The Black Flesh of Christ Crucified
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.
“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.” 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.”
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.”
 Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), pp. xiv-xv.
 Cone, 9.