By: Rev. Dr. Velda Love, Lead for Join the Movement Toward Racial Justice Campaign and Minister for Racial Justice
Holy Week is a sacred time to journey with Jesus from the moment he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. After Palm Sunday there is a shift in the atmosphere as the movement of Jesus and his followers disrupts the crowd’s mood, and politicians, religious elites, and the empire feel threatened by Jesus’ physical presence and truth-telling in public spaces. As the week progresses, the trials and accusations begin. A trusted companion, Judas, betrays Jesus and sets the stage for the trauma and violence ahead: his crucifixion.
Crucifixions were meant to instill fear, subordination, and trauma as families watch in horror the bodies of their loved ones, friends, and neighbors nailed to old rugged tree branches fashioned into crosses. The empire used death by crucifixion to display the human body for all to view; state-sanctioned violence used to incite fear. The message is clear: if you protest the state and political process, if you resist paying taxes and honoring human leaders, and if you demand justice in public—you’re next.
As in the first century, in the modern era many communities of color remember old, rugged trees that bore a similar kind of Strange Fruit. And those memories tell a different story rooted in anti-blackness and racism deeply interwoven in the soil and structures, policies, and laws of the yet-to-be united states. The history of racial terror lynching reminds all of us that crucifixion continued in the modern era, as black bodies brutally hung from trees. A mob of Roman soldiers in the first century is replaced with white mobs from Southern and Northern cities in the U.S. White women, children, and men used their hatred and hands to hang innocent black women, children, and men from tree branches, bridges, and poles. Mobs of white folks leered with no regard for the humanity of people of African descent. Postcards and photographs were exchanged and sent to friends and relatives depicting their heinous acts captured in images for visual humor and memorabilia.
In a passionate lecture based on his watershed book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late scholar and theologian Rev. Dr. James H. Cone argues, “the cross sits at the center of the gospel of Jesus, and also at the center of black life in the United States.” Yet, the United States government refused to outlaw lynching—public execution used as a tool of social control over black lives—for over 100 years. The Emmitt Till Antilynching Act was finally passed and signed into law by president Joe Biden, March 29, 2022.
And yet, the tools of lynching remain. They are chokeholds used to suffocate, knees on necks, no knock warrants, and guns drawn and unloaded into black bodies by police officers on the street, in cars, and private homes. Lynching tools also include recent policies and laws passed seeking to eradicate the teaching of Critical Race Theory, taking aim at cultural historians and thoroughly researched resources from scholars of color like Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of, A New Origin Story The 1619 Project. The crucifixion continues.
In response to the murder-lynching of George Floyd, May 20, 2020, Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity UCC Chicago preached a dangerous sermon entitled, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Moss’s sermon was a direct confrontation of the reality of the continued lynching and crucifixion of black life today. Moss retraced over a hundred years of history of murder-lynching incidents impacting African American communities. Everyday life for some becomes a death sentence for people of color—jogging—Ahmaud Arbery, walking—Trayvon Martin, playing—Tamir Rice, driving—Sandra Bland, resting—Breonna Taylor, and worshipping—9 members of Mother Emanuel African American Episcopal Church. Like the truth-telling of Jesus that we honor during Holy Week, we need dangerous sermons to challenge ideologies of supremacy, and disrupt those who are socialized in whiteness, misogyny, power and profit over people, wealth and comfort over justice.
At the beginning of his ministry, recorded in Luke 4:17, Jesus unrolls the scroll and reads a passage from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus’ inaugural sermon was good news for the poor, the disinherited, broken, hurting, wounded by oppression, and economic injustices. It was a message to the crowd to reorder society, redistribute wealth, and create economic justice. He preached a dangerous sermon. Today, Jesus’ sermon would include messages of antilynching, anti-racism, gender equity, sexual orientation inclusion, and eliminating systems such as capitalism, militarism, and ideologies of supremacy. Dangerous!
Holy Week must include a critical interrogation of the symbolic meaning of the cross and the lynching tree. Christians are encouraged to move beyond the rhetoric of love and justice to being love and justice. Don’t be in a hurry to rush through Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Good Friday should be a long pause and a reality check that dangerous sermons still need to be preached, and lynching—metaphorically and literally still occur. The crucifixion continues.
Just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary, so black people had no choice about being lynched. The evil forces of the Roman state and of white supremacy in America willed it. Yet, God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation, there is hope ‘beyond tragedy’ (Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 166).
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Be your own dangerous sermon and follow in the pathways of Jesus’ radical love and justice. Here are some actions you can take to resist the tools of lynching at work in our world today.
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