Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Thoughts on Power, Violence and the Pursuit of Justice

When I think of the Church pursuing political power or advocating the use of violence in the name of justice, I reflect on the Servant of the Lord.
Isaiah 42:1-4 - “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

Let’s look at the characteristics of this servant who embodies these words.

This is not someone chosen for just a task or a job to do. God delights in this servant. God will put his Spirit on him. He will bring justice, not only to the people of Israel, but to the nations, all of those who live outside of Israel. This deliverance that the servant will bring is universal in scope. This is not mere vengeance of the Lord on those who have oppressed his people, it is an offer of freedom to all people.

When it says he will not cry out, the idea is that he will not attempt to dominate people or shout others down. He will not raise his voice suggests that he will not go around promoting himself. In a way you see a quiet, unaggressive, unthreatening ministry. To this servant nothing (or no one) is useless. A bruised reed is not useful for as a support or anything else. A smoldering wick is about to be extinguished, and the servant will not snuff it out. In our world, many of our great leaders are ones who bruise others and snuff out those who may be fading. But not this leader. He protects them and works for them. The way this servant was to accomplish his commission is surprising. He would not be a street preacher or political rebel seeking to arouse the people. He would exercise his power in such a way that he would not even damage that which appears to be useless and ready to be discarded.
He will be faithful to his commission, even though it sounds like he may be under great stress.

As we peak ahead at the next verse: read verse 5.
We see that God confirms the worldwide task of his servant and promises its success. It is the Lord God, the creator of and sustainer of all things. He has a purpose for all of the world. He longs to restore the goodness that it had at creation. Should a God who originates, maintains, controls and directs all things now forget his people or fail to keep his promises?

Whenever we look at someone who embodies faithful Israel, whenever we look for God to send someone to accomplish justice and deliverance, we need to look to Jesus. This is what the early church did. This is what the gospel writers did. This is how they understood the mission of Jesus.

This gives us a template for leadership. What do we as Americans value in our leaders? Vision? Yes. Integrity? Hopefully. But if we are honest, often we value pragmatic values like power, access to wealth, physical might or strength, craftiness, the skills of a great warrior. Many times, we value someone like Cyrus. Cyrus accomplished God’s mission for him through military conquest and imperial power. And as we have seen, Cyrus’ victory was temporary and limited. Instead, we follow a leader who accomplished his commission in obscurity and through patient obedience. He did not impose his will on others, but he endured unjust judgment, contempt, suffering and death without complaining. Jesus rejects the methods of conquest that so many of us desire. One of the temptations Jesus faced in his period of fasting in the wilderness was the offer of all of the kingdoms of the earth, if he would only offer allegiance to Satan.

This is so counter cultural. Our world values power, and self-gratification and position and success (as we define it). This is not the way of the Servant of the Lord.

We are to be conformed into the image of Jesus. Jesus took the form of a servant. That is our commission as well. We serve one another and we serve the world as servants of the Lord who pursue justice and reconciliation for all of the nations.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Survey of The Cross and the Lynching Tree - part 3

Chapter 2 – “The Terrible Beauty of the Cross” and the Tragedy of the Lynching Tree: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr.

Reinhold Niebuhr is probably the most influential U.S. Protestant theologians of the 20th Century. This chapter is filled with Cone’s dissatisfaction with Niebuhr’s lack of passion and rage against lynching and racism. It is not that Niebuhr didn’t speak on these things or that he didn’t work toward racial equality, but Cone found his engagement wanting.

Cone begins this chapter again reflecting on the terrorism of the lynching of black people in the U.S. He continues to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists, the lowest of the low in society. The purpose for both was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place. He quotes NT scholar Paula Fredrickson that “Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”

With these similarities, the connection between the cross and lynching should be easy. Cone asks, “But how do we understand the failure of even the most “progressive” of America’s white theologians and religious thinkers to make this connection?”
I have to interject here. I am not as familiar with Niebuhr as I should be. As I read this chapter, I sympathized with Cone in his disappointment with one of his heroes, but at the same, I wonder if he was just disappointed Niebuhr never made the analogy of lynching with the cross. Cone does admit that Niebuhr was particularly sensitive to the evils of racism and spoke and wrote on many occasions of the sufferings of African Americans. But Cone finds it hard to believe that a theologian who was as focused on the cross as Niebuhr was, couldn’t make the connection to “its most vivid reenactment in his time.”

