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3 Insights from The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Good Friday Sermon

Today is Good Friday, the day of the Christian year set aside for prayer, deep reflection, and contemplation upon the Cross of Jesus—his suffering and death. However, I must warn you that none of the activities we engage in today will divest the Cross entirely of its mystery. The crucifixion and death of Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, alongside the Incarnation (which we celebrate at Christmas), and the Resurrection (which we will celebrate on Easter Sunday). To our Modern ears, a “mystery” sounds like a challenge. Because of our conditioning as Modern people, we instinctually think something is only a mystery because we have not cracked it yet, put all the pieces together, figured it out. But the Cross, like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, is not that kind of mystery. It’s not a case waiting to be cracked; it’s not puzzle waiting to be solved. No, the Cross is an inexhaustible mystery. The Cross is a mystery like its a portal to the incomprehensible life of God. We can never fully comprehend it, though many of humanity’s most brilliant minds have tried. In fact, it’s a symptom of our Modern disease that we constantly try to reduce the Cross to a formula, a theory, and use punchy one-liners to define it. We constrain and reduce what God has done, by trying to explain what we are called to contemplate with awe and humility. The Cross is a mystery, not a mechanism for having our guilt removed or going to heaven. So, there won’t be any attempt at an exhaustive explanation for how the cross “works” this evening. Instead, my goal is merely to invite you to stand with me in awe and humility at this great mystery.

At the same time, while we can never fully explain the Cross, or fully comprehend the Cross, there are ways that God gives us insight into aspects or dimensions of the Cross that have profound implications for our lives. Simply because we cannot know all there is to know about the Cross, doesn’t mean we can know nothing.

During the season of Lent, I’ve read a book by the preeminent theologian Dr. James Cone, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As you can probably tell simply by the title, this book was a deeply challenging read emotionally. Dr. Cone does not hold back from describing in detail the horrific and grotesque practice of lynching which has characterized this country since Reconstruction after the Civil War until only recently. Reading this book during Lent was the most meaningful Lenten practice I’ve ever participated in. As I’ve read it, I’ve been praying. I’ve been attentive to my thoughts and emotions. That’s one of the ways we discern what God is saying to us and how God is at work in our lives—we pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of us—how we’re being moved. We open an internal dialogue with God. What does this feeling mean, God? I’ve been asking God questions like that a lot lately. I want to invite you to do some of that discernment work this evening. As I share a few insights I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s work. I want to invite you to pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of you. Have an internal dialogue with God about what you’re feeling. I think that’s one of the ways we can make of the most of Holy Week and experience lasting transformation.

I want to share with you a few insights I’ll take away from The Cross and Lynching Tree, because I truly believe Dr. Cone’s thoughts on the Cross are incredibly timely for you and me in the United States in 2017. This American context we share right now is fraught with racial conflict and I believe that the Cross gives us lenses through which to see our world that will help us to make better sense of racial conflict and help us to see God at work.

1. De-sanitize the Cross

The first insight I’ve gleaned is that if we’re going to have any hope of making sense of racial conflict in our nation today, we’ve got to De-sanitize the Cross. Did you know we have sanitized the Cross? For tens of millions of people in the United States, the Cross is nothing more than a religious symbol that means forgiveness or grace or something like that. We make crosses out of dainty little pieces of gold and we wear them around our necks as jewelry. The Cross has become so innocuous that we hardly notice them when they are plastered everywhere! I’m a pastor and I hardly notice them!

When the Cross is plastered everywhere, and is thought of by nearly everyone as simply a religious symbol of grace and forgiveness, it’s easy to forget what the Cross originally was—Terrorism! Crucifixion was terrorism! Deliberate, calculated terrorism! Crucifixion was designed to send a death threat to all who saw it. Romans used crucifixion to terrorize Jewish people in Jesus’s day—to intimidate them, so that they would remain subservient to Rome. They used it to maintain their control over the minds of the Jewish people.

