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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Cornerstone seminar

The Cornerstone seminar went really well. The title of my session was “Sacred Anarchy: The Image of God and Political (Dis)Order”. I focused on Wink’s formulation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, focused on Genesis as subversive to the Myth, and then took a trip through modern political philosophy to demonstrate how the modern state and most of our current modes of social, political, and economic discourse are based on the Myth. Then I presented an introduction to anarchism and discussed the anti-imperial proclamation of Jesus in the first century AD, with a call to the church to hear the Gospel as the news that Christ’s coming is the beginning of God’s return to his people, bringing the kingdom and God’s reign of peace and justice through the breaking of cosmic systems of evil, injustice, sin both systemic and individual, and through the healing of hearts and of creation, and that the inbreaking of this reign of peace and justice must inevitably be at odds with systems that are based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. My hope is that the church will begin to catch more fully the radical nature of Christ and his Way, and seek to live accordingly.

I revised my zine for the session, and I’ve uploaded it to this site. Links in past posts to the old version have been replaced with links to the new version. Also, I’m going to upload the notes from my seminar as well as my notes from the “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination” seminar from last November. Look for them in a post in the near future.

Here’s the link to the new version of the zine: Radical Hope: Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination

a summary of Christian anarchy

I posted this on an anarchist discussion group a short while ago, and thought it was worth sharing here.

I may be a bit of an oddball, because I actually came to my anarchist views through my religious studies.

I have written somewhat more about my views on my blog, https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com (though I’ve neglected it as of late – I need to do some writing), but here are some thoughts.

It is impossible to deny that the dominant function of religion in the history of human culture has been to maintain an oppressive status quo, whether that was through ancient Mesopotamian myths re-enacted in festivals that placed the king in the guise of the creator god, through the abuses of the Jewish Temples that led to the critiques of prophets like Amos and Isaiah and then later of Jesus, in the Roman imperial cult that solidified the Emperor’s status as god-king who maintained order through the use of his Legions, through Islamic conquests, through the conquests of people like Charlemagne, through the alliance of pope and kings in the Medieval period to entrench the feudal system, Luther and Calvin’s use of civic authority to crush their religious opponents, the Protestant work ethic in America that justified poverty as the fault of the poor, religion as criticized by Marx and many of the classical anarchists, and the Religious Right today.

But is this the necessary function of religion? While the common modern perception of Christianity is that it’s a “pie in the sky when you die” arrangement, that leaves this life to the oppressors and sterilizes resistance from the faithful ranks, this picture of Christianity is neither congruent with its origins in the context of the Roman empire nor with the practices of a number of people throughout history who have claimed Christian inspiration for their subversive practices – often meeting with wrath from the state and, as Christianity as a whole became more aligned with the powers, from within the ranks of the church.

While I could cite a number of radicals such as Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero, Dom Helder Camara, David Lipscomb, numerous Anabaptists, and others, instead perhaps it will be more illustrative to talk about the Bible itself, which if taken in context might be among the most politically subversive anthologies of literature ever collected.

Rene Girard argued that the Bible is unique in that, unlike the foundational texts from other ancient societies, the Biblical stories tend to tell the story from the position of those who are suffering and oppressed, rather than the oppressors and doers of violence (while the stories related to the conquest of Canaan provide prima facie difficulties for this reading, at most they seem to be exceptions, not the rule). God is a liberating figure who desires justice and requires the construction of a society much different than anything else that existed in the ancient near east, challenging the status quo more than upholding it. In particular throughout the Old Testament is a voice OT scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination” in a book of the same title.

The main point of the book is that the Biblical texts reflect the perspective of communities struggling from within the confines of an empire that sought to totalize the whole of life, to consume the reality of Israel (and later the church) within its dominant story of reality as it pertains to legitimating the power of the official kingly worldview. The texts reflect their efforts to capture among them a sense of a world fueled by an alternative imagination, that of Israel as the covenant people of God according to a worldview focused on the love and justice of that God embodied in their community practice. He also takes steps in some places to relate this analysis to our life today in Western society, discussing how the sense of this prophetic imagination can fuel our countercultural communal practice (which is, after all, what the church should be) in the face of this monolithic McWorld (Benjamin Barber’s term, not Brueggeman’s) empire of global technopolistic consumerist USAmerican culture.

Bruggemann states that the task of empire (what he terms the “royal consciousness”) is to eliminate a sense of past and future, encompassing all the reality that matters into an eternal now. No past is imaginable that did not contribute to the now, and no future can be envisioned that does not spring from it. The task of the prophetic community, then, is to present a radically different imagination, the imagination of God, rooted in symbols from the larger community’s past and animated by the hope of a future that is brought about not by the continuance of the oppressive machinations of the royal regime but rather by the decisive acts of God (such as the New Exodus themes found in Isaiah 40-66 where Isaiah uses Exodus imagery to describe the return from exile and coming of the Messiah) so that the people are freed from the imperial imagination into the vision of God – a vision of peace and justice based on liberation, not coercion (see also https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/prophetic )

Jesus embodied a countercultural existence with pretty much his every act and word. This is getting kinda long, so I won’t go into great detail, but the early church clearly portrayed him as the antithesis of Caesar and as victorious over Caesar – not through violence, but by “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). In fact, in the passage from which that statement is drawn, Paul makes a number of explicit parallels between Christ an Caesar’s propaganda, the purpose of which was to show that Caesar is at best a pretender to authority and that his violence has been defeated by the one over whom it appeared he had victory – Jesus the crucified one, executed as a rebel against the state. And just as Jesus is presented as the anticaesar, the church is in a very real way presented as the antirome. Instead of having relations based on exploitation and the collection of power through the heirarchy of society, the New Testament prescribes radical equality and sharing citing the words and deeds of Jesus as an example, and the Resurrection as proof that the way of peace ultimately defeats the violence of the authorities of the world.

Or, as I’ve written elsewhere (https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/anarchy ) perhaps one could frame the Resurrection in the light of God committing an act of civil disobedience: the governing powers said to Jesus, “Die!” but God said, “Live!” And the church exists to live out in this world the implications of that disobedience.

It is my belief that modern anarchist theories are potent ways to express a concern for radical equality and liberty that is congruent with the implications of the life of Jesus and the practices of the early church as recorded in the New Testament, congruous with the general trajectory of ideal social practice throughout the whole Bible. It seems to me that the violence of Rome, opposed by the early church, and the violence of today’s empire of global capitalism (and the relationship between nation-states and corporations) have much in common.

Now, the whole Bible is very complex and contains many diverse viewpoints expressed by various forms of narrative and poetry, so there is plenty of room for disagreement and discussion, but if the contrasting relationship between the peaceful Genesis creation story, which establishes humans as co-equals and as in relation with God and creation, and the violent Babylonian Enuma Elish, which legitimates the conquests of the king and the lowly status of peasants (and particularly women) within the Babylonian social order, sets the tone for the whole canon that follows then it seems that ideas of equality and justice are central to the overall Biblical story (for more on Genesis and Enuma Elish, as well as other thoughts on Genesis, equality, and anarchy, see https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/tag/genesis/ ).

Paul and counterculture theology/civil disobedience

Absolution Revolution has moved! You can find this article at http://absolutionrevolution.com/blog/2006/08/26/paul-and-counterculture-theology-civil-disobedience/