The Black Flesh of Christ Crucified

The Black Flesh of Christ Crucified

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Here is a link to this weekend’s readings.

Photo from https://utsnyc.edu/faculty/james-h-cone/

Photo from https://utsnyc.edu/faculty/james-h-cone/

With the current social climate in the United States around issues of race, I decided to read James Cone’s award-winning book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011). Maya Angelou wrote in her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” that “History, despite its wrenching pain,/ Cannot be unlived, and if faced/ With courage, need not be lived again.” When it comes to racial tensions in America, we need to know not just the recent history, such as the events in Charlottesville, but the long history of white supremacy and white privilege in America. We need to confront the persistent violence and injustice against our black brothers and sisters. Cone provides an opportunity to see this through the eyes of a black Christian scholar.

In St. Paul’s letter, we read that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The black experience in America makes this link between slavery and the cross poignant. Focusing on the connection between the death of Jesus on a tree and the death of some 5,000 black Americans on trees throughout the land, especially in the “lynching era” from 1880-1940, Cone reminds us that the cross cannot be understood only in the past tense. If we are so comfortable that we are blind to the crosses our own brothers and sisters endure to this day, then we are blind to Christ in our midst. The recent apparent attempt to hang an 8-year-old bi-racial boy in New Hampshire, as well as the resurgence of the KKK on the national scene, has made it imperative to study the lynching era and to know our history… so that we don’t repeat it.

Concerning the cross, Cone writes powerful and prophetic words—and by prophetic here, I mean the biblical sense of challenging us with the truth and the need to work for justice. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation [the cross] has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignatio Ellacuría, 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.” Is this true for you as it is for me? I am far too comfortable with the cross. It doesn’t provoke me. It doesn’t jar my conscience. I am so used to seeing it that I almost forget the depth of the violence it represents; that is, unless I intentionally meditate upon it. If I were to wear a noose around my neck, however, it would immediately provoke a visceral reaction. That is one reason why I think Cone does us a service to ask us to think of the two symbols together.

Irlande - art sacré“Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” he writes, “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.”[1] Healing the racial wounds in this country and working towards equal justice under law requires us to confront this not-so-distant history and its ongoing legacy. The violence was nothing short of terrorism on our own shores, meant to instill fear in black people and to keep them “in their place.” (If you a very sensitive person, you may want to skip the next paragraph, which is quite graphic).

“Burning the black victim slowly for hours was the chief method of torture. Lynching became a white media spectacle, in which prominent newspapers… announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims. Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims—burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs. Postcards were made from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[2]

These are very difficult words to read, and this is a painful history to examine. Our history textbooks rarely convey the extent of the horror. To feel it in your gut is to be a witness now to the crucifixion. And to witness the crucifixion is to learn to recognize the voice of Christ accusing us, any time we are silent when we should prophetically speak out, as He accused St. Paul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). As Christians were a persecuted minority then, blacks make up less than 14% of the U.S. population now and have always been vulnerable to, and often subjected to, persecution. If not out of pure humanitarianism, white Christians at very least should recognize Christ in black flesh, and recognize that our history in America has been a lot of “looking out… for [our] own interests,” (I write here as a white Christian). We must continue to listen to St. Paul, the Word of God, and our black brothers and sisters, all asking us to look out “not for [our] own interests, but also for those of others.” This is what is means to be the Body of Christ. Black and white Christians, together with people of every background that make up the American mosaic, working together for justice and peace, brotherhood and sisterhood. Together, we have made great strides in the past. The work is not finished though. United, and with deep love for one another regardless of race, we can continue to advance the cause of “liberty and justice for all.”

[1] Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), pp. xiv-xv.

[2] Cone, 9.

Credit for the African Pieta image: Patrice THEBAULT/CIRIC

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4 Comments
  • John D Peirce
    Posted at 09:14h, 02 October

    Maybe loosing interest is the real crime. I wonder if any police have ever done prison time for the murder or wrongful death of an unarmed black person. The public is occassionally outraged, but we loose interest through the legal process.

    • Kevin Dowd
      Posted at 09:20h, 02 October

      You may be onto something. I remember learning that love has two opposites: hate and apathy. But how do we stir one another out of complacency?

  • Angela
    Posted at 08:17h, 05 October

    That is a good point. I think the only way to fight complacency is to pray for the grace to become the people God intended for us to be; practicing radical forgiveness, radical charity, and radical love.

  • Marion Collins
    Posted at 19:27h, 06 October

    Kevin, you deserve so much credit for speaking out about an issue that has currently become so prevalent and vicious in America. The treatment of Black Americans needs to be seen and heard if we are ever to live in Peace.
    Your opening theme picture portrays a woman in chains, about to be tortured and murdered in the horrific lynchings of our History. I am glad that you exposed the Black Experience with the overriding issue of White Supremacy. You even courageously exposed the actual atrocities of the lynchings, the torture that proceeded them and the carnival type atmosphere of celebration including women and children taking part!
    We are indeed guilty of ignoring the crosses of our black brothers and sisters and in doing so we do not see the cross that reminds us of Jesus on the Cross and His Presence in our lives.
    In Haiti, I once saw a very large Cross with a Black Jesus and that image will always be with me as will your beautiful Black Pieta.
    As you stated, we tend to wear a Cross but do not look at its’s true meaning, calling to mind the torture, pain and suffering of Jesus. He died for us, surely we can speak out for Him in our treatment of our Black brothers and sisters with respect and the justice they deserve.
    Kevin, I particularly like your image of “American Mosaic”, All People , Black, White, Asian and Latino working together to create “LIberty and Justice for ALL”.

    My fervent hope and prayer is that of Maya Angelou that you quoted: “that History faced with courage need not be lived again”!

    You also do a wonderful job of weaving the Scriptures of the day into the lesson you proclaim!

    Bayard-thank you for publishing a blog that calls us all to true reflection and action in today’s America!