The cross and the lynching tree | Lent 2 | March 8

Texts:  Luke 23:13-25, Acts 5:29-30


In 1999 Time Magazine named its top choices for different categories of the 20th century.  The person of the century, according to Time was…Albert Einstein.  The most prominent scientist in a century where science was prominent.

In a slightly less consequential category: The best TV show of the century went to The Simpsons.  Best film: Citizen Kane.  Children’s book: Charlotte’s Web, by EB White.  Best comedy routine: “Who’s on first?” by Abbot and Costello.

Best poem of the 20th century: The Wasteland by TS Elliot.  Best Album: Bob Marley’s Exodus.

Time Magazine also selected what it considered to be the song of the century.  It was first recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday – A song the BBC suggested might be the most shocking song of all time.  “Strange Fruit,” that’s the song.  These are the lyrics:

Southern trees bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
Them big bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, clean and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the leaves to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

The song of the century is about lynching, first sung within what is considered the lynching era of the US.  The strange fruit hanging from the southern trees is people.  Specifically, as Billie Holiday sings, black bodies.

The song was indeed a shock to those who heard it.  Reactions ranged from silent tears to loud heckling.  Radio stations wouldn’t play it, and Holiday’s label, Colombia records, wouldn’t record it.  When she toured, she would save it for the last song of the set.  All lights in the venue would be turned off except for a single spotlight on her face.  And she would begin:

Southern trees bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Today we are looking at a horrific part of our country’s history.  As we do this, it’s OK to feel what we feel.  To feel shock and horror.  Or numb and paralyzed.  To feel angry.  To feel confused about how to feel.  To feel hungry to know more about our history and the specific places we have lived.  It’s OK to not look directly at it for too long.  To absorb what we can, breathe in the reality of it, and then remind ourselves that there is more to reality than just terror and violence.

The name of the sermon and theme for today, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” is taken directly from the title of a book by James Cone.  Cone was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He is widely regarded as the father of black liberation theology.  Cone wrote the book in 2011, and died in 2018 at the age of 79.  He says this in the Introduction to “The Cross the Lynching Tree:”

“This work is a continuation and culmination of all my previous books, each of them, in different ways, motivated by a central question: how to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression….Reading and writing about the lynching nightmare, looking at many images of tortured black bodies, has been my deepest challenge and the most painful experience I have had as a theologian.” (p. xv,xvi)

Cone’s premise, evident in the title, is that in the American experience, the thing that bears the closest resemblance to the Roman cross on which Jesus was crucified is the lynching tree.  He believes with conviction that the lynching tree should have a prominent place in American theological reflection on Jesus’ death.  And, he writes, the fact that it has not is profoundly revealing (p. 30).  Cone notes that in his extensive research he could not find a single sermon, or theological essay during the lynching era, up to 1950, by a prominent liberal white preacher or theologian opposing lynching (p. 132).  Leading him and other black leaders like Ida B. Wells to believe that white Christianity was simply a counterfeit gospel.  Cone writes:

“There was no way a community could support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing in word and deed the one who was lynched in Rome.” (p. 132)

The two scriptures we heard lend themselves to some of the most direct connections between the cross and the lynching tree.  In Acts chapter 5 Peter and the apostles are standing before the council.  The council is inquiring why the apostles continue to keep the name of Jesus alive in their preaching.  Peter’s response includes a reference to Jesus being killed “by hanging him on a tree.”  It’s one of three references in the book of Acts to Jesus dying on a tree – twice out of the mouth of Peter (Acts 5:30, 10:39) , once in a speech from Paul (13:29).

This way of talking about Jesus’ crucifixion sounds to our ears very much like a lynching.  For the apostles it would have been a reference back to a passage in the Torah, in Deuteronomy.  It  mentions crimes punishable by execution involving hanging someone on a tree.  The law goes on to say that the person had to be taken down the same day and buried because “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

In this Jewish law, that curse, for the dignity of the person executed, and for the sake of the land – the curse essentially should end the same day the person dies.  (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

This “died on a tree” language was already there within the tradition, so gets picked up as one of the ways of talking about Jesus’s execution on a Roman cross.  But the Romans played by other rules.  They would intentionally leave bodies up long after death as a public service announcement to anyone who would see them… to not mess with Rome.  Much like the way lynching served as a graphic public pronouncement of white supremacy and the terror that awaited anyone who would challenge it.

The passage from Luke 23 occurs right before Jesus is crucified.  He has been in front of Pilate, and now Pilate calls together other leaders, and, as Luke says, “the people.”  Pilate suggests the possibility of Jesus’ innocence.  He proposes a good flogging followed by release.  But the people shout together that Jesus must be crucified.  It’s a verdict only Pilate could command.  Pilate makes another attempt at the flog –and- forget- it approach, but the people demand even louder that Jesus be crucified.  To which Pilate gives his final stamp of approval.

