top notch. I am still in contact with some of my professors who continue to be mentors, who came to my seminary graduation, and who wished they could have come to our wedding. On any day I would enthusiastically recommend my university to someone wondering where they should go to school for higher education.

But then, there are days like this.

This past Wednesday evening, Austin Damman, an 18-year old first year nursing student, returned to his room in the Lohman Complex residence hall after his last class, the residence hall where Debbie lived as a resident assistant for three years. When he opened his door, he noticed a sheet of notebook paper had been slid under it while he was away. He opened it to find this message scrawled on it:

“F—kin’ faggot. Trump will get you!”

That same night, Brittany Daughenbaugh was dealing with her insomnia the way she normally does: walking around Capital’s campus playing Pokémon Go. This night, however, ended very differently. Two young men jumped her, beating her until half of her face swelled up and bruised. “Don’t you worry, honey,” they said, “President Trump says this is okay.”

That was on the same day at my own alma mater, an ELCA university.

That’s not to mention the swastika that was painted on a baseball dugout in Wellsville, NY with the words, “Make America White Again.”

Or a wall in North Carolina painted with the words, “Black Lives don’t matter and neither does your votes.”

Or the swastika and “Seig Heil” painted on a storefront in Philadelphia.

Or the woman at San Jose State University who was choked by her own hijab.

Or the note that said “Gay families = burn in hell” placed on a car in North Carolina.

Or the episcopal priest, known to colleagues of mine, who had a note placed on his car addressed to “Father Homo”, which said that “They’ll put marriage back where God wants it and take yours away. America gonna take care of your faggity ass.

Or the black students at Penn State who were all sent a group text message titled “nigger lynching” with images of black people hanging from trees and a “daily lynching” calendar.

All of those stories are just from Wednesday by the way. More are reported every day. And if you were offended and hurt by the language used in those stories, imagine how it must feel to have them directed at you.

If you are wondering why so many people are literally afraid for their lives right now, it’s not because of who was elected president. It’s not because of who controls the Senate or the House of Representatives.

It’s because the streets are suddenly and significantly more unsafe for them than they have been in decades.

Much of that may have been difficult to hear, but I won’t apologize. It’s important. It’s important as Christians to hear the cries of people in pain in all their ugliness, especially when they make us uncomfortable. Christians are a people who should live in that discomfort.

Last Sunday, on the celebration of All Saints Day, we heard these uncomfortable words from Jesus:

Blessed are you who are poor: woe to you who are rich.
Blessed are you who are hungry: woe to you who are full.
Blessed are you who weep: woe to you who are laughing.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you: woe to you when all speak well of you.

And this week, we hear this:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.

I have to admit that while I was bullied all throughout school, I don’t think I can say that I’ve had people truly hate me, revile me, or defame me. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never been persecuted. I’ve never been thrown in prison, justly or unjustly. I’ve never been betrayed by my parents, my sister, my relatives or my friends. I cannot imagine what that feels like.

So when I read this sobering observation on reality by Jesus, I have to wonder, where is my place?

If I’ve never been the victim of the horrible things Jesus is talking about, where do I stand? Is it possible that I have stood in the place of the arrestor, the persecutor, the one who hands people over, who has betrayed family and friends, who has put to death, who has hated? I hope not. But as a Christian, part of the communion of saints, part of the imperfect institution known as the church on earth, I know that even if I haven’t personally been in that position, the church has. The church has had to deal with its past and present history of standing on the side of the oppressor, on the side of hate. It’s not a position I ever want to be in again.

But if I’ve not been the victim, and I don’t want to be the persecutor, where is there to stand? Where is my place in the midst of the hatred, threats, and violence that people in our country are facing this very day?

On Thursday, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released a video message that had this to say.

“So what do we do, dear church? Three things: Remember that all human beings are created in the image of God … Pray—for our country, for those elected, for understanding. And then we get back to work, doing the things the church has always done. Welcome the stranger. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and those in prison. Work for justice and peace in all the earth, all in the name of the one who is our hope, our life, and our peace, Jesus, who has set us free to serve the neighbor.”

Where is the church’s place? Right alongside the suffering, the victims, the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the hated, the reviled, the attacked, the threatened; the people who need most to be reminded that they are created in the image of God and worthy of the dignity and respect that entails, the people who most need the outward expression of God’s love that the church should reflect, the people who most need to be helped by God’s work through our hands.

And what does that look like?

  • It looks like our Presiding Bishop standing in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
  • It looks like the ELCA Churchwide Assembly putting together a social statement on Women and Justice.
  • It looks like Lutheran and Immigration Services resettling refugees from war-torn countries in their new homes here in the United States.
  • It looks like the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin helping to organize Advocacy Day in 2017 and standing up to human trafficking.
  • It looks like the South Dakota Synod of the ELCA standing up to the stigma of addiction to provide hope and healing.
  • It looks like California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks creating a veterans coordinator position to help veterans cope with returning from often horrific situations.
  • It looks like continuing to collect food and supplies for the Three Lakes Christian Food pantry and the Caritas of Eagle River ministries.
  • It looks like saying “All Are Welcome”, and really meaning it: even people who are non-white, non-cisgender, non-heterosexual, non-Lutheran, non-Christian, non-American.

It looks like standing up to the perpetrators of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic violence against certain populations in our own country and saying, “It doesn’t matter what our political ideologies are—this must end, and it must end now.” Because if we cannot even do that—if we cannot even condemn these acts and open our arms to those suffering from them—then that, too, shows where we stand.

It is absolutely a part of our Christian heritage to stand with the poor and the oppressed, as Jesus did, who told those very people that they were blessed by the presence of God in the midst of their suffering, that the Holy Spirit would give them strength through their cries, who would be witnesses to the world of where God stands.

It is absolutely a part of our Lutheran heritage to fight injustice, to defend the victimized, to show the grace of God and the grace we human beings are capable of. And when we do that, when we take a stand with the oppressed and suffering, we let the world know where we stand, that we will be counted with them, as one of them; and that the Holy Spirit speaks through us as witnesses to God’s preferential treatment of the poor, oppressed, and suffering.

We are the body of Christ. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we were baptized into his message and his work. We are united with Christians all across the world and through time, proclaiming in word and deed the saving power of God for those in need of rescue. We stand together in our shared calling, supporting each other, lifting each other up, easing suffering and helping to usher in the reign of God. This is who we are.

I had the privilege of attending the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, Louisiana as an adult leader. In the convention center, I was pleasantly surprised to find a friend from seminary, Sarah, passing something out at a booth. It was a medallion from ReconcilingWorks that says, “Peacemaker.” (pictured with this post)

For the last few months, I’ve been wearing this medallion to remind me of where I want to stand. A peacemaker is someone who walks alongside victims of violence and works for the transformation of conflict into peace, who works for inclusion and harmony, to protect those most in need of it.

This is who the church is. This is who we are called to be. And it’s who I want to be, for as long as I live.

Brothers and Sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.