Cone believed that Niebuhr had a complex perspective on race – at once honest and ambivalent, radical and moderate. Niebuhr called racial hatred, “the most vicious of all human vices”. But at the same time, he believed that the founding fathers, despite being slaveholders, “were virtuous and honorable men, and certainly no villains.” He stated that Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century were good doctrine for the day. He hailed the end of public school segregation, but was also pleased with the phrase “with all deliberate speed”. He wrote, “The Negroes will have to exercise patience and be sustained by a robust faith that history will gradually fulfill the logic of justice.” In Cone’s eyes, this makes Niebuhr similar to the southern moderates on racial equality. He was more concerned about not challenging the cultural traditions of the white South than achieving justice for black people. Niebuhr wrote: “We can hardly blame Negroes for being impatient with the counsel for patience, in view of their age-long suffering under the white man’s arrogance.” Yet, he also wrote: “The fact that it is not very appealing to the victims of a current injustice does not make it any less the course of wisdom in overcoming historic injustices.” This does not sound like what leaders like MLK (inspired by Niebuhr himself) advocated: “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Cone compares Niebuhr’s lack of passion to others like Clarence Darrow and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Darrow was the defense attorney of a black man who was accused of murder after shooting a white man during an episode when the black man’s family was under threat of violence from a mob protesting his family’s presence in the white neighborhood. Darrow, in his defense, had the capacity to empathize with blacks and to persuade others to do so arguing that blacks have as much right as whites to defend themselves when their home is under attack. This was in Niebuhr’s town at the time. Niebuhr expressed some dispassionate sympathy but also expressed regret at what he categorized as the bitterness of Darrow’s speech.

During Bonhoeffer’s time at Union Seminary (while Niebuhr was teaching there), he spent time reading African American history and literature, he also attended Sunday School and church at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Niebuhr, in contrast, showed little or no interest in engaging in dialogue with blacks about racial justice (although Cone will provide an instance of a radio dialogue with James Baldwin). Cone notes that Niebuhr cites no black intellectuals in his writings and in his language referred to blacks as “our Negro minority” instead of “our brothers” as he referred to Jewish people. This sounds like white paternalism to Cone.

After Niebuhr left his church in Detroit to go to Union Seminary, conflict arose when several African Americans tried to join the church. Both sides, pro and con, appealed to Niebuhr. Although Niebuhr was no supporter of racism, he stated that he, “never envisaged a fully developed interracial church at Bethel.” The church wasn’t ready for that. Niebuhr knew that denying membership to people based on race was a problem but he was a pragmatist who knew that white churches were not prepared to include blacks. Niebuhr seems to feel regret that he did not prepare the church for that. While he spoke many times against racial prejudice, there is no evidence that he endeavored to address race in a practical way by trying to lead his church toward racial inclusion.  

Cone notes again that Niebuhr spoke and said very little about lynching. As a professor at Union, Niebuhr expressed concern for racial justice not by seeking to establish it on the faculty and among the students but by working with a cooperative farm organization in the south. Cone claimed that this would be the closest and perhaps only time he would engage the black struggle for justice. Niebuhr was much more interested in economic cooperation that he was in challenging racial prejudices. Cone laments that most of Niebuhr’s writings reflecting on race was not written in conversation with blacks. In the radio dialogue with James Baldwin, Cone notes the lack of passion in comparison with Baldwin’s rage against injustice. When Niebuhr wrote against liberalism, pacifism, communism, and the easy conscience of American churches, he expressed outrage; but when it came to black victims of white supremacy, he expressed none.

