Cross of Terror, Cross of Hope

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“In the United States,” writes black theologian James Cone, “the clearest image of the crucified Christ was the figure of an innocent black victim dangling from a lynching tree.” As Good Friday approaches, it’s worth reflecting on.

I’m nearly done with Cone’s troubling book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” It has shredded my heart. Cone describes the role of the cross among black Christians during the 70-some years of Jim Crow. After Union troops were removed from the South in 1877, it became open season on blacks. They lived in fear, not daring to cross whites in any way. It was an era of terrible persecution, daily terror, despicable evil.

Over 5000 blacks were lynched across the South. Some were shot, beaten to death, or burned alive. But most were hanged, after having been tortured–castrated, flogged, sliced up, burned with rods. The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers sometimes published the date and location of an upcoming lynching. Up to 20,000 people might come out to see a black man, or perhaps several black men, be mutilated and killed. It was a family affair. Children often got their first chance to torture a black person, perhaps cut off a finger or ear as a souvenir. Photographers came to make postcards showing whites posing with the swinging bodies. Smile for the camera. “This is from our weekend barbecue,” people would write on the postcards they sent to friends. THIS EVIL HAPPENED.

lynching-tree-book250“Lynching was the white community’s way of forcibly reminding blacks of their inferiority and powerlessness,” Cone writes. “The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. When they heard of a person being lynched in their vicinity, they often ran home, pulled down shades, and turned out lights–hoping the terror moment would pass without taking the lives of their relatives and friends.”

Cone tells of a black man who killed his white boss, but fled. A mob, frustrated, grabbed a different black man and lynched him instead. A proxy murder. When the man’s wife protested, she was arrested and turned over to the mob. She was eight months pregnant. Nevertheless, they stripped her naked, hung her by her feet, doused her in gasoline, and set her ablaze. Amidst this, a white man cut open her stomach, and the unborn child fell to the ground. Then the mob trampled the baby. THIS HAPPENED IN AMERICA.

Cone said that both whites and blacks, in their separate churches across town, would sing, “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” and other hymns about the cross. But it had a totally different meaning for each group. In white churches, the cross was a talisman, a symbol, something to wear on a chain. Something to burn on a black family’s yard.

But when blacks sang about the cross, Cone said, it was real life. The black spiritual said, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” They truly understood that. Some had watched fellow blacks hang on the lynching tree, and they trembled at the sight.

Lynching provided an obvious picture of Christ. There’s a hateful mob. An innocent man railroaded to execution. A public spectacle. Torture. The complicity of government officials. Others who wash their hands of it–“He’s innocent, but it’s not my problem.” A jeering crowd surrounding a man hanging from a tree, watching him die.

When black Christians sang about the cross, they were part of the story, part of the injustice. They had seen this. They had friends, family, coworkers, neighbors who had been beaten and abused, if not killed.

But what consumed black Christians, Cone said, was the VICTORY of the cross. They sang about a cross that brought hope out of despair, a cross that ultimately conquered death. The lynching tree, like the cross, offered condemnation of the hypocritical ruling class–in this case, of white “God-fearing” society. Sorrow and suffering would not defeat them. In the end, the cross promised, justice would reign. It represented hope and victory. As with Jesus, so with them. And that’s what they sang about. Exuberantly. Longingly.

Martin Luther King often used the imagery of the cross. He reminded crowds that when Jesus stumbled on the way to Golgotha, a black man–Simon of Cyrene–picked up the cross and carried it the rest of the way. King said, “One day God will remember that it was a black man who aided his only-begotten son in the darkest hour of his life.”

Another time he said, “When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning….It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”

In the black churches during those vile decades of Jim Crow–churches filled with downtrodden, despised, powerless people–the fraudulent Christianity of the white masters was redeemed.

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Than When We First Begun? Really?

One of the greatest hymns is “Amazing Grace.” We did it during communion yesterday–me at the piano, Maddie on the clarinet, Cecilia on the violin. Sounded beautiful. But I confess–that last line always bothers me.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

People sing the last line without the contraction: “Than when we first begun.” Which makes it ungrammatical and, therefore, unspiritual. It should just be, “Than when we first began.” But then you lose the rhyme, and we can’t have that. I’m sure Gabriel and all the other angels cringe whenever we sing it (since English is their native tongue).

Even WITH the contraction, I don’t like it. It means, “Than when we had first begun.” Doesn’t sound right.

I’m sorry. It grates on my wordsmith sensibilities. It just does.

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The Parable of the Prodigal Father?

What does “prodigal” mean? I’m a writer and editor, a lifelong well-trained wordsmith. I’m 58-year-old who learned the story of the Prodigal Son as a kid and has heard countless sermons about it since. But until today, I assumed it meant something like “wayward.” The Parable of the Wayward son.

But that’s wrong. “Prodigal” means doing something lavishly, with wasteful extravagance. Donald Trump is totally prodigal.

In the parable, the son was prodigal in blowing his inheritance. But as James Martin points out (in what I read this morning from “Jesus: a Pilgrimage”), perhaps it should be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

When the son returns, even before the son can express any remorse for his recklessness, his father runs out and, full of compassion, embraces and kisses him. Then he has his son clothed in the best robe, puts a ring on his finger, kills a calf in his honor, and throws a big celebration. As Martin says, the father is “lavish, extravagant, and overly generous.”

Jesus never called it the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many lessons can be drawn from this story, and I’ve heard most of them. But perhaps a key point was the father’s prodigal nature. Jesus was saying, “Here’s what the Heavenly Father is like. Even before you have a chance to repent of anything, he’s all over you with his love. Point yourself in his direction, and you’ll find out.”

