Lent 2B – On a hill [not] far away…*

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:34 “Let them take up their cross…”

Before it became a religious symbol, the cross “was an effective and feared symbol of imperial might.”[1] An ancient form of execution, in Roman usage it was a terrorizing deterrent to criminals or those who would challenge the sovereignty of the state. Crucifixion gruesomely tortured and killed the condemned. It was usually done “… in public places or along busy roads, to ensure large crowds and even to offer a kind of public entertainment.” It was a “public spectacle of humiliation, presenting the victim as something less than human….”[3] “[It was] so inhumane that Cicero, writing in 63 BCE, argued it should be outlawed.[2]

There are so many similarities between Jesus’ crucifixion and the lynching of Black men, women and children in America that theologian James H. Cone, wondered what it was which kept White American Christians from seeing the connection.  “…[I]t is a defect in the conscience of white Christians and [explains] why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination.”[4]

Perhaps the Sunday morning church hour is the most segregated time in America not only because our towns and cities are segregated, but because White Christians refuse to know about the genocidal realities of White Supremacy [5] – a willful ignorance which has corrupted White theological understandings of the cross.

“What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people. [For black people] the cross is a reminder that the world is fraught with… many lynching trees. We cannot forget the terror of the lynching tree no matter how hard we try. It is buried deep in the living memory and psychology of the black experience in America.”[6]

Once we see the similarities, the challenge and calling for White Christians comes into focus. Christians are not called to worship and adore crosses. We are called to outlaw them and take them down, whether they manifest as lynching trees or lethal injections or police brutality or a criminal justice and prison system.

As a meditation on Mark 8:34, think about reading James Cone’s book The Cross and The Lynching Tree. In it, Dr. Cone reflected on his own life experience and the stories of Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells and others who contended in some way with White Supremacy’s lynching trees. The book is accessible and heart-breaking and tells a truth White Christians need to know.

[1] Punt, Jeremy. Cross-Purposes in Paul? Violence of the Cross, Galatians, and Human Dignity, Scriptura 102 (2009) at 448.

[2] Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis Books; 20th Anniversary edition 2008) at 383.

[3] Punt, Jeremy. Cross-Purposes at 449.

[4] Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Orbis Books,  Reprint edition 2013), Digital Location 1075.

[5]  The Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the U.S. between Reconstruction and World War II.  The NAACP documents 4,743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968.

[6] Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Digital Location 4563.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

✽ First line of the American hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross.”