on theology & public execution

[tw: description of racist violence]

The lynching tree — so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha — should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death.  But it does not.  In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion.  The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching.  In the “lyinching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.  Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God of the Anglo-Saxon race.  Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists — the lowest of the low in society.  Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty.  They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment.  In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community.  It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

–James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 30-31

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