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It’s What They Do

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About 80 of Obama’s nominees for various positions have been filibustered. In the rest of the history of the United States, only 70 presidential nominees have been filibustered. Hmmmm.

After the Senate Judiciary Committee approves one of President Obama’s nominees, they wait an average of 107 days before getting a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. In the Bush administration, the wait was only 43 days. Hmmmm.

When it comes to nominees for Executive Branch positions, the GOP Senate is on pace to filibuster twice as many nominees as experienced by all previous presidents combined.

38 federal courts are now so short-handed, waiting for new appointees, that they are under what is called “judicial emergencies”–a huge backlog of cases. That’s up from 27 courts just two years ago. This doesn’t seem to bother the GOP Senators. Hmmmm.

Loretta Lynch has now waited nearly five months to be confirmed as Attorney General, and it could stretch out many more months. Some Democrats are accusing Republican senators of racism, since Lynch is black. It’s not racism. It’s just what Republicans do to EVERY nominee. Though they seem to be going the extra mile in putting Ms. Lynch–and a very important government position–on hold. I find nothing admirable about that.

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Jesus as a Parable

Jesus told parables. Ever think of Jesus BEING a parable?

Back in the 70s, my parents had a filmstrip series called “Parables from Nature.” A record album played while you manually advanced the filmstrip. I’ve always liked how the series defined a parable: “An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

James Martin would have liked that definition. I’m currently reading his chapter on parables in “Jesus: a Pilgrimage.” He said Jesus was basically saying, “You want to know what the Kingdom of God is like? Let me tell you a story.”

Then he says this: “Jesus is the parable of God.” God is saying, “You want to understand what I’m like? Let me BE a parable for you.” An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.

I’ve heard this concept in various ways over the years. But I’ve never heard Jesus described as a living parable. It’s a new idea to me, and I like it.

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What Biblical Teaching have I Missed?

The Parable of the Sower is a pat on the back to people like me, at least the way I’ve always heard it. I’m not the rocky or thorny ground. I’m the good fertile ground, where the seed took root. Jesus was saying he likes people like me. Right?

Then on Saturday I’m reading in “Jesus: a Pilgrimage,” and James Martin says this: “It may refer to those parts of ourselves that are open and not open. Can you see your whole self as the field and consider what parts are fertile, what parts are rocky, and what parts are choked with weeds?”

I then went on a two-hour solo drive to Indy, so I had a lot of time to reflect. I could see rocky areas, where I was spiritually passionate about something for a period of my life, but then the fervor subsided. I could see thorny areas choked with weeds–areas like my media consumption and materialism (thank you, American society, for providing weeds in such abundance).

But I was most curious about the seeds that fell on the path and were immediately eaten by birds. Those seeds had absolutely no affect. So I spent a lot of time mentally scouring Scripture, and musing on biblical emphases which have passed me by. What have I just totally missed?

I think for a lot of evangelicals of my generation and older, injustice is not on our righteousness radar. It’s certainly not something I ever heard emphasized growing up in the United Brethren Church. I was two years gone from a Christian college before God put issues of justice and the poor on my radar…and then God forced it upon me in what was practically a Damascus Road experience in 1981. But it’s been there, for ME, ever since.

But are there other biblical teachings which are important, but which I’ve never paid much attention to? I thought hard about that, and came up with a couple possibilities. I’ll keep an eye on them.

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The Editor’s Task: Fewer Words

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As a copy editor, I am always looking to condense. This is particularly needful in my case, since so much of the material I receive comes from preachers, who are never at a loss for words. Which is why I need this clock in my office.

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Congressmen Not Doing Their Job

Interesting piece on Vocativ.com about the voting attendance of Congressmen.

In the Senate, Marco Rubio has the highest absentee rate, missing 8.3% of the votes since taking office. Only one Democrat made the top 10 of “Most Missed Votes in the Senate.”

But then there’s Susan Collins, the Republican from Maine (whom I’ve always liked). She has a perfect attendance record since taking office in 1997–a stunning 5,788 consecutive votes with no misses. The next closest has 712 votes and no misses, so there’s no comparison.

In the House, 8 of the 10 most delinquent are Democrats, led by John Conyers of Michigan, who has an absentee rate of 16%. That means he skips one of every six votes.

Now that Republicans control the Senate, I’m guessing Democrats will be absent much more frequently, using the time instead to do fundraising.

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A Bone to Pick with Hoda Kotb

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I am troubled by Hoda Kotb. Specifically, by her last name, with that inexplicable “b” at the end. The name is pronounced “cot-bee,” yet there is no vowel to go with the “b.” Either the “t” should be strangely silent, or the “b.” It’s not Kid Roc-kay, after all. You don’t clim-be a hill or sing a hym-nee.

We simply cannot allow people to stick random consonants on the end of words without an accompanying vowel. We are not barbarians.

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White, Black, Brown

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Last week I came across these two graphics. The first one was reposted by someone who commented, “This is at least half true.” I would echo that sentiment for the other one.

Back in September, a Muslim guy in Oklahoma lost his job at a food processing plant. He walked into the workplace and attacked one of the first people he saw, a woman. He cut off her head, then attacked another woman. Conservative pundits quickly labeled it Islamic terrorism, and criticized the President for not jumping to the same conclusion.

More recently, a Muslim went into the home of three whites and shot them in the head. That, too, is terrorism…. Oh, I’m sorry, it was a white guy who shot three Muslims in the head. So that is NOT terrorism. That’s just a dispute over a parking space. My bad.

If nothing else, these graphics should admonish us to think about how we view other persons, and caution us against letting the media shape our view of people who are not like us.

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