AN INVITATION: Matt Logan and Keith Dove invite you to study, engage, and reflect as they share a chapter-by-chapter discussion of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Here they discuss Chapter 3: “Bearing the Cross and Staring Down the Lynching Tree.” See list of chapters below.
“Suffering always poses the deepest test of faith, radically challenging its authenticity and meaning. No rational explanation can soothe the pain of an aching heart and troubled mind. In the face of the lynching death of an innocent child, black Christians could only reach into the depth of their religious imagination for a transcendent meaning that could take them through despair to a hope “beyond tragedy.” (P. 69, The Lynching of Emmett Till)
“Black ministers preached about Jesus’ death more than any other theme because they saw in Jesus’ suffering and persecution a parallel to their own encounter with slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree.” (P. 75)
“For [Martin] King, Jesus never promised that his disciples would not suffer. Quite the opposite: suffering is the inevitable fate of those who stand up to the forces of hatred. Jesus freely accepted the consequences that led to Calvary without turning away. He called upon his disciples to do the same. Just as God was with Jesus in his suffering, black Christians believed that God is with us in our suffering too.” (P. 89)
In chapter 2, Cone used Reinhold Niebuhr as a proxy for the white main-line Church. In this chapter, Cone uses Martin Luther King as a representative for the black Church. I really got a sense of how Cone is trying to understand how the black body in America is allegorical to the crucified and risen Christ. Keith, I know you anticipated this in your comments on chapter 1. Cone uses multiple examples of the black religious spirit overcoming a deep sense of despair in order to resurrect a transcendent hope.
Cone has a difficult task. He does not want to make suffering redemptive. He is keenly aware of this potential criticism. He mentions it specifically at the end of chapter 3. Yet, he does think that if a person reflects on the black experience in America, they will better understand the cross and resurrection. The spirit of the black Church is not reducible to the death of the body. That body is continuously resurrected as a symbol and a reality of resilience and hope. It becomes something that cannot be killed. It also becomes a faithful witness of discipleship. Folks are bound to be more faithful if they can live a life knowing that their lives are not reducible to death.
I have also been reflecting on how the fight for justice is related to the ‘inevitable suffering’ that Cone talks about. A month ago, when Luke Powery came for the Mullin Forum, he asked the staff, “What is your proximity to pain?” Cone uses persecution as a kind of measure in the fight for justice. I can almost imagine him saying that if you aren’t suffering in some way it probably means you aren’t adequately standing up to the forces of hatred. He is using suffering narrowly. Specifically, as it relates into the fight for justice. What do you think about this?
Write to me about how you understand redemptive suffering, the Cross, and the black experience in America, as an overhearer?
How has the black Christian imagination informed your understanding of the Cross and Resurrection? Does the Cross and Resurrection inform your understanding of our African American Brothers and Sister and what they have been enduring?
To your first question, I can also imagine Cone saying that if you are not suffering in some way, you are not adequately standing up to the powers of hatred in the world. We, white mainline Christians, do not have a close proximity to pain. We work very hard to distance ourselves from the pain of others (I’m thinking of how almost every major blockbuster film about civil rights tries to make the viewer feel good at the end). Much in the same way that Niebuhr was unaffected by Baldwin’s emotional responses in chapter two, we tend to react the same way. We know that suffering is bad. We want to end the suffering of others. But we fail to stand in solidarity in suffering and join the cause of the marginalized.
I think I can merge all of your other questions into one answer. I am always an overhearer to the black experience, and it will never be my own. That’s just a given. But as an overhearer, I have loosed redemptive suffering from my theological toolbox. Specifically, our shared professor at Duke, J. Kameron Carter, helped me to understand that redemptive suffering is not the point of the Cross, and it sure isn’t the point of Jesus. Carter emphasized that the Resurrection proved that Jesus lived a life that could not be killed. The Cross is important. It was the instrument that proved Jesus’s life-ful life. But the suffering and the death on the Cross were not salvific–the life that continued in the face of the Cross is salvific. Over my time at divinity school, and now as a pastor, my understanding of the experiences of my black brothers and sisters and my understanding of the Cross (and Resurrection) are constantly informing each other. Of course, I will never fully understand the black experience in America, but I have an obligation to continue to try to understand it better. My black siblings have helped me understand the way that powers and principalities still work upon people today–that there are forces always trying to stamp out black life in a parallel fashion to the forces that tried to stamp out Jesus’s life. From them, I have also learned that the point is always life. Even in the face of death, such as death on the Cross, life is the point.
Let’s turn to practice for a moment.
I imagine there will be people reading this that will want to know what they can do. For you, what are the steps in this process? Let’s call it race consciousness. Eighteen months ago we invited Debby Irving to First Pres. Mrs. Irving was someone that seemed very relatable to our congregation. I know this may sound odd, but Irving’s task as she travels the country is to try to convince people that they are white. She argues rightly that whiteness occupies a context, a gaze, or perspective. It isn’t the ‘neutral’ way of seeing the world.
Relatedly, one of the takeaways in chapter 3 is that there is a white church and a black church. In your response to chapter 2, you introduced the prospect that these two institutions may not even be worshiping the same God. That is a radical and powerful statement.
Doesn’t it seem true to you that there needs to be something to do in order to achieve a kind of race consciousness? Does understanding lead to action or does action lead to understanding? I realize that it is about power relations, but isn’t it also about relationships, goods in common, and fostering the conditions for justice? As church guys, we are reminded constantly that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. Of course, we need to better understand the history of racial oppression in this country. Yet, acknowledgment or awareness is not the entire picture, right? What should we be doing? Keith, solve it for me!
Yeah, I’m not going to be able to solve these problems. But, we (a collective communal we) must try anyway.
Race consciousness is important. White people do not tend to think of themselves as white–they are just “people” and any other race is considered a deviation from what is “normal.” Think of the news with this. If a white man commits a crime on the news, he is called “a man.” If a black man commits a crime, he is called “a black man” (or more likely a “black male” which is even more dehumanizing). Getting white people to realize that they are white is an important step. But, like everything else, it is only a step. Recognizing the privilege that goes along with being white is another important step. And then recognizing the power dynamics of the way that privilege works, and so on…
These are not problems that simple cups of coffee between black people and white people will solve (which is a very popular solution for white people). There has to be some real solidarity of people with privilege standing with those who are oppressed or marginalized. We must all learn a more accurate version of history (the version we currently learn is told by white people in order to maintain white power and control black bodies). Last fall I attended a racial equity seminar put on at FPC, which covered the history of race in America. It was fantastic and difficult and challenging. Those sorts of things are also good starting places.
I will admit that I am afraid to say this. Nonetheless it must be said even though it is not popular. But we (us white people with means and privilege) need to do all that we can in order to make sure our black neighbors have the same comfort and security in life that we enjoy and take for granted. This means reparations. We have material means that we can share if we choose to do so. Choosing to do so, choosing to materially improve the lives of whole communities so that they can have safety and comfort, is perhaps the most important step to take, but one that has not been taken yet.
Introduction and Chapter 1: Nobody Knows de Trouble I See
Chapter 2, “The Terrible Beauty of the Cross”
Chapter 4, “The Recrucified Christ”
Chapter 5, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”