James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree includes haunting accounts of racist violence and religious apathy, and several quotes from Black poets and writers reflecting on Christianity in the United States and the US’ treatment of Native and Black people here.
A chapter on artists’ interpretations of the Christian crucifixion story and its similarities with their social experience includes Cone marveling that “The beauty in black existence is as real as the brutality, and the beauty prevents the brutality from having the final word.” The chapter after it explores how women and womanist theologians have engaged lynching culture and how complicit White and moderate Black Christianity have been in their suffering.
Cone explains the “paradox of Black faith”: doubt, trust, rage, and reclamation mingle together. Given the community’s visceral experience of trauma, the scriptures’ ambivalence on human rights, and the weak witness of a religion that Black people in the West were forcibly grafted into, that blend of renunciation and embrace is appropriate, and honest.
I recently shared my conversation with Blake Chastain. During that interview, I noted that people of color, women, and other minoritized populations have had to be deliberate about how they read, interpret, and apply scriptures and doctrines that weren’t originally written or taught with their full freedom and wholeness in mind.
As I read on the train today, Cone’s explanation of that point stood out to me:
It was not easy for blacks [sic] to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites [sic] who lynched black people. Indeed, it was white slaveholders, segregationists, and lynchers who defined the content of the Christian gospel. They wrote hundreds of books about Christianity, founded seminaries to train scholars and preachers, and thereby controlled nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition. Cut off from their African religious traditions, black slaves were left trying to carve out a religious meaning for their lives with white Christianity as the only resource to work with. They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to stories in the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as the central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons.” —James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 118
That generation of Black people reclaimed the symbols and stories of a culture and social order that was explicitly and persistently hostile to them. And they used those symbols and stories—both religious and national—to create for themselves a world within the wider world where they could speak not just to common suffering but also to their value, belonging, beauty, and power.
I only moved back to the Western Hemisphere during my mid-teens, yet I also experienced the Black church I grew up in as a world within worlds. Not long before I left for college, an elder and family friend gave me a family-size Bible featuring illustrations of Black Bible characters and footnotes and full-color inserts that filled in the regional histories. It wasn’t a subtle move. Through that gift she declared my worth—me as me, not me as a malformed European. She also sent a strong message about the stories that traditional interpretations didn’t tell us but should have.
I see minoritized people doing this all the time: women reclaiming the writings attributed to Paul to affirm their varied calls to ministry; LGBTQ people diving into community texts, values, and practices to motivate relationships of support. These groups, like enslaved Black American believers, work creatively with the symbols and stories available to them, despite the discouragement of mainstream religion and despite the suspicion or outright rejection of other minoritized people.
I was also struck by Cone’s account of journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells visiting an African Methodist Episcopal conference in Philadelphia and finding no encouragement there. “Under God,” she said, “I have done work without any assistance from my people.” The implication was that she had the wherewithal to continue doing it whether they got on board or not.
Of course, “without any assistance from my people” was as hyperbolic from Wells as “I am the only one left” was from Elijah. Wells couldn’t have done her investigations, touring, or speaking nationwide had she been truly isolated; racists would have suceeded in murdering her many times over. Nevertheless, it was the symbols and stories that she’d reclaimed from the “frauds” of the violent and silent Church that gave her a sense of refuge even as social violence and peer criticism continued.
The way symbols and stories have been used in the past doesn’t constrain our creativity today. We can use them differently than our predecessors and oppressors if we so choose. We can abandon these symbols if a reclamation project turns out not to serve us well. But just as our ancestors did, we can divest of whatever meanings fail to support us, and create new meanings that are strong enough to support whole and healthy lives. It’s imperative we do.
The distinction between pathological and healthy religion cuts across all denominational boundaries. Any given denomination or sect can elicit pathological or healthy responses from its members…
Good theology will result in good psychology, and vice versa. Accordingly, bad theology will have negative psychological consequences. This is nothing more than an application of the biblical norm: ‘You will be able to tell them by their fruits’ (Mt. 7:16). If, as St. Irenaeus proclaimed, the glory of God is humans fully alive, then clearly a belief system that results in the destruction of human health cannot serve the glory of God.” —John J. McNeill