This my confession of American, white privilege of a certain age: when I was in seminary, I took classes on race and ethnicity, but at the same time- I assumed that the biggest fights that would happen in my pastoral ministry would be around sex, sexuality, and gender and money. My social and class location, even as a class immigrant, meant that it did not occur to me that race would be a serious issue, perhaps even a primary issue for the ministry to which God was (and is) calling me.
After the events of the past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia (US), I turned to The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. Cone writes in a very readable way about the black Christian experience in the United States- how black Americans find consolation in the cross and how white American Christians willfully ignore the clear parallels between the cross of Calvary and the lynching tree of recent American history. Both bore the “strange fruit” of brown or black people who dared to defy the power structure and the established behavioral social norms.
Cone’s explanation of how black Christians see God’s solidarity with the oppressed through the lynching of Jesus is clear and unequivocal. He moves through a discussion of Reinhold Neibuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., black artists and singers, and Ida B. Wells and other black women who stood against lynching, white supremacy, and racism. Each chapter underscores the elements of faith that played a role in black Christian experience, resistance, and persistence in the face of evil- codified and unwritten. The chapter on women is a little short-shrift, in my opinion, but Cone cites the women he is mentioning and a good womanist collection of essays (or, perhaps, a Midrash) can help the reader who wants more from the side of the argument.
This book came out after I was out of seminary and I wish that I had read it before now. Having this writing in the back of my mind and on the front of my tongue for the past 6 years would have been helpful and important. But we are here now.
Now is the time for all white clergy to read and heed this book. Dig through the footnotes and pay attention to what you learn. There is plenty in here to share with a congregation. In fact, I believe that if you think your congregation “isn’t ready” for hard conversation about racism and white supremacy in the United States, read the chapter on Niebuhr together.
As white people of faith, we must grapple with this truth:
People who have never been lynched by another group usually find it difficult to understand why blacks want whites to remember lynching atrocities. Why bring that up? Is it not best forgotten? Absolutely not!… Just as the Germans should never forget the Holocaust, Americans should never forget slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree. As a nation we are in danger of forgetting our ugly lynching past… Whites today cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy. (Cone, Conclusion)
This book is necessary. And it is necessary now.
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