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 4: “The Recrucified Christ.” See list of chapters below.
“Both lynching and Christianity were so much a part of the daily reality of American society that no black artist could avoid wrestling with their meanings and their symbolic relationship to each other.” (P. 96)
“One cannot correctly understand the black religious experience without an affirmation of deep faith informed by profound doubt. Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt. How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree.” (P. 106)
“The lynched black Christ was not the only Christ that artists saw. They also saw a mean white Christ symbolized in white Christian lynchers, the ones who justified slavery and segregation.” (P. 113)
“That is what Jesus’ life, teachings, and death were about–God’s protest against the exploitation of the weak by the strong.” (P. 115)
This chapter is at the intersection of black religious identity and American life. Cone identifies the reality of American Christianity and the Terrorism thrust onto black bodies in the Jim Crow South. Look at the way Cone understands the life and writings of DuBois. It didn’t matter that DuBois wasn’t a professing Christian. In a sense, the proximity to pain for many African Americans shaped their understanding of the divine. Even if African Americans did not recite the creeds or take communion, they understood that Jesus fella. They didn’t navigate their relationship to Jesus through theology, prayer, or the church. It was through a similar material experience that brought African Americans into communion with Jesus. You don’t have to agree with Cone to see his point.
For Cone, black life in America is directly tied to the person of Jesus. The truth of Christianity is not through individual understanding or acknowledgment. For Cone it is dialectical. This is a fancy way of saying that the life of faith is found in the tension of doubt brought on through suffering and the affirmation of a resurrection spirit. Cone expects the African American religious experience to more fully grasp the realities of the crucified Christ because black crucifixion was a lived reality in the Jim Crow South. This is what Cone calls the Recrucified. I think there is something to this.
I have often said that it is a mistake to say that Jesus hung around with the lowly and oppressed if it doesn’t come with the realization that it was because Jesus was himself, lowly and oppressed.
Was this chapter convicting for you? I thought a lot about how our grammar needs to change when it comes to belief. We often talk about believing in Jesus. We don’t as often talk about living the kind of life that Jesus lived. How do you understand what it means to ‘believe’ in Jesus is to fully grasp “God’s protest against the exploitation of the weak by the strong?”
I look forward to your comments.
Honestly, just about every sentence that Cone writes is convicting for me. This chapter was no exception. It is true that we rarely talk about living the sort of life that Jesus lived. And if we do talk about living the life of Jesus, it rarely looks like the actual life of Jesus that we see in scripture. Instead it looks like, for the most part, fairly comfortable people trying to do nice things for people whose lives are less comfortable than ours. Don’t get me wrong, we do good things in the name of Christ that are necessary and important, such as feeding the hungry in our community. We must continue to use the resources we have been blessed with to do those sorts of things. But, Jesus didn’t live a comfortable life and volunteer at a soup kitchen on the weekends. Jesus was a poor Palestinian Jew living under imperial occupation with no place to lay his head. Jesus fully identified with the most oppressed, not because he simply had a heart for them, but because he was one of them.
I regularly find myself worrying about the incongruence of the Jesus that I preach and teach and the Jesus that lived a real life in a particular place and time. This is where the conviction from Cone hits home the hardest. Preaching the actual gospel is hard work. And it’s really scary to do. The gospel calls us to live very uncomfortable lives, such as selling all we have and giving to the poor or being willing to break all ties with our families. Those are not sermons that people want to hear. I constantly think about when Luke Powery was talking about how people outside the church often hate the church, but still like Jesus. Then one of our colleagues in ministry asked about the congregations which do like the church, but are rather turned off by Jesus. I have often heard that the gospel is intended to comfort the discomforted and discomfort the comfortable. Most of white mainline Christianity over the past century has been about comforting the comfortable. As long as that is the case, then we are not asking people to actually live the life of Christ.
For me, “believing” in Jesus means actually doing what Jesus did. That necessarily means joining God’s protest against the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Belief is not merely thinking something is true, but then choosing to live a different way. Rather, belief (which comes from the word “beloved”) should mean to actually live life in a certain way. As a result, I question whether white mainliners, myself included, actually believe in Jesus or if it’s just something we aspire to do when we get around to it.
This book was meant to provoke. Judging by your responses to some of these chapters I can tell that it succeeded. Cone makes everything personal and doesn’t allow you to get any distance to analyze. His writing captures you within the narrative of history. He wants you to pick sides.
I find it difficult to strike a balance between honoring the faithful witness of Christians who do great things in their communities and challenging them to live a life like Jesus. I am constantly making excuses for myself on this very point. Sometimes it’s like I am trying to accumulate as many community service hours to try to impress God. However, I think doing a calculation or a cost-benefit analysis of social justice engagement misses the point. I think this is what Cone is getting at. Cone thinks following Jesus is embodying the kind of life that Jesus lived. He thinks that the social justice effort led by African-Americans in the Jim Crow South is an example of that kind of embodiment.
I think about Bonhoeffer’s quote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Although, I want to be clear. The gospel is not discipleship and discipleship is not the gospel. The gospel is the good news. The knowledge that even though we do not follow Jesus, we are saved by the faithfulness of Christ. Cone is trying to point out the disconnect in our response to the gospel. He wants to say, “Hey if you really believe this. If you believe what Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount than you must respond with your discipleship.” Discipleship is a response to the good news. Cone reduces discipleship to, “joining God’s protest against the exploitation of [those made weak] by the strong.” I think the challenge for me is that I jump at the chance to ‘accept’ this good news, but I show my doubt in the good news by failing to respond faithfully. Would it be fair to say that my last sentence is a mediocre definition of ‘sin?’
I think that next to last sentence is at least one definition of sin, and an important one to pay attention to. (But sin is also so much bigger than individual choices. We must look at sin in terms of power systems and structures, but we don’t necessarily have room for that in this particular study.)
I must always reiterate that I am not exempt from my own critiques, even when they are harsh critiques. I think we were talking a few weeks ago when I expressed the disconnect between wanting to secure a comfortable and financially sound future for me and my family, but I am also called to be a pastor and follow the example of Christ. I am regularly failing to live out a Christ-like life. (I know where I will lay my head tonight; I have absolutely no fear of being arrested; I have a comfortable and reliable means of income; etc.) Even as I try to do good things in the community and witness to the gospel in my everyday life, I am constantly convicted by the difference in my life and the life of Jesus that I read about in scripture, which is also the life that Cone points to.
If we really believe all this stuff, we will really do what it entails. Bonhoeffer’s costly grace/cheap grace understanding is so important for this. If we believe that the Lord of all creation was hung on a tree to die, then we must pay attention to the lynching tree. If we believe that the Lord of all creation was among the least of these, then we must join the least of these in our own communities, namely our black and brown neighbors. So here comes the harsh question: Do we (I) actually believe this stuff? More tellingly, do our actions show that we believe this stuff? If we did believe, the world would look a whole lot different.
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”