The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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This awkward moment

Today a rare mixture of people momentarily lay aside their differences to gather in Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church to give thanks to God for the life of Elijah Cummings. This is a community like few others — members of Congressman’s home church, constituents of his Congressional District, colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the powerless and the powerful, the homeless and and the well-housed, the hungry and the well-fed; elected officials and career civil servants, maids and nannies and those who employ, red and yellow, back and white, all precious in God’s sight — convened at this most awkward moment when the Congressional impeachment inquiry, led by the deceased, has been called a ‘lynching’ by a child of white privilege.

James Cone — The Cross and the Lynching Tree

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late Professor and author James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in NYC elucidates the blindness of white Christians who see no relation between the cross of Jesus and the lynching tree.

“In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

“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. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Is it too much to hope and pray that today’s awkward moment in Baltimore help white Christians see the cross in the lynching tree, understand the sordid history of lynched (black) and lynchers (white), lay aside glib talk of a lynching, whether ignorant or intentional, and find our way beyond the collective sin of white supremacy.

Thank you, Elijah and James, for your witness and wisdom. The chariot has come to take you home. RIP.

My People and the 19th Hole

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How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom. “The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves — eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.”

What they called “my people” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.

“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.