We cannot on Good Friday disconnect the crucified Jesus from what Ignacio Ellacuria, Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” American Christians must place the Cross alongside the lynching tree, as James Cone makes unforgettably clear in his last book before his death, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. We cannot understand American Christianity apart from this horrid juxtaposition.
In the “lynching era” of Jim Crow, 1880 to 1940, more than 5,000 Black persons were lynched — and those are just the ones who have been identified. Lynchings were one part carnival and another part revival service. Christian hymns like The Old Rugged Cross were sung. Parents brought their children to the spectacle of torture and death. Photos of the tortured persons being lynched were taken and sold, some made into postcards to send to friends. Many times, thousands came to watch. In one part of the South there was a lynching every four days.
Extra-legal killings of Black people carry on until our day, whether by roadside shootings or police violence. White supremacy has been given a murderous new life. Amid the cry of Black Lives Matter, too many Christians curse in response.
Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, in his book White Too Long documents after exhaustive and comprehensive research that the single greatest indicator of racialized attitudes in America is whether you belong to a white church. More than age, income, geographical location or education, identifying as a white Christian was the greatest indicator for white supremacy. The white church in America has been an incubator for racism. It still is.
So we must place the Cross alongside the lynching tree because the crucified Christ has placed his life beside the crucified people of the world. And our God is not the God of the early theologians of the church influenced by Greek philosophy, a God unchanging and untouched, unmoved by the sufferings of the children of the earth, but a God of pathos and passion. The God of love is a God of divine empathy, and thus a suffering God, one who enters into our suffering that we might stand with and stand for the suffering people of the world.
This Good Friday I am going to visit the hanging tree just outside the old county jail in Statesville, N.C., where I now live and minister. The last man hanged on that tree was a Black man arrested, tried, convicted and hanged in less than 24 hours. It happened in the early 1900s. This is where I will remember the crucified Christ and the crucified of the world.
Stephen Shoemaker serves as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. He served previously as pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, N.C.; Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Ky.
‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’: A broken gospel | Opinion by Bill Leonard
Jesus was lynched. Holy Week’s symbols should include a cross and a noose | Opinion by Chris Ellis