The Cross and the lynching tree: Good Friday reflection

In God of the Oppressed, one of the most important theological works of the 20th century, James Cone compares the cross of Christ to the lynching tree. When slavery existed lynching was not common because slaves were considered valuable property, but after the end of slavery whites used lynching as a method of asserting dominance. This use of lynching corresponds well with how the Romans utilized crucifixion, which was primarily a punishment for rebellion and other crimes that threatened to undermine the foundations of the Roman social order.

One of the major threads of argument throughout the book is that God is paradoxically presented as the Liberator, who also suffers with his people. In fact, it is precisely when God’s people are faithful even in the context of oppression that God acts to bring liberation. Cone partners the Exodus of Israel from Egypt with the experience of black people in America and deeply challenges our understanding of the crucifixion and its meaning for people today. It is well worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading again, particularly for people who are white like me who are used to understanding the crucifixion as we have heard it preached, most often by white preachers in the midst of a white-dominated culture.

As my friend Katie pointed out earlier today, “we’re taught that this horrible thing happened called lynching but it was a long time ago and only happened a few times by some Very Bad People who also sometimes put on white robes and burned crosses but of course everyone else knew they were wrong and that’s why it’s all in the past right?” I mean, we had slavery for 300 years, lynchings for another 100, but then about 50 years ago we had a Civil Rights Movement and now everyone is equal and happy, end of story.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about you, but that is very much how the issue of race in American history was largely presented to me in my school courses. There are bad individuals who are racist, but as a society we’ve moved on and everyone knows it’s wrong. This view, of course, completely ignores the deeply embedded effects of white flight, decades of systematic job discrimination, and rampant cultural appropriation and commercialization just to name a few (not to mention the fact, as Katie also pointed out, of the resurgence in KKK membership since Obama was elected).

For much of my religious life, I’ve been taught that Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I could go to heaven and spend eternity with God when I die. I was told I was supposed to be good and love people and be nice to them and stuff, because I was grateful to Jesus for having died for my sins so I could go to heaven, but mostly that it was about me, as an individual, having my sins forgiven in a forensic exchange so that I could be whisked away to the otherworldly paradise when I died.

It should go without saying that such a view of the cross has little to say to the realities of systemic injustice that exist today – not only related to race, but also to gender and sexual identity, economic status, geographic location, and other categories. The focus is on individuals, not social realities, and on escaping the realities of life into a magical other-world. If this were really the core of the Christian faith, I might say my radical friends are right in their criticism and rejection of religion. However, Paul offers another explanation of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:13-15, TNIV).

The reference to uncircumcision points to the fact that, before they were brought into the life of Christ, the people were cut off from the covenant community of God’s love. As this passage points out, in Christ sin is cancelled. Our sins, collectively, are nailed to the cross and have died with Christ. But it is not simply the cancellation of the sins of individuals that is meant here. “You” is plural, and refers to the church community. The sin that is defeated here is social, as well as individual. And the last verse testifies that there is much more going on here than a simple forensic transaction by which people enter from a state of spiritual guilt into otherworldly justification: on the cross itself, Christ disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle over them, and triumphed over them.

The purpose of the Roman cross was to make a spectacle of the victim, to inscribe the victim into the context of Roman domination and so re-inforce the might of the Empire through the rule of Caesar. Paul makes the audacious claim that what has in fact happened is precisely the opposite! The logic of oppression cannot inscribe the logos of God into its narrative. Christ is victorious, but not by operating according to the logic of the powers. Instead, Christ triumphs by allowing all the powers of sin, death, and hell to exhaust their fury on him. He trusted God unto his own death, and in so doing turned the force of evil back upon itself causing its self-destruction.

We must drink deeply from the well of Paul’s theology of the cross, because the cross is the place where the New Community of God’s people gather, the church of God that is liberated from operating according to the logic of oppression. The cross both convicts and acquits us, because in order to be healed by it we must enter into it. It may not be “good news” to learn of the ways we collude with the powers that have been defeated on the cross at first, but it is liberating because in naming the powers we open ourselves to being freed through Christ in order to live according to a more excellent way.

Paul’s argument in the rest of chapter 2 flows directly from the logic of the cross: since we have died with Christ to the forces that rule the world, why do we still live as if we were subject to its law? Because the logic of death could not apprehend the logos of God, neither can it confine us who wear the name of Jesus as our own. The logic of Rome, the logic of slavery, of collusion with and perpetuation of oppressive structures cannot define the way the people who follow the Way of the logos live.

Coming to terms with the concrete ways in which we share in the guilt of the collective sins of our age is painful – it can be no other way, because in many ways the sin goes to the very core of our self-identities, of how we define our personhood. But carrying one’s cross is more than just an exercise program, it is a march to one’s death, and if we are to be raised with Christ we must also be willing to die. The logos of God spoke creation into being, and it speaks us into the New Creation. It speaks to us from the cross, bidding us to come and die, and find that we will truly live.

Privilege-checks are welcome in the comments. It’s only right, after talking about the need to put to death those parts of our identity that depend on the logic of oppression.

Shalom.

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