How many of you saw the movie Get Out? If you haven’t seen it, you have to. It’s an important film. I won’t give any spoilers, because I think you really need to see it. But I bring it up because of this point about mind control. It wasn’t just fear that made the terrorism of the Cross powerful—it was the sense of utter powerlessness that it rendered in any onlooker. That sense of utter powerlessness was brilliantly depicted in the movie as a “sunken place” from which a person can’t escape. When Jesus was still a small child, Jewish Galileans, Jesus’s neighbors, perhaps even some relatives, staged a revolt against Rome. The Romans decided to send Galilee a message, so they crucified 2,000 of the Galilean rebels. Crosses with people Jesus might have known, writhing in pain, along the road, as far as the eye can see. Think of the trauma that inflicted upon the Galilean onlookers. That’s a tactic designed to force people into a “sunken place.”

If we’re ever going to get insight into the racial conflict in our country, we’ve got to start by de-sanitizing the Cross. Dr. Cone puts it so well,

“As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsty for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. 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.” (p.31)

There was a political rally during the election season, in which a older white man violently attacked a younger black man as he was being escorted out of the stadium as a protester. Afterward, the man who attacked him was asked some questions on video. He was asked why he attacked the young man and he responded that the young man wasn’t acting “very American” and then he said that next time he “might have to kill him.” At another political rally, a man who was video recorded shouting obscenities at a protester was asked about it and he responded saying, “I can’t believe I did that. It was me, but I’m not a hateful man. I just got caught up. When I saw the video all over the news of me doing that to that young man, I was just disgusted with myself.” This is called “scapegoating,” putting all the blame and shame on a person or a group of people, and punishing or expelling them to free the community or society from their sense of their own sin. Make no mistake, scapegoating unifies people. But it doesn’t unify them in the Holy Spirit, it unifies them in the unholy spirit of accusation—the spirit of the accuser (ha-satan).

In the Gospels, we read of the crowds who cheered for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Son of David”. That very same crowd had turned into an angry, violent mob by Friday. They freely allowed themselves to be swept up in the spirit of hatred and violence.

The De-Sanitized Cross is a Lynching tree. We see reflected in it all the anti-creation, anti-human forces of evil that are work in our world converging on an innocent human being. That’s why Peter says to the ruling council in Acts, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (5.30)

The world-renowned historian and theologian N. T. Wright wrote,

“Anyone looking at the cross of Jesus with a normal understanding of the first-century world would think: the rulers and authorities stripped him naked and celebrated a public triumph over him. That’s what they normally did to such people.” (Paul for Everyone, p.170)

When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see the Crosses in our own society. We can see the ways innocent people are victimized and scapegoated. We can see the powers at work, sweeping people up in hatred and violence.

Let’s do some of that attentiveness and discernment work now.  How’s your internal dialogue with God going? Are you being attentive to your emotions? Let me ask you some more general questions: Who are the scapegoated in our nation today? Who are those who the powerful have scapegoated? And now, how about some more personal questions: Who have you and I scapegoated? Who do we wish to heap all of the shame and blame and guilt upon?

While the De-sanitized Cross is an instrument of terror and a death threat, the second paradoxical insight I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book is how the Cross “Dis-arms the Powers.”

2. Disarm the Powers

Colossians 2.15 is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Dr. Cone uses a powerful analogy in the book that stuck with me. In 1955, Emmett Till was brutally lynched at 14 years old in Mississippi. Dr. Cone writes,

“If anything was remarkable about the Till lynching, it was not so much the callousness of the deed as the militant response it evoked. If lynching was intended to instill silence and passivity, this event had the opposite effect, inspiring [African Americans] to rise in defiance, to cast off centuries of paralyzing fear. The signal of this change was marked by the actions of Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, who refused to allow this heinous act, like so many similar cases, to remain in the shadows or to fade from public memory. When Emmett’s body was brought back to Chicago, she insisted that the sealed casket be opened for a three-day viewing, exposing ‘his battered and bloated corpse’ so that ‘everybody can see what they did to my boy.’ She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. “Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,” she cried out, “but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.” (p.66-67)

If the enemy thinks it has the atomic bomb, the ultimate weapon: Death, and it uses it, but it doesn’t work, what does it have left? Pontius Pilate said to Jesus “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you?” And Jesus essentially says back, “Is that all you got?”

