Remembrance of the executed God sets Christians on a way of the cross that is a journey of resistance to imperial power and of flourishing within and in spite of it…a pageant of empowerment, one that invokes and evokes God as a creative power that is greater, deeper, and wider than oppressing powers that grind so many down today.
–Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you moan,
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you moan,
Pharoah’s army got drownded,
Oh Mary, don’t you weep.
Strange Fruit Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen)
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
James Cone, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”
Can the cross redeem the lynching tree? Can the lynching tree liberate the cross and make it real in American history? Those are the questions I have tried to answer.
As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering—to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of this cross we are called to more than contemplation and adoration. We are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “To take the crucified down from the cross.”
Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor. “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more” (Luke 21:4).
Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. God’s loving solidarity can transform ugliness—whether Jesus on the cross or a lynched black victim—into beauty, into God’s liberating presence. Through the powerful imagination of faith, we can discover the “terrible beauty” of the cross and the “tragic beauty” of the lynching tree.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
Christianity for the past millennium cared more about the death of Jesus than his life. It wasn’t always so. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker in their book, Saving Paradise, make the case that for the first several hundred years of Christianity, the focus was quite different.
As they studied Christian art they found that images of Jesus in the first centuries of the church were of a shepherd, a healer, an infant, a teacher, an enthroned king, but he is never depicted as dead. If there is a cross in the image, Jesus appears in front of it in a resurrection scene. The artwork is vibrant with heaven imagined as a transformed Earth.
It wasn’t for a thousand years or so, that the dominant image of Jesus was one of torture and death on a cross. To be sure the cross existed in early Christianity, but it wasn’t until much later that art and the resulting theology depicted Jesus as a bloody corpse on an instrument of torture.
Christianity has had a strange relationship with the cross and with the death of Jesus. As artwork and theology transformed into an obsession over the death of Jesus as saving people from their sins and guilt so they can buy a ticket a heaven above, Christianity became the theological justification for imperial conquest.
The ritual of communion that many find increasingly distasteful focused on symbolically (or somehow literally in a magical way) ingesting his flesh and blood. With grim faces the congregants come forward like something out of the Walking Dead to consume their weekly dose of Corpus Christi.
Lost was the celebratory feast of an open table with lots of real food symbolizing the bounty of Earth and the joyful participation of everyone led by the dispossessed in the Beloved Community.
The great feast type of communion is making its way back, however. I try to focus on that. But it is a tough change because the death of Jesus is so imbedded in our practice and liturgy that even when we use other words, the mood and obsession with guilt (“I’m so bad that Jesus had to die for my sins”) lingers.
Communion is one of the areas of our ritual practice in need of a reformation.
In addition to reforming rituals such as communion and baptism as “baptism into the death of Jesus” we also have the task of reforming the theology that accompanies it.
This series of sermons is on churchy words. How they lost their meaning and power and how they can be reformed, restored, revisited, and if none of the above, rejected.
Today’s words are “death of Jesus.”
How did Jesus die and why?
The next question is: how does the answer to the how and why encourage us in the present to participate in the flourishing of Earth and of humanity?
I don’t think that the death of Jesus needs to be the centerpiece of Christian thought. It is there and it needs some reflection, but it doesn’t need a central place.
When we think of Martin Luther King, we don’t make the centerpiece of our study about him or our use of his work in the present his assassination in Memphis. We recognize it as part of his story, but his legacy is not his death. We focus on what he did in life. Other figures of history get a similar treatment: Abraham Lincoln and Joan of Arc, for example. Even as their deaths were violent, it was because of what they did in life that their deaths have a noteworthiness about them, but their deaths are not our focus.
When Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus called “The Passion” was released about a dozen years ago now, the advertisement for it had an image of Christ’s head bloodied by a crown of thorns. The caption read:
Dying was his reason for Living.
That phrase sums up most of Christian theology for the past thousand years including the dominant fundamentalist theologies of both Catholicism and Protestantism.
I challenge that mythology. Others do too, of course. Dying was not his reason for living any more than dying is your reason for living or my reason for living. Yeah, we are all going to die. It is healthy to confront our mortality so we can live with awareness and mindfulness. Your life will end one day. Don’t let your legacy be in the words of that Dr. Hook song from the seventies:
I got stoned and I missed it.
A healthy recognition of our mortality can motivate us to live a bit more courageously and mindfully in the present. Must our deaths define us? Must fantasies of the denial of death define us either? For most of Christian history the answer has been yes. But there is a way to approach life in the words of theologian Paul Tillich with the “courage to be.”
For those who have confronted the abyss whether that abyss be grief, disappointment, the smallness of humanity in the vastness of the universe, or the brutality of the powerful, there is yet the possibility to face it squarely and say, “Nonetheless, I choose to be.”
The movement to see Jesus as a resource for life is coming of age. This movement focuses on his parables with an understanding of his context in first century Palestine under Roman Imperial rule. His parables invite us into an open-ended conversation about what it means to be human. When I say “what it means” I don’t mean that something outside of us gives us meaning, but we are invited to create our meaning not only as individuals but as a human community and society in relationship with the creatures of Earth.