Cone does acknowledge that Niebuhr showed some signs of growth in this regard later in life. Cone even acknowledges how some of his earlier works were influential on Cone as well. What Niebuhr wrote about love, power, and justice helped Cone understand that moral suasion alone would never convince whites to relinquish their supremacy over blacks. As Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society, “The white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so.” Even when Cone taught Niebuhr in seminary, he admitted that his understanding of the cross is deeply influenced by Niebuhr’s perspective. He never questioned Niebuhr’s greatness as a theologian, but instead admired his intellectual brilliance and social commitment. What Cone did question was his limited perspective, as a white man, on the race crisis in America. His theology and ethics needed to be informed from critical reading and dialogue with radical black perspectives. In spite of being a theological giant in Cone’s eyes, he has this against him. Even though Niebuhr is called a prophet, and Niebuhr believed that courage was the primary test of prophesy, he took no real risks for blacks. Just as MLK learned much from Niebuhr, Niebuhr could have deepened his understanding of the cross by being led by being a student of King and the black freedom movement he led. And as I, personally, am still seeing today from the attitude of many prominent white pastors and church leaders, white theologians do not normally turn to the black experience to learn about theology.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Survey of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (part 2)

Chapter One – Nobody Knows De Trouble I See
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39)

The paradox of a crucified savior lies at the heard of Christianity. Crucifixion in the Roman world was recognized as the particular form of execution reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels. It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame. This required explanation as the early church worshiped a crucified criminal (or a blasphemer if you were Jewish). The cross however is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word.

That God could “make a way out of no way” in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life that empowered them to believe that ultimately at the end of times, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering. There was no place for the proud and mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power – white power – with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.

The violence and oppression of white supremacy took different forms and employed different means to achieve the same end: the subjugation of black people. How would hope be found in the world of Jim Crow segregation?

The lynching tree joined the cross as emotionally charged symbols that represented both death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope. Both the cross and the lynching tree represented a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine final meaning.

Cone spends several pages detailing the accounts of lynching throughout America, estimates of nearly five thousand victims. (He gives a brief history of the term and the variety of people groups that have suffered the fate of lynching). The focus of lynching upon the black community arose after slavery was ended and Reconstruction began. Many southern whites were furious at the very idea of granting ex-slaves social, political, and economic freedom. White supremacists felt insulted by the suggestion that whites and blacks might work together as equals. This extended to churches, colleges, universities all the way to the political and social life of the nation. Southern whites were not going to allow their ex-slaves to associate with them as equals. Lynching became the means to keep ex-slaves subservient. A black person could be lynched for any perceived insult to whites. The calls to do something about lynching was ignored by ministers, congressmen, senators, judges and even presidents. Supreme Court Justice Roger B Taney (the namesake of Taney County, MO) stated in the Dred Scott decision that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”).

Lynching wasn’t limited to the South. Whites lynched blacks in nearly every state (Boone County, MO).

This wasn’t done in secret. Papers like the Atlanta Constitution 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. These events could not have happened without widespread knowledge and the explicit sanction of local and state authorities and with tacit approval from the federal government, members of the white media, churches and university.

Cone shows how the music of the blues and religion offered the chief weapons of resistance against white supremacy. These cultural institutions affirmed their humanity and offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world. If the blues offered an affirmation of humanity, religion offered a way for black people to find hope. African Americans embraced the story of Jesus, the crucified Christ, whose death they claimed paradoxically game them life, just as God resurrected him in the life of the earliest Christian community. The cross (with the specter of the lynching tree always present) symbolized divine power and “black life” – God overcoming the power of sin and death.

In a hymn like “Nobody Knows”, the source of hope is Jesus, for he is a friend who knows about the trouble of his little ones, and he is the reason for their “Hallelujah.” His divine presence is the most important message about black existence.  The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built.

In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross. The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered.

With the deck stacked against them in so many regards, what could black people do except to fight with cultural and religious power and pray that God would support them in their struggle for freedom? Black people stretched their hands to God because they had nowhere else to turn. Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history.

Cone believes that the cross speaks to oppressed people in ways that Jesus’ life, teachings, and even his resurrection do not. The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured.

Cone surveys a few of the questions that black pastors and theologians had about the Bible and the Christian experience. Why, after 300 plus years of oppression, was the liberator (seemingly) nowhere to be found? Cone then acknowledges that the cross does something that other cultural expressions do not do. Even though God seemed to be silent during this period, it was not the blues or other art that spurred resistance. The blues and the juke joint did not lead to an organized political resistance against white supremacy. It was the spirituals and the church, with Jesus’ cross at the heart of its faith which gave birth to the black freedom movement that reached its peak in the civil rights era during the 1950s and 60s. The spirituals were the soul of the movement, giving people courage to fight, and the church was its anchor, deepening its faith in the coming freedom for all. The blues sent people traveling, roaming, looking for a woman or a man to soothe one’s aching human heart. But it was Jesus’ cross that sent people protesting in the streets, seeking to change the social structures of racial oppression.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Thoughts on The Cross and the Lynching Tree - Introduction