The Cross is paradoxically the destruction of Jesus and the triumph of Jesus. On the Cross, Jesus somehow disarms the powers and authorities, rendered their ultimate weapon, not only useless, but uses it as a weapon against them! This is Divine Aikido! Somehow, God is able to fold the enemies’ attack back in on it. We don’t know how this works, we can’t explain it, but it has worked. For two-thousand years, Christians continue to follow Jesus even though it has often resulted in their death. Over 30 Christians were murdered by ISIS on Palm Sunday in Cairo, Egypt. But Coptic Christians will be back worshipping on Easter Sunday, because we don’t fear death.

Hebrews 2.14 says, “Since [God’s] children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Jesus was the scapegoat to end all scapegoating. Jesus took onto himself all the blame and shame and he absorbed it. Human beings violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and he took them. All the principalities and powers of the world tried to crush him, but he broke their power—the power of the fear of death—and he triumphed over them! The devil and the rulers and powers didn’t know their plan would backfire on them. Paul said, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2.8) Jesus took it all for us, and what he gave us in its place is forgiveness, purification, new life, new humanity, oneness with God.

Here’s how Dr. Cone puts it in his book,

“God’s word is paradoxical […] a mystery that one can neither control nor fully understand. It is here and not here, revealed and hidden at the same time. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45.15) Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life.” (p.156)

You and I disarm the powers when we refuse to use the power of death, the power of the sword, coercive power.
You and I disarm the powers when we speak the truth to rulers and authorities prophetically without fear.
You and I disarm the powers when we embody the alternative new humanity created by Jesus in our communities of faith.

That’s one of the primary reasons I’m at New City Church. Because the way you and I disarm the power of racial hatred and violence is through intentionally forming and participating in interracial Christian community. The way you and I disarm the powers is by taking down the crucified ones of society from their crosses and joining with them as family. (p.161)

When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see how it was an instrument of terror used by the powers. We can also see how the fear of death is the atomic bomb of the powers. But Jesus absorbs that blow and comes out the other side. He disarms the powers of their ultimate weapon and frees us from the fear of death.

Which leads me to the last insight I gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book I’d like to share with you. The Cross “Directs our Creativity.”

3. Direct our Creativity

One of my favorite aspects of Dr. Cone book is his commentary on black Christian art.

“The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. 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 in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” (p.21-22)

Black preachers, artists, poets, musicians had a De-sanitized Cross. They saw its brutality reflected in their own lives and in the history of American racism. Part of Disarming the Powers for them was Directing their Creativity into artistic expression. Dr. Cone quotes Shawn Copeland, professor of theology at Boston College,

“If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, [they] sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion. The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. [They] sang because they saw the results of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.” (p.151)

Art is also not the only way the Cross Directs our Creativity. Dr. King is one of the best examples of how the Cross Directs Creativity into nonviolent direct action. Cone writes,

“…for King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others—the only way to heal broken humanity. Hate created more hate and violence more violence. King believed that the cycle of violence and hate could be broken only with nonviolence and love, as revealed in Jesus’ rejection of violence and his acceptance of a shameful death on a cruel cross.”

“King saw the cross as a source of strength and courage, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity.” (p.85)

As we meditate on what the Cross might have to say to our American context in 2017, I want to invite you to enter into this deep mystery with awe and humility. When we contemplate the de-sanitized Cross, we’re rightly disgusted by it; we’re rightly repelled by it. But when we see how Jesus turned what was an instrument of terrorism and torture into his own triumph over the powers, we are emboldened to confront the powers and authorities in our world. When we see how Jesus took the blow and absorbed it, overpowering death with love, we are freed from the fear of death and we can lives of hope even in the midst of a world still plagued by racism and violence. The de-sanitized Cross that disarms the powers directs our creativity into joining God in the renewal of all things. It beacons us to imagine that a new world is possible. We are empowered with courage to enter into the messy but beautiful work of seeking racial righteousness and justice in community.