Jesus was a Jewish man with brown skin who was murdered by the state police after an act of civil disobedience resulted in the destruction of public property. He was accused of inciting the people to riot. This Jesus is the center of our faith.
These historical facts about Jesus’ execution are not accidental extras in our quest to reckon with the meaning of his cross in our own lives and communities. They are essential to the person and work of Jesus, and to what God wants to do through him. This is especially true as black and brown people across the U.S., and others with them, rise up against the systems and philosophies of policing that terrorize black communities. (For an account that reveals both the personal and the systemic aspects of state-sanctioned racist police violence, I recommend Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist).
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes that the lynching of black lives is America’s particular expression of crucifixion, and that American Christian theology’s failure to account for this is evidence enough of Christianity’s marriage with White Supremacy in the U.S. Says Cone: “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.” Our talk about the cross of Jesus might make those of us who follow him today more attentive than most to the plight of people experiencing the full weight of our society’s racist, violent structures of power.
Unfortunately, this is not always true of churches past and present. As Cone observes, “The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted.” So it falls to us to do empowering and liberating interpretation where there is enslavement and oppression.
Cone explains how this works: “Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree [or lying dead on the street after an encounter with the police], there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
A liberating and empowering theology of Jesus’ cross necessarily flows from the perspectives of those who are crucified across history. For the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more, this means not only grieving their tragic deaths but condemning and uprooting the dangerous elements of power that facilitated their killing: the worship of deadly force; the dehumanization of black and brown people; the false securities of whiteness; the plague of mass incarceration; healthcare inequality; and on and on. In short, this is about confronting the persistent evil of white supremacy that provides much of the foundation of our social and political order. It is about tearing up a social contract that believes it is acceptable to sacrifice some lives in “service” to others, and lacks the faith to believe in a world where this need not be so.
Last Sunday was Pentecost. After Jesus was killed by soldiers who were obeying orders meant to protect local businesses and preserve the peace, God brought him back. He went to his followers and told them it was only the beginning. Then he left, returned to God, and sent to them the Spirit-of-God-Who-Breathes-Fire (see Acts 2). Flames descended from the heavens, alighted on those Jesus followers, and chaos ensued. Galilean fishermen spoke eloquently in all the known languages of the world. Thousands of people were moved. Yet many others heard only nonsense and saw only disruption.
The world is burning. Our nation continues to struggle through a pandemic. Add to that an uprising with the potential to transform oppression into a new world. Yet disorientation is nothing new to the Spirit of God; arguably, that’s when she does her best work.
Consider this masterpiece of poetic theology (shared with permission):
A Poem on Pentecost
(Pete ‘Afro D’ Shungu, 2020)
And tell me, what’s the cost
When those in power refuse to repent
Refuse to relent
And the flames are rising
As our cities are burning
Yearning for justice
And the people are shouting
In many tongues
At the top of their lungs
Voices for those who no longer have a voice
Breath for those who no longer have breath
And we have some people
For their own right to be free
To breathe potentially-deadly germs
With no mask
And we have other people
For the right of Black people to be free
To breathe at all
Which one would Jesus be?