There are scholarly questions about the historical likelihood of this scene – Pilate giving in to the demands of the people – but within the gospel story it serves as a demonstration of the power of mob justice – the contagion, even euphoria, of a mass of people all of one mind.  The longer it lasts, the louder it gets, the more convinced each one is of the rightness of their cause, constantly reinforced by that same growing sense within others.  As the story goes, not even Pilate, well known for his ruthless exercise of power, could hold back this wave.  Jesus’ innocence is entirely beside the point.  What matters is that the crowd has decided he’s deserving of death.  They will be safer, more at peace, more unified and whole, better citizens, without him alive.  They are of one mind.  Those with official power to stop it step aside and let it play out to the end, metaphorically – and literally in Pilate’s case – washing their hands of the whole ordeal.

The people, the leadership.  Everyone wins.  Everyone who matters wins.

Where have we seen this in the history of our country?

Lynching in the US was not initially directed at people of African descent.  It likely goes back to Revolutionary War era Virginia and a couple judges – Charles and William – with the last name Lynch.  They supported violently punishing British sympathizers outside the bounds of legal due process.  People met “Judge Lynch” when they got whipped or stabbed or hung because of their political loyalties that didn’t match the patriots.  Enslaved folks rarely got the Judge Lynch treatment because their owners had a vested interest in protecting their property.  It was only after the end of slavery, after the collapse of Reconstruction, that Lynching began to be directed primarily at African Americans.

Research can now verify that between the years 1877 and 1950 more than 4000 blacks faced racial terror lynchings.  Over 1000 whites were also lynched, but for non-racial purposes, many of them in the newly forming Western states.  80% of lynchings took place in the South as racial terror became a form of social control.  But only twelve states of all 50 have had no lynchings of blacks.  Meaning 38 have.

Ohio is one that has.  From where we sit right now in this sanctuary, here are the names, dates, and locations of the five closest lynchings of blacks, in chronological order:

Seymour Newland. April 14, 1894. Logan County.

Henry Howard. June 19, 1885. Coshocton County.

Peter Betters. June 13, 1887. Green County.

“Click” Mitchell. June 4, 1897. Champaign County.

Richard Dixon. March 7, 1904. Clark County.

The National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama is dedicated to the memory of racial terror lynching and the end of present day mass incarceration.  The image in front of us today is taken at this memorial.  What we are looking at is some of the 800+ steel monuments to lynching victims, hung from above.  Each steel monument represents one of the counties in the US where there was a lynching.  Each monument has the names of the lynching victims from that county.

One thing I learned is that there are actually two identical versions of each monument, the second grouping located in the park surrounding the memorial.  Each of those monuments is intended to be moved and located within the county where the lynching took place.  As that grouping gets smaller, it will be a witness that more and more places across the country are coming to terms with this history and finding a place to own and display this part of their history.  I was born and raised in Logan County, Ohio, the first on that list of lynchings in Central Ohio.  I wonder what it would take to have that monument moved and claimed by Logan County and if I might have a small role in that.

For those with eyes to see, these hanging monuments are people, strange fruit, hanging from southern, northern, western, and eastern trees.  For those with eyes to sees, these monuments are American crosses.  The cross and the lynching tree are a part of the same story, for those with eyes to see.

Because here’s the thing with this whole Christianity thing.  With the cross as one of our primary symbols, it means we keep revisiting this time and time again.  It means whenever we contemplate the story of Jesus, and our own history, we do so with the cross and all those layers around it, within view.  To reference last week, that’s the stained glass window we look through that filters the light of the room we inhabit.  It’s a heck of gift that we may not really want if we think about it too hard.

To keep the cross in front of us in this way is to see Jesus in solidarity with all those whose fates have been similar to his.  It means, at a minimum, that we actively resist all the powers that would sweep us up into the mob that causes the lynchings.

And here’s a final thought:

I believe very firmly that collective singing is one of the surest signs of resurrection life even in the face of death.  It’s no mistake that songs have sustained communities that have undergone tremendous oppression.  This is also a part of our Mennonite story, and one of the treasures we have together.

So as we sing this next song that is both mournful and triumphant, I invite you to do so as if life depended on it.  Even if you’re like me and you don’t trust yourself to carry a bass line without the assistance of those around you.   Sing as if you have to sing in order to live – for yourself and those whose lives have been taken from them.  As if joining our voices is some kind of reverse mob scene, transcending the voices of terror, our voices raised up in the power of resurrection.