Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree


Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees1

The photograph of the lynching in Marion Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith haunted and then inspired Abel Meeropol to describe the event in verse. His poem, set to music and recorded by Billie Holiday, is a poignant depiction of the American Holocaust.

It was 16-year-old James Cameron, accused and strung up with Shipp and Smith and then given a last-minute reprieve, who would found America’s Black Holocaust Museum. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, echoes the poem in his concerted attempt to view the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” Cone’s Theology has been criticized for its too narrow focus and exclusion, but in this time in which Christians seems to be supporting widespread oppression of the poor and oppressed, Cone points us in a definitive direction away from evil.

It may be difficult to place ourselves amidst the crowd at the foot of the lynching tree. Difficult, not in the sense that we can never imagine doing such a thing but precisely because this is near enough that we understand this crowd. Living in Little Dixie here in Missouri, the rebel flag is still proudly displayed, racists abound, and the majority of white Christians are stumped as to why the emphasis should be on black lives. One can hear the echo of Caiaphas in the comeback: rather than “all lives” or “blue lives” how about “Roman lives” or “Pharisee lives” matter – therefore this man must die. It is possible to imagine the sway of the crowd and being caught up in the moment – the blind hatred is too near not to recognize its potential. As Ted Peters has stated it, “What is there about striking out violently and killing others that makes us think we can quell the pangs of anxiety, overcome our frustrations. Relieve our rage, regain a sense of self-worth, and thereby conquer death? Killing others seems to relieve our own fear of being killed.”3 When the crowd turns, in a moment of scapegoating, the cowardice and instinct for survival may be strong – but stronger yet is the blind hatred for this victim who is disrupting our lives, harming our religion, and threatening our nation. Through this “righteous slaughter” we can attain some eternal, universal form of the good.4 “Lynch him so that our nation might be saved! Lynch him so that law and order will return and righteousness be served!”

It may be that we have to equate the two – the lynching tree and the Cross – to recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose.

In a strange twist, “Christian” hatred of the stranger, the refugee, and the oppressed, silences the one who exposes the reality of this hatred: “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). While we often sing and theologize about being at the foot of the Cross, our theology is such that the horror of the occasion is mitigated by the imagined fact that God is pulling the strings. We might, in a cavalier fashion, place ourselves at the foot of the cross but the lynching tree does not afford easy association. Cone’s point is that Christians, who so easily stand with the oppressors and cannot identify with the oppressed, have been desensitized by their Christianity. Instead of curing blind hatred this Christianity seems to induce it.

Christianity, with the lynchings of African Americans, the crusades, American slavery, Nazi genocide, oppression of women and minorities, etc, has been implicated in evil. Christians have not just been innocent by-standers but have many times been a force for evil.5 I believe, with Cone, that it is time to begin to definitively identify this false Christianity (which even the Apostle John calls the religion of the Antichrist) and distinguish it from an authentic Christianity. Can we can locate the evil, which is not part of an authentic Christianity? Can Christians identify and rid themselves of evil?

Our theology has so tamed the event of the crucifixion that preachers are forced to go to excruciating lengths to recount the pain of the Cross. No one needs to explain the humiliation and suffering of Shipp and Smith. Details only add to the horror of the photograph: both of the arms of Abram Smith were broken to keep him from trying to free himself; police officers participated in the lynching; there was no rape; none of the crowd were ever convicted of a crime. Even without commentary, the photograph conveys the evil. The lynching tree is a revolting horror from which we would turn away. The Cross, on the other hand, is a common piece of jewelry. Equating the lynching tree and the Cross focuses the attention on the evil and violence. The question is, how does the Cross address the evil of the lynching tree? Cone’s work brings out the specific role of atonement theology in disabling this equation (though he has not, I believe, given a full explanation to this question).

In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction, has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that this is not an equation we normally come to. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 6

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constanitinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate. As I will demonstrate in this series of blogs, Anselm’s “logic” building toward the need for the death of Christ is the logic of those who killed him. God is in one accord with Christ’s executioners. He does not refuse or resist the violence but is the ultimate perpetrator and the one who reinforces or generates its structure.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”7 

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community. Sign up here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings)  

1 Written by Abel Meeropol.

2 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

3 Ted Peters, Sin and Radical Evil, 41.

4 After extensive interviewing and analysis sociologist Jack Katz concludes that criminals in general and killers in particular seek to embody, “through the practice of ‘righteous slaughter,’ some eternal, universal form of the Good.” The form it typically takes is that of righteous rage to which someone else has to be sacrificed.

