“The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the ‘cost of discipleship,’ it has become a form of ‘cheap grace,’ an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my formative years raised as a Christian and the way so much of that experience, from Easter egg hunts to summer camp, was passified, dulled even, into a nurturing experience of whites caring for whites.
Church, in the southern United States where I grew up, was a social gathering and little else. There was singing and food and discussion, of course, and the Methodist church in my youth probably leaned more toward the left or center politically, for its time, compared with other Christian denominations in the region.
Still, there were no meaningful opportunities to encounter the other. The question of “carrying your cross,” was–in homilies–a question of confronting personal demons that related to the workplace or to your elusive, white neighbor or fellow churchgoer. These were too often issues related to sexual sins or other personal choices where you had “wronged” Jesus.
A figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks came up once or twice a year, folk heroes of a time past, cast as characters who had solved a social ill. Their perceived success in overcoming white supremacy, then, left people complacent and self-congratulatory. It comes as no surprise to me that phrases like, “Make America Great Again,” captured so much of white culture in the last few years, bringing out this longing for a return to that particular revisionist history.
We know now “equality” is not “equity,” but in the last forty years, whites wanted to be able to say and believe, of all that had been done, “That’s good enough.” Martin was, then, co-opted into white culture–not just a folk hero of black America but cast as “one of the good ones,” as though “peaceful” protest had alone accomplished the “dream,” or as if there had been neither righteous anger nor riot nor police brutality but very simply a man with a march.
The problem with the advent of the smartphone and civilian journalism is that it proved equality was a white lie, called into question our complacency, demanded accountability not just of police officers and the justice system but of those whites who raised us wanting us to believe all was well with the world or that no change was necessary. Somehow, they even managed to trick us–or thought they did–into believing that Martin’s dream wasn’t silenced by his murder, that his dream had been carried forth by white Christian families who taught us that “all lives matter” without inviting us to encounter any lives that weren’t white or offering any mirrors that showed us our own privilege in the world.
Now in the decades of deep sleep, the country has been festering, and rightly so. Whether motivated by implicit biases, despite otherwise good intentions, or an avid supremacist, the status quo has broken us.
And those who hated Martin are the same who hate George.
And those who hated Malcolm are the same who hate Breonna.
And those who said they loved protest when it was “peaceful” were the same who hated protest when it was peaceful.
And those who despised the rioting and looting, then, terrorized their way into a statehouse over a haircut and a trip to Applebees now, yet immediately returned to their hate of rioting and looting when it was someone else’s–much more serious–sacred human rights.
No one in white America has been adequately angered by the rioting of black and brown bodies night after night and day after day in this country. No one, and I mean no one, has been adequately angered by the looting, the outright economic rape, of the working class to the benefit of the wealthy, elite, and powerful.
The lynching–this modern crucifixion–has not ended. It didn’t end with slavery or with civil rights. It merely transformed–from a tree to a prison to tear gas and rubber bullets.
So, tomorrow, as the nice, complacent Christians go to their Zoom church, watch it on Facebook Live, or pack themselves into pews in-person, donning their crosses and their smiles and their cheap songs about grace, if some part of that worship feels deeply detached, anxiety-driven, causing uncertainty about what is wrong with the world or causing wonder over whether these times are the end times, I like to think that all they find unnerving in this moment is a reflection of their conscience buried deep, working out and failing at digging through their own salvation as they discover all those years of the love they thought they were preaching were merely disconnected disdain for anyone different–and now, God-forbid, they are the damned.
They–the hordes of white, Christian America–are the damned, the disconnected, and the disgraced. They have hung themselves from the rood, with everyone they hung before them, and the rest of us are waiting and watching, for a coming reckoning. And the grace we may or may not choose to offer will not bring a painless deliverance.