It’s that time of the year where the defining symbol of the Christian faith is worn with special pride. It is found on clothing, hats, bumper stickers, jewelry, koozies and just about anything else. We’ve marketed the cross so well that we’ve completely disconnected it from its original context and meaning. But for someone living in the first century the cross was a form of social control meant to utterly terrorize the population – and to bend them to the power and will of Rome. To demand allegiance. To remind the Jews they had no power. To announce that In Rome’s eyes they were less than human.
Referring to the cross, the late James Cone wrote, “Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings.” Indeed, the cross has lost much of its original meaning. It’s become a hollow and feel good trinket suitable for all occasions. It can be made in precious gold, adorned with diamonds or left tastefully rustic. It’s the perfect reminder that we’ll never need to suffer because Jesus suffered for us.
“‘This symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings.’”
Sadly, in America there is another symbol that’s closer to the original feeling the cross would have produced, and one we – especially we white Christians – should reflect on this Holy Week: the noose. The noose was used to terrorize blacks in the South primarily after the Civil War. It told blacks they were less than human. It reminded them to stay in their societal place and not to challenge the white system. It utterly terrorized blacks and galvanized a racist system all across the United States.
It’s the same noose that Billie Holiday sang about in Strange Fruit:
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
It’s the fruit that brought together whites from near and far to celebrate the protection and proliferation of a white way of life, a Lost Cause. It’s the fruit that provided amusement for those wanting to celebrate someone dying an excruciating death. This fruit also left blacks to retreat to their spaces on the white margins for fear the lynching fever might spread to their homes and sprout new fruit.
Cone writes, “Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists – the lowest of the low in society.” Yes, Jesus was lynched. Jesus was a scapegoat and given a sham trial, just like the 12 convicted in the Elaine Massacre in 1919. Jesus was paraded through the streets to his death for all to jeer and mock just like John Carter, who was dragged behind an automobile by a white mob through Little Rock in 1927. Jesus’ garments were bartered as mementos, as a remembrance of the crucifixion, just like postcards that were sold as souvenirs to whites who wanted to remember where they were when they protected the South.
In American history this scene was played out again and again, all over the United States. Sadly, it’s also played out today in, among other things, a criminal justice system that mass incarcerates African Americans at a sinful rate.
So, this Holy Week maybe we white Christians should hold the image of a cross in one hand and the image of a noose in the other. Both should be uncomfortable to think about. Both should call us to repentance. Both should unmask the systems and powers that too often rule this world and turn brother against brother and sister against sister. Both should call us to work on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized who find themselves hanging from these “trees,” the cruel instruments of control and terror.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections from our opinion contributors during the season of Lent. Additional articles will be published each day of Holy Week.