5This is not to argue, with the New Atheists, that Christianity and religion are to blame for all evil and violence in the world. 20th Century secularism, Marxism and Fascism, have unleashed a radical evil that outdoes the problematic history of Christianity. What is clear is that the human heart is evil and where Christianity is so perverted so as not to address or confront this evil it has become complicit with evil.

6 J. Denny Weaver. The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 144-145). Kindle Edition.

7Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 101.

Why “All Lives Matter” Misses the Cross

In the tension between the particularism of James Cone’s theology (which might be characterized by the phrase, “black lives matter”), with its focus on black experience, and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, with its focus on abstract and unattainable universals (which might be summed up as “all lives matter”) reside the problem of universals and particulars. The question is, if you can get to the former (“all lives matter” or the universal) without prior and exclusive focus on the latter (“black lives matter” or the particular)?

Those who blithely intone, what must seem to them the higher principle – the universal, “all lives matter,” are clearly prone to be blind to the particular. The danger, as demonstrated in the past hundred years, is that the leap to the universal conceals the particular vested interest, the forms of exclusion which have given rise to imperialism, death camps, exploitation of the 3rd world by the first world, or the bloodiest period in all of human history. The direct move to the universal (the enlightenment?) is the root cause of suppression and exclusion of differences. The question is, in an order where “all lives matter” in general, will some lives in particular have to be sacrificed, overlooked, or suppressed for the universal (as in the logic that “one man must die that the nation would be saved)?  

Historically, it is clear that where the universal precedes the particular there is a wink and a nod, perhaps unconscious or suppressed, as to which group does not fit the universal. In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction of which life matters, this supposed universal condition (the condition of law, the condition of the state) is established by the particulars of exception. The very root of human polity is structured around a necessary exclusion of one form of life, bare life (homo sacer). It is only where bare life is structured and ordered in the city that it can be said to be “good life” from Aristotle onward.

 The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[1] Homo sacer is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the life of the city. This, of course, describes who killed Christ and why. He dies outside of the city of man, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to only bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and universality are constructed.  

The point of the Gospel is that the universal (God) is not to be had apart from the particular (the incarnate Christ) and the most pertinent particular of this Christ is that he was lynched outside the city gates. In John Milbank’s description, Christ as homo sacer is the exception beyond exception. He exposes the place of exception as the place of God.  It was those who presumed to overlook the man (the realism, in Niebuhr’s terms, of the particular) that are responsible for his lynching and every lynching.

In this establishment of human sovereignty, the true Sovereign is excluded. God is on the lynching tree and is excluded by those who would gain life by killing him. There is no mystery as to who might be most prone to dispense with a particular life (a bare life, a biological life that has none of the qualities of “good life”). It will be those who presume to be able to distill the universal without reference to an overlooked sort of particular.

To make the point that American theological perspective begins and ends in a peculiar blindness, Cone cites the example of Niebuhr, America’s favorite theologian. His “Christian realism” was admired by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hubert Humphrey, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter and in the present time, President Barack Obama has called Niebuhr one of his favorite philosophers. Niebuhr’s Christian realism presumes that self-interest must always be figured into the justice that will be implemented and this justice will always fall short of love. Because of humanity’s natural tendency to deny sin, we can never fully reach the ethical standard of agape love. The best that we can strive for is justice, which is love approximated, or a balance of power among competing groups. He leaves room for the reality of faith, hope and love only as a future possibility.

Niebuhr claims the 1896 Supreme Court doctrine of “separate but equal,” which made Jim Crow segregation legal in the South, was a positive move, allowing for gradual change. He praised the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation, yet he was also pleased by the Court’s added phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” which “wisely” gave the white South “time to adjust” (while also opening a loophole to delay integration). Cone says, “Niebuhr’s call for gradualism, patience, and prudence during the decade when Willie McGee (1951), Emmett Till (1955), M. C. “Mack” Parker (1959), and other blacks were lynched sounds like that of a southern moderate more concerned about not challenging the cultural traditions of the white South than achieving justice for black people.”[2] When Martin Luther King asked Niebuhr to sign a petition appealing to President Eisenhower to protect black children involved in integrating schools in the South, Niebuhr declined.

In the end, Niebuhr would seem to fall among those sort of liberals King counted more insidious to blocking civil rights than overt racists. Niebuhr, in his silence on lynching displays his own blindness and the inherent problem of beginning with a presumed shared knowledge or agreed upon universal. In his theology, ever focused on an abstract future universal, he is willing to continually delay justice.

