WITNESS THE CROSS AND THE LYNCHING TREE
BY ROBERT FOSTERThe vicissitudes of life led me to read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree during the same week we have awaited the decision in Ferguson, Missouri about the possible indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. Cone’s book invites a conversation and I had formulated a response. But tonight’s decision in Ferguson and the people taking to the streets demands a more urgent response.Cone’s book, in line with much of his work, raises the question of the response of white theologians and pastors to the racial injustices inflicted on the black community. In his book Cone contrasts the response of Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to racism during the era of lynching. Though Niebuhr condemned racism, he argued for gradualism in response in integration, apparently spent little time interacting with the black community to understand the horrors and struggles they faced, and admitted his surprise at the riots of the 1960’s because he did not understand the plight of blacks unemployed and living in ghettos. On the other hand Bonhoeffer, during his one year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York, befriended a black student at Union, Franklin Fisher, attended, taught at, and even preached in the pulpit of the Abbysinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and read great black writers like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Some of Bonhoeffer’s friends wondered whether he was too involved with the “Negro community.”Tonight the fire has been lit to the tinder box of Ferguson, Missouri and people have taken to the streets in protest. We will all, of course, pray for a peaceful resolution and for no further bloodshed in response to the failure to indict Officer Wilson. But Cone’s persistent question about the silence of the white theologians and white pastors perhaps finds no more pressing moment than this evening. What will we white theologians and pastors say in response to these events? Will we simply call for peace and decry injustice? Or will we go further and work like Bonhoeffer to, as Cone write, “move into the river of the black experience”? And will we go even further and persistently demand radical reform to the system that fans the flames of unrest in Ferguson and the nation this night?Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement responding to the Ferguson decision that included the line: “The Department [of Justice] will continue to work with law enforcement, civil rights, faith and community leaders across the country to foster effective relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve and to improve fairness in the criminal justice system overall.”Certainly the imbalance of the criminal justice system against the black community demands improvement. We must confront a system where white cops shoot and kill young black men, often enough when the young men are unarmed. We must face the reality that black people make up 42% of those on death row when blacks account for only 13% of the U.S. population. We must address the parallel reality that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated in the U.S. than white men. We cannot ignore the image from Robert Perkinson’s expose of the prison industrial complex, Texas Tough, which testifies that the one place where we may still find armed white men on horses supervising black men filling bags in cotton fields is in plantation prisons like those of Sugar Land and Huntsville, Texas. And we must admit that release from prison too often only solidifies hopelessness and despair as the formerly incarcerated fail to find good jobs because people do not want to hire a black person with a record.Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree draws out the clear parallels between the death of the innocent sufferer on the cross and the death of the innocent suffers on the lynching tree. I witnessed this legacy of death in 2012 when I lived as one of the few white people in predominately black South Dallas/Fair Park. I was at a dinner with friends when I received news of riots in my community because of the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed black man during a scuffle after a drug bust. I did not go home that night for fear that the officer involved in the shooting may have been white and feared for my own safety. Calmer heads prevailed that night but not to the negation of the fact that this was the third such shooting in five years nor the fact that over 90 of 100 instances of the use of deadly force in the city of Dallas in the decade leading up to 2012 involved the death of someone black or Latino.Blacks all too easily find their place in the story comparing the Cross and the Lynching Tree. They know the history of innocent suffering and death all to well. But where do white theologians and pastors find themselves in this story? I fear that all too often we find ourselves in the absent disciples. We witness neither the Cross nor the Lynching Tree, nor the criminal justice system that induces despair and the specter of death. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Sometimes the absence of white churches and pastors and theologians causes me to tremble.We must, like the women in the gospel story, come to witness the Cross and the Lynching Tree and the communities who feel hopeless and who suffer loss in our current criminal justice system. James Cone has invited us into the conversation,. Eric Holder has made a clear statement that the Department of Justice will engage pastors across the country to improve the fairness of the criminal justice system. We white theologians and pastors must respond to the invitation by Cone and raise our voices against injustice, engage our black neighbors, understand their plight, partner with them for radical reforms. We must hold Eric Holder to his word and add our thoughts and words and effort to improve the criminal justice system. We must no longer stand in silence but stand as witness to this pain and suffering and tell the gospel story in all its radical pain and all its promise for real change.I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain the resurrection from the dead.