I would hasten to add that as we reflect upon and practice this process of meaning-making, we will discover that we are not simply engaging in first world amusements. Because of Jesus’s particular history, we cannot in good conscience see life disconnected from of the suffering of creation caused in a major part by imperialistic theologies and practices of the first world.
So we do come around to the death of Jesus. The question of how and why will be important. It is important in particular for wisdom on how we might live in this present and how we might imagine, as Jesus did in his time, a way of being that is life-giving instead of death-dealing.
The how of the death of Jesus is straightforward even as it is not understood in its political context. Jesus was crucified. Because this word has been coopted by various theologies, a more evocative word is needed. Jesus was executed. He was executed by established authority.
James Cone of Union Theological Seminary says a word that is even more evocative is lynched. Jesus was lynched. In this case the authority, while not established, was in deed recognized even celebrated by the powers that be.
The historical fact is clear. Rome executed thousands by crucifixion. It did so to keep its peace. The instruments of imperial death and torture were in public places as a spectacle of Rome’s authority and power. This is what happens to those who step out of order. It was state-sanctioned terrorism.
This is what lynching was in the American South. Between three and five thousand African-Americans were lynched between the end of the Civil War up into the mid part of the 20th century. These lynchings were often public spectacles of white dominance to keep African-Americans in a status of subservience and in a constant state of fear. Lynchings also were terrorism on behalf of the white power structure.
If we today want to understand the crucifixion of Jesus, we might contemplate not Jesus on the cross, or a beautifully embossed gold-plated, or brass plated cross, or jewelry you can buy in a Christian book store, but instead contemplate an image such as is on the cover of today’s bulletin, of a person lynched, a black body, hanging and surrounded by an approving and gloating mob of white people.
Those are facts of history. Lynchings in the United States of America and executions by crucifixion in first century Palestine that Rome claimed as its own.
What does Jesus have to do with it? Jesus was one of those caught and crushed by Rome’s wheel of oppression. He might have done nothing to deserve it any more than anyone of the other thousands did anything to deserve it anymore than any one of the thousands of African-Americans did anything to deserve what happened in our recent past and what still happens today at the hands of police.
Jesus was chattel. Jesus was in the way. He was an example.
So the why question from the perspective of history is because Jesus was used to reinforce the spectacle of brutality and imperial conquest.
It is what people around the globe see when they observe the spectacle of American imperialism. For instance, the people of Yemen who are being bombed by American-made weapons and with the assistance of American jet fuel and American intelligence on behalf of the brutal dictatorship of Saudi Arabia. What are the people of Yemen to America? In the way—a product of a geo-political deal. In the scope of things, it doesn’t really matter much. You will not even likely hear about it with the noise of Trump’s sexual bravado dominating the airwaves.
I think the situation in Yemen is illustrative of Palestine in the first century. Rome barely gave Palestine a second glance until they acted up and needed to be crushed. Why did Jesus die? Simply put: He was in the way.
When we ask why did Jesus die, we aren’t asking about history. We are seeking some cosmic metaphysical meaning for the death of this particular individual. That is how we came up with the various theologies of atonement and dying for sins and what have you that begin with the writing of the New Testament itself.
But we need to know that is second-order reflection on the historical reality of imperial brutality that is given the name Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. It is world domination with a pretty name. It is brutality around the globe today sprayed with the perfume named, freedom and democracy. That is what the United States is giving Yemen, freedom and democracy.
The US Navy in its television commercials calls itself a global force for good. That depends upon a point of view.
So what might we say to the cosmic, metaphysical, Christian faith question, “Why did Jesus die?” What does that mean for us who bear a connection to Jesus and to the Christian tradition?
The meaning for me is that Jesus from Rome’s perspective was nameless, like the thousands of others, like the thousands lynched, like the thousands murdered and tortured as the price of empire’s control.
Yet from another angle, every one of those murdered and lynched human beings had and have names. Jesus is the name that stands for the nameless. The meaning is that the nameless matter. Not only do they matter, they lead. If we are to forge a beloved community, we follow the lead of the nameless, nameless from empire’s perspective but named from if you will, God’s perspective.
Mark Lewis Taylor, my professor at Princeton, calls the event, the executed God. The cosmic meaning, the meaning of a life of conscience is to recognize that divinity is in solidarity with the nameless. The nameless has a name.
That is why the naming is so important in the Black Lives Matter movement. The sacred ritual of saying the names to bring dignity, to bring divine consciousness is what can sustain a movement of resistance.
Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile.
The question isn’t why did Jesus die as much as why do we remember this name? We remember it to bring to awareness of those the powers keep nameless. We recall the story of Jesus not as nameless chattel but as invitation and summons to stand with those who are bulldozed by imperial power.
I find myself amazed and amused when people think that church shouldn’t be political. It is political to its core. You can’t help but be political. The question is, ‘whose politics will we follow?’
Christianity’s founder was executed by established authority to reinforce the politics of Pax Romana. You can’t get more political than that. When Pax Romana coopted the story of Jesus it attempted to strip it of its message of resistance and thus had it serve empire with theologies of guilt, control, and afterlife for the obedient.
Now we need to reclaim and reform this inheritance for the flourishing of humanity and Earth. I hope you will take up the challenge with me.