Though Cone credits Karl Barth for his turn to the Word (rather than the given human reality) as his own escape from this Niebuhrian/American form of theology, nonetheless he insists this encounter with the Word is very particular. He pits his starting point against that of Barth and focus on the “objective word”: “I am black first—and everything else comes after that. This means that I read the Bible through the lens of a black tradition of struggle and not as the objective Word of God.” Cone’s experience as a black man raised in the Jim Crow era in Arkansas, is the singular, particular approach to his understanding of the word of the cross.

 He concludes his long theological career with the realization the lynching tree, the definitive symbol of black fear and subjugation and white supremacy, is the singular access he has to rightly understanding the cross.  They put Christ to death by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:39), excluding his life as one of those that mattered. The power elites, who order the valuation of life in the polis, required this death outside of the city. So too, every universal human organization of “lives that matter” will necessarily make this demarcation with the blood of those that do not.

 Cone references the work of Paula Frederickson to note that that description of the cross perfectly describes lynching in the United States. “Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”[3]

Though Golgotha was the sight of a first century lynching and it would seem only natural to draw out the parallel, yet there is no place for the lynching tree in American theological reflection. Isn’t this silence a telling condemnation of the value of this theological tradition? As Cone poses the question: “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.”[4] The silence in regard to lynching, the very possibility of lynching, but the inability to see the cross in the lynching tree must mean that the reality of the cross remains invisible. Those who oppress and lynch in the name of Christ have undoubtedly been guilty of the worst apostasy, but those that cannot name this apostasy continue in the same blindness.

The point of the cross and the point of the Gospel is not to validate the way our culture, nation, and cities organize and value life but it is to upset this order. Where “all lives matter” is the starting point, the danger is that some lives matter more immediately while others matter theoretically, and one can thus be satisfied with future or theoretical equality and justice. In other words, where “all lives matter” or where the universal is the starting point, the life extinguished on the lynching tree, the life of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, and the uncounted others, clearly do not count as lives that matter but serve to affirm the life that “really counts” (the life of the lynch mob or the representatives of the culture that have carried out the murders).

What “all lives matter” misses is focus on the particularity – the particulars of black lives and the particularity of the cross. Much like a negative theology which cannot predicate any determinate qualities of God, the “all life” is simply bare life, undistinguished life, so that what is excluded from the “all” is the suffering and humiliation of the particular life of Christ or of black lives. To miss the fact that God, in Christ, identifies with the particular, with suffering lives, outcast lives, is to miss the life that matters.

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community.)  


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 18.

[2] Ibid, p. 48.

[3] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 43). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

Are There White Christians?

The mode of doing identity through difference (Jew versus Gentile, free versus slave, male versus female) is, according to Paul, set aside in Christ. At one level the provenance and end of these categories is uncomplicated (oppression, discrimination, inequality, are to end) but at another level, considering all that is included in Paul’s categories (ethnicity, religion, biology, social class, economics, culture, behavior, gender, sex, etc.), setting aside these categories entirely will not be possible and negotiating around them so as to make Christ the prime identity will be no easy task. Most every element of what is normally considered as constituting humanness will have to be reconstituted, deconstructed, reoriented, recreated, and so, a great deal of Paul’s effort will be spent in explaining how oneness in Christ is to be implemented. Jews and Gentiles will have to renegotiate nearly every element of their life – how and what to eat and the role of ethnic and religious identity. Men and women cannot simply continue to identify themselves through the gender and sex roles of the surrounding culture. Slaves and free will have to undergo a radical reevaluation in their relationship, as now they are of the same family in the body of Christ.

Identity will no longer be through oppositional difference but will be “in Christ.” However, what needs to be obliterated and what needs to be preserved and reconstituted would seem to work out differently in each of the opposed pairs. “Master Christians” and “slave Christians” resonates very differently than “male Christians” and “female Christians.” The slave/master relationship is undone in that in Christ all become the slaves, or at least the servants, of one another. The same principle, of relinquishing self-interest, applies in gender roles but Paul specifically warns the Corinthians against a unisexuality. So, there are some things which need to be obliterated – there are no master Christians – while there are other things that are changed up and yet preserved. Jewishness, for example, is preserved but changed. It is not simply assimilated into the dominate Gentile mode but neither does it maintain its segregated stance. Clearly all must relinquish the self-interest which is the prime force in privileging one half of the pair.

The precise thing that is obliterated between the opposed pairs is the “hostility” or the alienating force or the principalities and powers which divide and darken. The dualisms that divide – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female/, or most recently and most clearly white/black, all gain meaning (political, religious, ethnic, or gendered meaning) through an interdependent difference. The difference cannot be absolute or there would be no point of comparison, but to describe the difference as necessarily inhering in the pairs creates an instability. There is no essence in either of the parts; there are no masters without slaves, no men without women, no Jews without Gentiles, no white without black.

