About this time of year, you can usually find me welcoming a spirit of prayerfulness, darkness, confession—even humming a line of “Were You There?”
This year, however, I am struggling with my journey to the cross.
This season—in which I look to a time of self-reflection and recognizing the places within and around me that are ready to die—has always been renewing for me as a Christian. But this year, it is difficult to see mercy, the beauty of sacrifice or the promise of new life on this journey.
When I look at the cross this year, I see something different.
I see agony and suffering, abuse of power and systemic sin.
As a black person and a Christian struggling to find justice in America today, how do I continue to glorify this symbol that points to my own suffering?
This winter, our congregation shared in a Sunday school book study of James Cone’s most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which he invites us to wrestle with these two symbols: one the essential symbol of Christianity and the other the quintessential emblem of black suffering.
The lynching tree, for several generations, has been the visual image of an easily forgotten period of U.S. history in which African Americans became the primary prey of public executions. The lynching era of the United States (1880-1940) took the lives of almost 5,000 African Americans yet finds little place in our historical memory. Its parallel to our crucified Savior, executed by the Roman state as a sign of judgment and oppression, gets even less space in our theological discourse.
This should add another spark to the conversation around race and religion that is happening nationally. But before we arrive at these larger tables, how are we in our congregations holding together the reality of racial injustice in our world with a Christ who suffered so that we might have hope?
The crucifixion of Jesus was an act of torture carried out by the state to silence the messages of a subversive leader. The lynching of African Americans was a punishment carried out by a community to protect itself from those deemed harmful yet whose crimes did not fit neatly within the legal system.
Cone connects the two: “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. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty.”
These were difficult conversations for our congregation.
At the conclusion of the class, I’m fairly certain we were all left with more dismay than we began with. Since we are a predominantly white community, feelings of denial, guilt and shame surfaced. As Christians, we wrestled with our commitments to justice and reconciliation and Christ’s model of ministry to the oppressed and forgotten.
We don’t live in the lynching era.
Yet we don’t have to reach so far back in time to see fresh examples of terror and torture. Sean Bell.
Nationwide, about one in seven black men are temporarily or permanently disenfranchised by the criminal justice system, leading to lifelong disabling toward employment, public housing and voting rights. Shantel Davis.
Trends show that African-American students are 2½ times more likely to receive special education services for mental retardation and emotional disturbance than all other racial/ethnic groups combined. Amadou Diallo.
Due to factors of poverty, lack of access to health care, and the physiological effects of stress, African-American mothers face double the infant mortality rate than white women. Anyia Parker.
Where do we begin to make some connections?
Following the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary said: “This is a moment for faith communities to tell a different story. We say nothing about the systemic sin of racism. If we think about the central story of Christianity, it’s the story of a black body being executed by the most powerful nation in the world.” What story are we telling?
These stories are connected, woven together into who we are and are called to be as Christians. As a people committed to the work of nonviolence, these stories become our stories. In the face of both physical violence and systematic violence, what story are we telling? As we take our journeys to the cross in 2015, do we empathize as much with the mother of Tamir Rice as we do with Mary? Do we sense the helplessness of Ferguson, Mo., as we do of the disciples? How do we see hope resurrected in the deaths we have witnessed?
The Christ we journey with during this season epitomizes that there is hope after tragedy and life after death. There are too many places within arm’s reach that have been rendered immovable by the defeat of terror and pain. Just as they did for Christ, lynching trees surround us. And we celebrate this story of how Christ overcame defeat and injustice. Unto his last breath, his story speaks of liberation and love.
We are reminded in the Scriptures to “let mutual love continue. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:1, 3).
We are one body of Christ.
We are woven together in our faith and called together by the same Christ. This Easter season is a critical intersection in how we as Christians keep telling the story of the gospel.
We do not have the luxury of continuing to compartmentalize the gospel. God calls us to reveal the gospel in our sanctuaries and in our communities, in our Bible studies and in our school board meetings. Rev. Jacqui Lewis prophetically says: “When one of us can’t breathe, all of us can’t breathe. And when all of us can’t breathe, maybe even God can’t breathe.”
The Christ we journey with carries both agony and mercy, is a witness to both suffering and resurrection. We are called to see the whole story. We are called to tell the whole story.
The Christ we journey with offers his immanent presence through us.
Christ is a spring of love and liberation through us. We are the church that tells the story of divine tragedy and hope to ourselves, to each other and to the communities around us. To those who are suffering, we are the storytellers of hope. To those who are overcome by systems of power, we are storytellers of liberation. To the systems of oppression we participate in, we are storytellers of justice. Let’s tell the story Jesus would tell this Easter.
Shannon W. Dycus is co-pastor at First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis.