And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. (Mark 15: 29-32 ESV)
It’s an unfortunate fact of life in our country that this specter of African Americans being killed by law enforcement has raised it’s ugly head again. It’s also unfortunate that before a writer can go into a post like this he has to make a disclaimer: No, I don’t condone violence against or the killing of police officers in response to these incidents. No sane person condones that. However, there are many people out there who will tell you that you have to pick one side or the other. That is a lie straight from the Accuser, and anyone who tells you that is just promoting a sideways agenda.
But I’ve been disturbed by other things I’ve read on social media and real world discussions that I’ve had and witnessed. Many people, and by this I mean privileged white people, just don’t seem to understand why so many black people in our country are so distrustful of authority and law enforcement. It’s almost like for a lot of folks, the election of Barack Obama was the signal that racism is over in our country and we don’t have to worry about it, so then they view the concerns raised by the African American community and unfounded and unwarranted.
Well, it’s obvious that racism hasn’t gone away. Just take a gander at Twitter, Facebook, and 2016 election coverage and you’ll see it plain as day. After all, tonight a United States Congressman went full on White Supremacist on national TV. It’s getting harder and harder to tell where the politicians end and Kluckers begin.
But even more than that, the history of the United States has been savage to people of African descent pretty much forever. We have largely either forgotten that history or swept it under the rug so we don’t have to see it. We look at slavery as something that happened so long ago, but yet when I lived in Florida members of my ex-wife’s extended family would often crack the joke: “I love n*gg*rs, I think everybody should own one!”
Let that sink in for a minute. Those kinds of jokes are not rare in that part of the country.
But slavery and racial injustice are not just artifacts of the distant past. This has been brought home to me this week as I’ve read Shane Claiborne’s book “Executing Grace” with passages of James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” The photo I posted above was taken in 1920 at the lynching of a black man in Texas. Look at the white people gathered around posing for photos. No, really, scroll back to the top of the page and LOOK AT IT. Look at the little kids there. LOOK AT IT. This was less than 100 years ago in the United States of America. According to Claiborne, entire towns would sometimes show up to watch lynchings and school would sometimes be dismissed so the kids could go too. They would take photos on the spot and make postcards of people posing with the dead body. In today’s terms it would be like going to an execution and busting out your phone for a selfie. They sold refreshments for heaven’s sake!
Well that was 1920. Really? According to Claiborne, recent studies have shown that there were over 3,959 documented lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950. Those are just the ones we know about. In 2014 the body of a young black man was found hanging from a tree in North Carolina on the anniversary of the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. He had been dating a white woman.
Next, let me relate to you the story of Mary Turner. I hadn’t heard this story until I read Claiborne’s book, and this afternoon I studied it some online. It is horrifying. In short, I believe it is the most evil thing I have ever read. A warning, the information I’m going to relate is extremely graphic and disturbing. I’m not going to sanitize it. However, I dare you to read it and still wonder why African Americans are afraid in this current climate.
According to Claiborne, and other information I read, in March 1918 a mob in Valdosta, Georgia, went out looking for a particular black man to lynch. This man was suspected of killing his white boss. They couldn’t find him, so they went and got another black man, Hayes Turner, and lynched him instead. Turner’s wife, Mary, protested her husband’s murder and demonstrated with the local sheriff to seek justice. The sheriff arrested her and handed her over to the mob. She was eight months pregnant at the time. The mob hung her upside down from her ankles, poured gasoline on her, and burned her alive. While this was happening, a white man walked up, cut her stomach open, and dropped her unborn child onto the ground. The child cried while the crowd stomped it to death. After this was all over Turner’s body was riddled with bullets. This all took place in front of a spectator crowd that included women and kids. No one was ever charged in this heinous crime.
Yeah, that sounds like even a little too much for Game of Thrones, doesn’t it? And the sad part is, those kinds of evil torture and killing were not all that rare. So do you really have to ask why our African American brothers and sisters are so scared and so distrustful? There are many people alive who remember all this kind of stuff. Do you really have to ask why there needs to be a #BlackLivesMatter movement? If you do, you’re kind of daft. For most of American history black lives haven’t mattered. For somebody like me, a middle class white guy, that kind of horror, that kind of pure fear is impossible to imagine, but I try. I try to understand what my African American friends and neighbors deal with, but I never will be able to appreciate it fully, and neither will you if you’re in shoes and skin like mine. The answer to this dilemma is not to dismiss these concerns by tossing out a platitude like “All Lives Matter,” it’s to sit, listen to, and advocate for these people.
I opened this entry with words from the Gospel of Mark. Christ on the cross has long been a powerful image for the African-American community. In many respects, Jesus was a lynchee as well, a victim of mob “justice.” The people who have suffered America’s racist history have continually looked to Him as one who identifies with their suffering. As James Cone and Shane Claiborne suggest, that gives the crucified Messiah, one hung on a tree, a whole new dimension for people who have suffered that kind of hate and anger.
What can it do for you? What kind of dimension can that add to your life. My prayer is that instead of continuously judging and dismissing these people we can come alongside them and help rid our nation of this scourge of racism, violence, and fear.
It’s a tall order, but nothing is too tall of an order for the Crucified and Risen One, and those who choose to follow His Way.