James Baldwin captures this in his description of the American invention of whiteness. He claims, in fact, that there is no white community. Whiteness is a false construct created by shedding Irish, Italian, German, English, and Jewish identity but this becomes a unified identity over and against what it is not. “No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” It became a white country on the basis of what was done to “red,” “brown,” and black humanity. “White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.” America became white on the basis of subjugation of people of color. “No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.”[1]

Whiteness describes a relationship of power. To the degree that people depend upon this power, to the degree they live off this power, to the degree that this power defines, to that degree their identity is dependent on the genocidal form out of which this identity emerges. This genocidal hermeneutic, in Willie Jennings description, continues to center “the good, the beautiful, the intelligent, and the noble” around whiteness, creating a regime of whiteness. This whiteness “disciplines fantasies of becoming (becoming human, mature, cultured, civilized, authoritative,)” such that whiteness continues to colonize through these ongoing effects. Jennings refers to it as Caucasia’s capital.[2]

He raises the question, “Can white people be saved?” The question, as he explains does not pertain to the efficacy of salvation in regard to a category of people. The point is that whiteness is a way of being in the world that stands opposed to the Christian way of being in the world. Whiteness, he explains, is “a deformed building project aimed at bringing the world to its full maturity.” It is conceived as part of the idea of progress as Europeans colonize(d) the world. This new world is not allowed a voice but is named in reference to the colonizers. “These Europeans answered the question without the voice or vision of the peoples of the new worlds. They self-designated.” And they designated a vast variety of peoples in reference to their self-designation. They began to “suture different peoples, clans, and tribes into racial categories. They, the Europeans, were white, and the others were almost white, not quite white, or nonwhite, or almost black, not quite black, or black.” Metaphorical and literal genocide began with denying these “non-white” people a voice, so that whiteness was projected into their world as an order of meaning, very often in the name of Christ and missions. “Death expanded its reach by designating peoples and the earth in reductive categories, isolating lives into fragments in order to make them useful, turning everything into commodities.” Christian conversion became an event toward whiteness “as a formation toward maturity.”[3]

So, whiteness does not pertain to birth or biology but it refers to a particular form of agency and subjectivity by which progress is gauged. To merge Christian with whiteness is to reverse the valuation system of the former: being an owner rather than owned, being a citizen of the first world rather than a stranger, and gauging the departure from darkness by being seen as white. Whiteness can be equated with ownership and having a voice, whereas to be non-white amounts to literally being owned or being material in the production process. To be a citizen of Caucasia meant taming the wilderness, subjugating native inhabitants, and by this means establishing an identity in the new nation. Citizenship in nationalism is a pure construct, not grounded in the land but taking ownership and control of the land, rather than being integrated into the land and its controls. The labor of whites took on a different order of meaning than the labor of blacks in that it was a labor of ownership and control to establish whiteness and citizenship. Native and black, in Jennings description, were perceived as “closer to nature and its raw condition of unproductivity.”[4] In this understanding, whiteness is a condition of lostness: one is lost due to a misplaced notion of ownership and control, a misplaced citizenship, and a misplaced value system.

In a similar but differently articulated vein, James Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” In other words, to claim to be a white Christian is to miss the oppressive genealogy of this identity.

In Paul’s depiction, the principalities and powers exercise this alienating force through the dualisms that divide. The full weight of the Christian Gospel is aimed at defeating this division, this mystery that has us entrapped. The mystery of division is one we naturally inhabit in the way we organize ourselves in dualistic identities. The mystery divides and confounds our thinking. It is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator in which the one (the created order) is idolatrously pitted against the other. The idolater self-designates, imagining all else is relative to his created image, and imagining oneself as his own father-creator. Paul depicts passage from out of this mindset as the opening of this obscurity that darkens every mind.  The passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” marks a new historical consciousness.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. No longer should we posit a gap between God and creation, heaven and earth, Jew and Gentile. Christ has bridged the gap. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. Given this insight, all divisions are exposed as a false order of identity.

To be Christian is to break out of the division of whiteness as an identity, a value system, or a form of citizenship. Perhaps all we can expect is to gradually learn to be something other than white, something on the order of citizens of a different sort of kingdom. This begins, in Paul’s description, through a different order of embodiment – finding ourselves embodied in Christ. This is not an abstraction but a real-world connection to other people as a means to receiving grace and gifts of the Spirit. This is not identity by segregation but a preservation of unity provided by Christ. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4).