There has been a debate on social media in regards to certain Southern Baptist seminary professors teaching about James Cone and his theology. I will admit that when I was in seminary, Cone’s theology had the label of “liberation theology”. In my time, that was linked with Latin American Marxist theology and even condoning the use of violence as a means to liberate the poor. I didn’t read any of his writings. In this current debate, there are many who feel that Cone's material has no place in any Southern Baptist seminary, and one seminary president called Cone "a heretic and almost certainly not a Christian."

Over twenty years later, I came across his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I was intrigued to pick it up after reading this quote about why he wrote this book: he wrote for the purpose of “…seeking to know about this Jesus in whom his parents believed in the face of mistreatment by others who claimed to be followers of this Messiah.” That quote stuck with me. Knowing the history of how Black people have been treated in America over the past 300 plus years, I marveled at the fact that I knew so many black Americans with a rich devotion to Jesus, even though the Bible had been used to keep them enslaved or keep them segregated. This prompted me to read his book. It was probably the best book I read in 2018. 

I am planning on taking some time and blogging through this book over the next few weeks. Hopefully, at least one post per week. Mainly summarizing the chapters and providing my reactions from time to time.

Introduction: The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, few people have explored the symbolic connects between the two.

In its heyday, the lynching of black Americans was no secret. It was a public spectacle, often announced in advance in newspapers and over radios, attracting crowds of up to twenty thousand people…But as with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching. To forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for the nation.

The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation. But it has become detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings. The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks, rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship.” Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “re-crucified” 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.

As Cone recalls his upbringing, he remembers the violent crosses of the KKK and white racists preaching a dehumanized segregated gospel in the name of Jesus’ cross every Sunday. And yet in rural black churches he heard a different message, as preachers proclaimed the message of the suffering Jesus and the salvation accomplished in his death on the cross. The church experience transformed them from nobodies in white society to somebodies in the black church. All of Cone’s work is rooted in the tragic and hopeful reality that sustains and empowers black people to resist the forces that seem designed to destroy every ounce of dignity in their souls and bodies.

His work has tried to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression. This is all colored by memories of hearing the gospel as well as primal memories of terror and violence that were part of the reality of growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Cone recalls watching his mother and father deal with segregation and the threats of lynching and he was deeply affected by their examples, and by the sacrifices they made to keep their children safe.

It was the black church and theological texts that kept him wrestling with life and faith, trying to find meaning in a society and an intellectual discourse that did not even acknowledge that he existed. How could he find meaning in a world that ignored black people? He decided to speak about that contradiction.

As he studied in graduate school, he noticed his texts and professors ignored white supremacy and the black resistance against it, as if they had nothing to do with the Christian gospel and the discipline of theology. Silence about both white supremacy and the black struggle against racial segregation made him angry with a rage that had to find expression. This experience colored all of his studies and writings.

In earlier reflections on the Christian faith and white supremacy, he had focused on the social evils of slavery and segregation. How could whites confess and live the Christian faith and also impose three and a half centuries of slavery and segregation on black people? Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel. How could powerless blacks endure and resist the brutality of white supremacy in nearly every aspect of their lives and still keep their sanity? Cone concluded that an immanent presence of a transcendent revelation, confirming for blacks that they were more than what whites said about them, gave them an inner spiritual strength to cope with anything that came their way. He wrote because words were his weapons to resist, to affirm black humanity and to defend it.

He had avoided doing much research on lynching for the most part because it brought back painful feelings. But ultimately, reading and writing about the lynching nightmare, looking at many images of tortured black bodies, has been his deepest challenge and the most painful experience he had as a theologian. The cross helped him to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped him understand the tragic meaning of the cross.

His primary concerns in this present book were to give voice to black victims, exploring the question: how did ordinary blacks like his mother and father, survive the lynching atrocity and still keep together their families, their communities and not lose their sanity? He believed that the cultural and religious resources in the black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy and also deal more effectively with what is called “the war on terror”. If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own population – slavery, segregation, and lynching – then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others. Black people know something about terror because they have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree.

Cone believed that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.