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I regularly teach a survey course of US history and I am constantly revamping my content in light of current events. For example, when the great recession hit, the attention to the stock market crash and Great Depression took on a different tone. The role and size of the federal government is a theme that most students question in light of today’s political divisions. The history of police brutality and treatment of African Americans that prompted the more recent Black Lives Matter movement necessitated a greater emphasis on the role of lynching in US history in my teaching.
How do you square the idea of mob justice with a country that proudly asserts individual rights and freedom? How do you get your head around the photographs of people smiling next to a dangling, sometimes mutilated body? How do you understand the men, women, and children present at a lynching? How do you account for the seeming carnival atmosphere in many photographs? Or, at a more basic level, what does it mean that people are preserving an image of lynching with something that cannot be described as anything other than pride?
Between 1880 and 1940, more than 5000 African American men, women and children died at the hands of lynch mobs. White Christians made up many or even most of those lynch mobs. James H. Cone, theologian and founder of black liberation theology, wrote the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree that came out in 2011. He reflects on the paradox of American Christianity and the cruel violence of lynching and compares the cross and crucifixion of Christ to a first century lynching. In particular, Cone takes 20th century white liberal theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr to task for failing to seriously address racial violence.
While much has been written about Cone, his theology, and the significance of his book on lynching and the cross, I couldn’t help but reflect: How is the cross similar to the lynching tree? How important is suffering and oppression to the Christian faith? What does suffering and oppression look like in American society today?
And yet, Cone also expresses the power of hope among African Americans. The power of reconciliation and forgiveness are also central to the power of the cross.
What does that look like in a season of Lent that is also black history month?