To be Christian is to give up on ownership and first-world citizenship so as to identify with a different citizenry, dispossessed and poor in this world. The space Christians are to occupy is neither coveted nor contested as it is outside the city, where doing life together is the singular economy and value. As Jennings puts it, we must be saved “from being or becoming white people.” As we relinquish white capital we can begin to enjoy “the gifts from on high.” “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7). This is capital enough.


[1] James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies,” https://bannekerinstitute.fas.harvard.edu/files/bannekerinstitute/files/on_being_white.and_other_lies_baldwin_0.pdf

[2] Willie Jennings, “Caucasia’s Capital: The Ordinary Presence of Whiteness,” https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/faculty/Jennings-Caucasias-Capital.pdf

[3] Willie Jennings, “European Christian missionaries and their false sense of progress” in The Christian Century, (October 31,2018). https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/european-christian-missionaries-and-their-false-sense-progress

[4] Ibid.

A Response to White Supremacy and the Gospel of Grace

In 2016 81% of America’s evangelical Christians voted to place in the seat of the presidency of the United States a man who had built his political career on the utterly false and disproven claim that the nation’s first black president had been born in Kenya and therefore occupied the White House illegally, and a man who ran his presidential campaign on the promise that “we’re going to take the country back.”[1]  Most black Americans understood that phrase to mean, “We’ll take the country back for white dominance and control,” an interpretation validated by David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who said at a White Nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.  That’s what we believed in.  That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back—and that’s what we’ve got to do.”[2]

If we are beginning to grasp the depth and breadth and power of the myth of white supremacy in American life, and if we are willing to acknowledge the failures of the church in this regard, then we now must ask, in what ways has our theology failed us?  What is it about the theology that many American Christians have embraced that has permitted—and even sanctioned—such complicity in the bigotry and racial oppression of America’s popular culture?  And the corollary question is this—how can Christian theology equip us to resist the myth of white supremacy in all its forms?  Richard Hughes

Jonathan Totty and I started a study group at the Stone Campbell Journal Conference last year and this paper is a response to the paper by prominent Church of Christ historian Richard Hughes. Richard is Scholar-in- Residence at the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University. He was Distinguished Professor of Religion, Messiah College, 2006-2014 and Distinguished Professor, Religion Division, Pepperdine University, 1994-2006. Richard is the author of some 19 books and is the key authority on the history of the Restoration Movement.  In coming weeks we will air 2 podcasts with Richard.

In my response to Richard’s paper White Supremacy and the Gospel of Grace I want to emphasize the questions he has raised, underline and emphasize key points, and fill out potential responses – some of which may go beyond what he might want to say. I conclude by summing up James Cone’s picture of the lynching tree as dependent upon a skewed understanding of the Cross. (I appeal throughout to previous blogs which have appeared in Walking Truth.)

A brief summary of the Paper White Supremacy and the Gospel of Grace:

Richard’s paper describes a white supremacy which extends into the present from the past (slavery in America) in which, intertwined with Christianity, it has had theological support. The conviction that the United States was a Christian nation was one factor in the rise of racial oppression as there seemed to be something like official religious sanction of white supremacy. He cites the election of Donald Trump and evangelical support for Trump as a living proof that white supremacy is alive and well, not in spite of, but because of evangelical Christians. He demonstrates that evangelicalism has been particularly prone to allowing the culture to shape the church in this country.

Many American Christians have read—and continue to read—the biblical text through the lens of American popular culture while they should read the culture through the lens of the biblical text.  And through that misreading, they allow the American nation, its values and its dominant culture, to take the place of the only reality to which, as Christians, they should pledge their allegiance: the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.

The privatized – “going to heaven when you die” – belief of evangelicals has given rise to a disembodied form of faith which eschews recognition of works – challenging real-world evil (as in the case of Paul Farmer’s medical work in Haiti) as being unconnected to salvation of the soul.

The problem is linked specifically to Campbell’s rationalistic approach to Scripture which caused Campbell to seldom ask about the poor and marginalized as he was focused on a rationalistic plan of salvation which did not seem to include resistance to imperial powers. His notion that the Christian age – the Church –  begins in Acts meant that the ethics of Jesus and the embodied nature of Israel were not immediately applicable to the church. Some in the Churches of Christ concluded they had succeeded in restoring the New Testament Church and that salvation depended on belonging to this one true church.

Having obscured the central themes of the biblical message, the white Churches of Christ, at the time of the Freedom Movement (of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists), were wholly unprepared to embrace their brothers and sisters of color who asked for nothing more than to be treated with respect as human beings.  Indeed, they were wholly unprepared to discern in the Freedom Movement the faces of the kingdom of God.

