Saturday, November 18, 2006

the cross and the lynching tree

The other night I went to hear a lecture by James Cone, who most call "the father of black theology." His lecture/sermon was entitled "Strange Fruit: the cross and the lynching tree," and he challenged us to think of the cross in a metaphor we understand more easily since it's closer to our time: that of the lynching tree. He drew parallels between the use of the cross in the first century Roman Empire for rebels and escaped slaves, with the lynching tree, used in extremely similar fashion in our own culture not so very long ago. When we think of the cross in this way we get more of an idea of the humiliation and hatred that the image of the cross used to evoke. The cross has so often become just a nice gold emblem to wear around our necks as a fashion statement, a clean and tidy image, projecting on the wearer an image of being a nice person. But the image of the lynching tree still holds that sense of utter revulsion for us, the sense of a gruesome act in which many of our ancestors were unfortunately involved, something we don't like to talk about because we know how horrible it was.

His title was taken from a song Billie Holliday sang, which goes like this:

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 trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Cone challenged us to not ignore the reality of the lynching tree, both in the past and figuratively in the modern-day, and to see that as an important part of our faith as Christians. This goes for several reasons: we can't forget that Jesus asked us to carry our cross daily and the ugliness and revulsion that should still accompany that thought; we also can't forget what our country has done to African Americans, and what it continues to do to many who are intentionally disadvantaged by our society, and we can't sit idly by and let ourselves forget these evils without doing something to correct them. Cone says the cross always should move us twoard reconciliation, through acknowldging those things we've done poorly and working together to make them better.

So a couple questions came to my mind regarding Quakerism. First of all, why is the American Quaker church (of all branches, as far as I know, although some commuities may be exceptions) predominantly white and middle class? Why does it make us uncomfortable to ask this question? In what ways are we emphasizing taking up our "cross," and working to live out life in a way that brings out the ugliness of the lynching tree and the beauty of truth through it?

First the race issue: in my home yearly meeting (Northwest), we have several Hispanic congregations forming, but we rarely get together with these groups, excusing ourselves because we can't communicate with them and it's difficult to do everything in two languages. We send missionaries to many countries where the people aren't white, but at home we stay in the comfort of our racial and socioeconomic groupings. When we "reach out" to people of other colors/classes, it's usually in the form of a mission or service project, not just to hang out with others and invite them to be part of our community. I've never heard someone speak to our yearly meeting or monthly meetings about race issues--it's a taboo that we don't like to cross.

But as Cone said in his lecture, if bringing up an issue might divide a community, it's already divided, and not bringing it up isn't going to heal that division! We gain nothing by not talking about difficult issues. We only learn to become less and less real with one another, less and less able to share our fears and truths with each other because we don't want to cause conflict.

Cone also said that the gospel should never be easy! If it's something we take as comfort only, we're getting it wrong. The gospel should be challenging and painful, something that shows us the ugliness in the world, and through which we can look to see the reconciliation and the beauty that God intends. How are we as a Quaker community living out this kind of gospel message? How are we living out a theology of the lynching tree that doesn't let us off the hook, that makes us ask the hard questions, that requires us to live a life that points out the pain, ugliness and injustice of this world and offers a way of hope?


Hudson Russell said...

Thanks for your observations and conviction. I hope that one day we can all press past these barriers and into the arms of our one Father God. Blessings.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this post so very much. I am a Poet/Author, and my current project deals with poetry indicative of the antebellum south, and post reconstruction period, and the regional vernacular, colloquialisms and aphorisms of that time. I have made reference to Madame Billie Holiday's song, 'Strange Fruit', more particular, Poplar Trees, and the use of them as a lynching tool by white supremist. The amazing mostly unknown reality of this song is, that it was a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher from New York, who wrote it after learning of the news of two black men who were found lynched. As a truly devout Christian, I am compelled to pray
that we as a nation get get beyond the ugly truth of racial bigotry that is ingrained into our country's past. God is great, and the desire to reconcile will birth a much needed and greater racial bonding and meshing, on our multi-cultured American landscape.