During this lenten season, I had the opportunity to journey through the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone, one of the foremost theologians of black liberation theology. This text not only kept me facing toward Jerusalem with my eyes on the cross as we moved toward Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but it gave me a brand new perspective on Christ’s suffering and death. If I’m being perfectly honest, Cone’s theology was an abrupt awakening to a reality that is both far removed from my own experience, and yet closer than I realized.
Throughout The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone challenges his readers to see our beloved and crucified Christ within the faces of those thousands of black Americans who were beaten, tortured, and lynched in the century following the Civil War. Cone writes, “In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross” (Kindle location 673).
Like Jesus, most of the victims of lynching were innocent of the crimes for which they had been accused. Like Jesus, they were fatal casualties of mob violence and a political system that turned a blind eye to these unjust executions. Just as the Roman government and the Jewish religious authorities used crucifixion in an attempt to suppress Christ’s burgeoning movement for the hopeless and oppressed, lynching was used as a tool to keep black Americans oppressed and under the thumb of white supremacy. In a very real and tangible way, black Christians were able to see themselves in the crucified Christ as he suffered and died on the cross.
As much as white Christians would like to turn a blind eye to the cruelty of lynching, Cone confronts us with the truth that the God of the oppressed identifies more with those who were lynched rather than those who were committing these heinous acts. He writes, “If the American empire has any similarities with that of Rome, can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of blacks on the lynching tree? Can American Christians see the reality of Jesus’ cross without seeing it as the lynching tree?” (Kindle location 1622-1633)
From Cone, we turn to the epistle reading for Maundy Thursday, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Ironically, the Corinthians Christians were using the unifying event of communion as a way to create divisions and factions within their church community. As Paul seems to indicate in the verses leading up to our lectionary text, those in power were withholding the Lord’s feast from those they deemed unworthy: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21, NRSV). This symbol of being One in Christ had devolved into an oppressive act that kept the “other” out. It is no wonder that Paul needed to provide some clearer instruction on the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthian community.
Then, when we read’s Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:26, we are given this command: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (NRSV, italics added). Notice that the apostle does not say, “You proclaim the Lord’s resurrection until he comes again.”
Often as white Protestant Christians, we want to rush Christ off of the cross and out of the tomb. We tend to reject the crucifixes of our Catholic brothers and sisters which bear Jesus’ tortured and mangled body, and instead we hold up empty crosses and images of a resurrected Lord. The pain and cruelty of Christ’s passion on the cross on Good Friday becomes but a blip on our radar as we dash on toward the main event of Easter Sunday.
But Maundy Thursday gives us the unique opportunity to sit within the hopelessness and desperation in the upper room as Jesus anticipates his own body being broken and his blood being shed. Just as Paul wanted to impress the seriousness of this occasion upon his original readers in Corinth, maybe we too need to realize the full impact of the solemnity of this Last Supper. Maybe we need to confess that like the Christians in Corinth, we also have taken this instruction to remember Christ’s death too lightly, and in doing so we have eaten of the bread and drank of the cup in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27). Maybe we need to truly heed the call to remember his broken body and poured out blood, as we reflect upon the pain, the loneliness, the fear, and the anguish that bore down upon Christ from the upper room all the way to Golgotha.
As James Cone would challenge us to do, perhaps on this Maundy Thursday, we need to spend some extended time with Jesus on the cross, looking fully upon the face of the suffering Christ. Within Christ’s visage, we may even see the suffering of our oppressed brothers and sisters: not only black Americans that were lynched en masse during the post-Reconstruction era, but any and all who have been oppressed, victimized, abused, abandoned, tortured, and tormented.
This Maundy Thursday, may we find within Christ’s betrayal another betrayal: that of American citizens who have been treated as second-class humans. Our systems of “justice” have betrayed the thousands of black Americans who have been enslaved, lynched, segregated, oppressed, and are now are being imprisoned at disturbing rates.
This Maundy Thursday, as we taste the sweet fruit of cup of the new covenant, may we also taste of the strange fruit and bitter crop that Billie Holiday so mournfully sings of in “Strange Fruit.” May we see Christ’s reflection within the “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”
This Maundy Thursday, may we proclaim the Lord’s death and hold off on proclaiming the Lord’s resurrection. In doing so, we might just see the cross in a new and powerful way.