Richard suggests there are two necessary assets necessary to a solution: We need to be able to assess our culture from a vantage, as if it were, outside of the culture and this vantage must provide an alternative which would challenge the culture.  He links this to God’s love and unmerited grace for us and the love and grace which must be extended to our neighbors. Richard claims it was a focus on works, to the exclusion of unmerited grace, which caused the Church of Christ to fail to have the two named assets above. In his conclusion, he maintains it is only through the Kingdom teaching of the New Testament, and its focus on “concern for the poor, the dispossessed, those in prison, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and all those who suffer at the hands of the world’s elites.”

In short, his paper seeks to explain how to expel the myth of white supremacy and to describe, in part, the failed theology giving rise to the myth and to provide a theological resolution in an understanding of the centrality of Kingdom and the Gospel’s connection to this Kingdom.

The Key to Overcoming White Supremacy 

In my reading, the opening statement of the paper frames all else that Richard says.

If the heart of Jesus’ preaching was his concern and compassion for disenfranchised and oppressed people, then the first step toward becoming his disciple is to listen carefully and attentively to what those people wish to tell us about the contours of their lives. In America, oppressed and marginalized black people have testified almost unanimously to the twin realities of white supremacy, on the one hand, and the racial failures of white Christianity, on the other.

There are several tests which the New Testament provides to judge true religion. As James describes it, one must be a doer of the word. A religion that does not provide for widows, orphans, and the poor, is not true religion. A religion which creates widows and orphans and which impoverishes, kills, excludes, and oppresses is, by extension, “defiled and impure” (James 1:19-27).  One who denigrates the impoverished and joins the oppressor is not a Jesus follower. The Christian loves his neighbor who is by definition (according to both James and Jesus) one of the poor and oppressed (James 2). In his various tests of true religion James provides, though, a singular definitive marker for distinguishing Christianity from pure evil – the capacity, on the part of God, to hear the oppressed.

Is the problem a focus on commands over grace or a misunderstood grace?

 A question I have for Richard, is his depiction of the complicity of the Church of Christ in white supremacy because of its focus on works as opposed to grace. I wonder if this agrees with his own, earlier description, of the problem in conjunction with Campbell? It is precisely the ethics of Christ and the embodied ethics of Israel – works or doing things (not “works of the law” such as the food laws and circumcision) which is needed and which is left out of a supersessionist or a disembodied theology.  Richard wants to locate the problem in a focus on God’s “commands” as opposed to a focus on God’s “grace.”  This way of construing the problem seems to presume there is such a thing in the Bible as commands or law as over and against grace.

The error of the Lutheran reading of Paul, which I do not think Richard is making, imagines Paul pits law against grace and would presume to pit the Old Testament against the New.  Luther, Calvin, and evangelicalism, picture salvation as occurring apart from “works” but they confuse the works of the law and the works of the Catholic church – or the work of salvation which the church brings about. As a result, evangelicalism has disassociated salvation from the Church or the Kingdom.  Let me suggest the Church of Christ is not wrong in imagining it is saved by being part of the true Church – it is wrong in equating that true Church with itself or simply with orthodox “faith” (with “faith” being more akin to the empty category as it exists in evangelicalism).

We might hope that our particular expression of the faith will preserve us from systemic complicity in evil, but orthodoxy is apparently no protection. “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19, ASB).  A small dose of history indicates near universal collusion among churches (with exceptions within any particular group) with slavery, anti-Semitism, and various forms of political evil.  Membership in a particular church will not preserve from complicity in evil and, in fact, church history teaches us that membership in any particular church has sometimes been more of a guarantee of complicity than not. (Even James is having to warn one of the first churches against denigrating the poor.)  We certainly need to study the failings of particular groups but we can also draw some generalizations.

Richard’s main point provides a corrective: Christian complicity in systemic evil, such as slavery, national socialism, white supremacy, bigotry, oppression of women and minorities, or simply the abuse, due to misshapen theology, visited upon the powerless (children, women, people of color, foreigners, the worker denied his wages in James), is a clear sign of a religion that has gone deaf – that is one that does not hear the voice of the oppressed. The danger of evil and especially of an evil religion is that the voice of the oppressors drowns out the voice of the oppressed, all in the name of orthodox Christianity.

Is it adequate to focus on unmerited grace apart from the Church as the channel of grace?

