Good Friday — the Cross and the Lynching Tree

Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.

-James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 158

For the past several months, I’ve been reconsidering my doctrine of atonement, the one that I believed as a child, though it disturbed me so much: that God sent God’s son to die, so therefore God killed Jesus … but it’s still my fault. Many contemporary theologians, especially black liberation, feminist, and womanist theologians, have started questioning the prevailing doctrines of atonement in American Christianity–penal substitution, Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and Christus Victor. What’s important about the Cross, these theologians suggest, is in God’s solidarity with suffering people.

Also for the past several months, I’ve been challenging myself to read more African-American literature, partly to make connections between the Cross and the lynching tree. This Lenten season I’ve been haunted by black feminist Audre Lorde’s poem “Power,” a poem about racism in the American justice system. For Good Friday this year, I want to reflect on this poem as being about Christ, and therefore about all those who suffer injustice. I hope for you, too, this poem can provide a new way of thinking about the Cross.

Power by Audre Lorde

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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