Richard imagines that a refocus on unmerited grace is a theological step in the right direction.  It seems necessary though, to connect this unmerited grace to the promise God gives to Abraham which ties grace to a particular form which precedes and explains the law and all that Israel is.  The Church is on a continuum with Israel – it is the fulfillment of Israel – and so it accomplishes the salvation promised to Israel.  But this is a socio-political-cultural salvation – an embodied salvation which is obvious in the “work” for the poor and oppressed that it accomplishes.  This is a salvation which Paul says we must “work out in fear and trembling.”  This is a practical salvation which not only shows itself in the work it does but must be equated with following Jesus, becoming true disciples, putting on and practicing the fruits of the Spirit. Salvation then, is a set of practices instituted by Christ in and through the Church and God’s grace is given to us in and through these practices modeled and learned in the Church.

In the typical evangelical Protestant understanding “grace” amounts to an empty category as far as human action is concerned.  Unmerited grace needs to be combined with an ecclesiology which gives substance to this grace as it is at work in the world. So, Campbell’s rationalistic notions of how to restore the New Testament Church may have been inadequate but his focus on what is sometimes called the sacraments of the Church – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – inasmuch as these tie us to an understanding that redemption is through the Kingdom is a step in the right direction.

An understanding that the Church is distinctive from culture could have only developed in a Movement in which there was focus on the distinctive role of the Church. Alexander Campbell himself had objected to the Evangelical Alliance’s faith statement in 1846 in regard to matters of conversion and faith (the perennial divide over the issue of baptism connected to both the work of the Church and the Spirit). He objected to the notion of total depravity, statements in regard to the Trinity, and the formulations surrounding Christ. The broad differences were over centrality of the Church and its direct role in salvation, which is not to claim his theology was adequate. However, Campbell’s ecclesiology, in its essence, was directly linked to his soteriology and it is in uncoupling these two that evangelicalism is unhinged.

Campbell and the early disciples were careful to negotiate the parachurch question and with it evangelical faith and practice. Faith could not float free of the embodied practices of the local church (baptism, communion, discipleship, preaching).  The concern had been to make the local congregation central and this was reflected in a theology which required entry into the Church through baptism and fellowship in weekly communion, so that salvation was in and through the Church. D. L. Moody’s biographer, James Findlay, by way of contrast, claimed Moody had no doctrine of the Church whatsoever.  This lack of focus on the Church typifies the evangelicalism absorbed by the Restoration Movement.

Richard asks,

What kind of theology would allow self-professed followers of Jesus to hold membership in the Klan?  What kind of theology would allow a disciple of Jesus to practice racial discrimination and then say with a straight face, “We were not prejudiced against the Negroes”?  And what kind of theology would allow Christians to refuse to worship with other believers, even to call the police if those “others” didn’t leave?

He answers, “a theology that offers believers no means of resistance against the bigotry and failures of the popular culture.”  Evangelicalism leaves itself wide open the culture as it has no vantage of resistance and white supremacy in churches is proof that they have been completely co-opted by the culture. 

At what point is the church no longer the Church?

As the quotations from Frederick Douglas indicate – the question is if what is being described as Christianity has anything to do with the teaching of Jesus. Is a Christianity complicit in and supportive of evil still worthy of the name?  If salvation is primarily concerned with souls going to heaven it may be impossible to say what is or is not Christianity but if salvation has to do with a real-world deliverance from evil there is no great mystery as to when the faith has been abandoned.

Frederick Douglas claimed there was a difference so wide between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land “that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.” Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”

Here Frederick Douglas and James Cone hit a very similar tone. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, views the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit (the fruit of the lynching tree) – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.”

What was absolutely clear to a run-away slave and the voice we continue to hear from the oppressed, is a truth obscured by economics, national and regional loyalty, and what amounted to a way of life.  The “slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” did not have the perspective to understand it was an abomination to the name of Christ. “Isn’t this the purest form of deceit,” to call evil good in the name of Christ? The question which Richard’s paper raises (though he does not press the question) but he quotes King as raising: “Some one hundred years later, many white churches were still complicit in racial oppression, leading Martin Luther King Jr. to ask regarding those churches, ‘What kind of people worship here?  Who is their God?’”[3]  

Isn’t the instinct to silence the aggrieved the evil that put Christ on the Cross (arrested at night, illegally tried).  Douglas says, “I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me.” To paraphrase Douglas, we still have vile oppressors for ministers and women denigrators for religious professors. “The man who wields the blood-clotted whip during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.” The man who has robbed me and my family of my earnings “meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.” James warns, however, that the enrichment of some at the expense of others creates the wealth that “will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).

James seems to know of only one form of wealth; ill-gotten gain obtained by oppressing the poor, the cry of which passes by the deaf ear of the oppressors and falls on the ear of God. If you cannot hear the oppressed, this marks you out as one who has “fattened his heart in a day of slaughter” (James 5:5).  The religion which Douglas condemns is precisely the unjust religion James condemns and both appear to parallel contemporary forms of the faith.

One wonders, in this present time of Christian support of a politics of hate, if the predominant religion of this land should be called Christianity? Is a faith that requires oppression and exclusion, which explicitly tolerates and promotes white supremacy, “Christianity.” Isn’t this, as Douglas would have it, “the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.” Isn’t this precisely the false religion which James warns should not be confused with authentic forms of the Faith? This sort of religion makes distinctions among people. It says to the poor man, the foreigner, the person of color, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool” (James 2:3). In dishonoring the poor man and favoring the rich, James explains, you have dishonored Christ.

As Douglas asks, is this not the same one of whom Jesus speaks, the one who “loves the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” Is this a Christian or one of the Pharisees and hypocrites who make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within, is full of extortion and excess. Do we have here one of the whited sepulchers, which appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness? Jesus seems to be targeting religion gone bad – and this religion is marked out by its excessive display, arrogance, and extortion. Douglas concludes, “Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Could anything be more true of our churches?”

Salvation is an active living out of a grace received

Richard draws together ecclesiology and soteriology in his picture of the Kingdom:

Put another way, the “gospel of the kingdom of God” is the corollary to the “gospel of grace.”  It tells us that just as God has said “yes” to us in spite of our failures, so we must say “yes” to others in spite of their failures.  Or, in the words of John, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (I John 3:16)

What I have suggested is that we need to draw them even tighter – to directly correlate God’s grace and our reception of that grace. One cannot fail to love his brother and still count himself as a recipient of God’s grace.  One cannot be among the oppressors and count himself among the saved. One cannot be an evil, orthodox, Christian.  One cannot stand at the foot of the lynching tree and claim the grace of the Cross.

We must recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree and it addresses white supremacy. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? As Richard asks, “What kind of theology would allow self-professed followers of Jesus to hold membership in the Klan?”

Richard recognizes that the Kingdom of God is opposed to the kingdoms of Caesar and one might imply that he is arguing against every form of Constantinian Christianity.

In the context of imperial Rome, the angel’s proclamation was both revolutionary and seditious, for its two key words—Savior and Lord—were titles routinely applied to the emperor Caesar Augustus.  Indeed, Caesar’s titles included “Divine,” “Son of God,” “God,” “God from God,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” “Lord,” and “Savior of the World.”

“[Early] Christians must have understood,” John Dominic Crossan concludes, “that to proclaim Jesus as Son of God was deliberately denying Caesar his highest title and that to announce Jesus as Lord and Savior was calculated treason.”

Richard is clearly describing a Christianity which needs to make a departure from the predominant culture – American culture in our case.  Let me suggest that a full embrace of an alternative soteriology – an alternative doctrine of the Cross would complete the picture Richard is tracing for us.

A defective understanding of the Cross gives us the lynching tree 

Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose. In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction (and by extension, Calvin’s penal substitution), has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that we fail to identify the lynching tree and the Cross. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constantinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”

Conclusion: Richard draws out the pervasive nature of the problem.

I am speaking, rather, of virtually all white Americans, including myself, for the myth of white supremacy is the air we breathe, the water in which we swim, an ideology that is so deeply embedded in our common culture that we can escape the power it wields over our minds and emotions with great difficulty, if at all.

The pervasive problem of a culture given over to white supremacy calls for a pervasive answer in a counter-cultural Church.  How might we test if we have ear for the cry of the oppressed.

Douglas, on his arrival in the British Isles said, he experienced “an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued” in America. Living, as I do, in “Little Dixie” I cannot imagine that the relief Douglas felt on escaping this country in 1845, as a fugitive slave, is much different than the relief young black men feel after having escaped portions of my State and country. The test of an authentic Christianity, at a minimum, may be the realization of “an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued” among our black brothers and sisters.

[1] “Trump: We’re Going to Take the Country Back,” Fox News Insider, July 12, 2015: http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/07/12/donald-trump-phoenix-speech-were-going-take-country-back, accessed January 15, 2017.

[2] Libby Nelson, “’Why we voted for Donald Trump’: David Duke explains the white supremacist Charlottesville protests,” Vox, April 12, 2017, at https://www.vox.com/2017/8/12/16138358/charlottesville-protests-david-duke-kkk, accessed August 13, 2017.

[3] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 299.