God of the Lynching Tree
Have you ever experienced a tragedy in your life or knew of someone who experienced loss or great pain?
What was a typical response spoken from a relative, friend, or pastor during this time?
It was most likely the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason. God is in control.”
Does this sound comforting or hopeful?
Is this phrase supposed to make you love God, trust God, or feel better?
What these words actually mean is, “Tragedy is meant to happen for greater reasons unknown to us. And God is in control. He ordained it to be, allowed it to happen, and his hand was involved.”
If this is true, I don’t want to be a Christian, or at least I don’t want to worship a God like this.
The phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is very different than the phrase “Beauty can come from destruction.” One says, “God ordered destruction for the purpose of beauty” and the other says that, “God works through his people and divine mysteries to turn tragedy into beauty.”
I am a firm believer in the latter because it reflects the nature and message of Jesus that we get from the Holy Scriptures (Romans 8:28, Isaiah 61:1-3).
The black community has endured some of the darkest tragedy and persecution than any people group known to earth. The most disturbing thing is that the persecution was mostly done by white Christians in America. And the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” was used as a weapon aiding this persecution.
This reflection and conversation stems from the work of Black Liberation Theologian James E. Cone and mainly his work from “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”
I don’t want to get into theological weeds and debate camps. I have many friends in different theological circles that are different than mine, and it is never helpful to lump people in one category. That would be a false generalization and would only continue the “us vs. them” narrative. Instead, I simply want to tackle specific words and phrases that cause damage to us and our view of God, and words that have also led to accepting persecution when it should have been stopped. I also want to use this conversation to highlight the persecution of the black community and how these phrases have aided in these tragedies. I don’t want to just leave you there, but I hope this can brighten our view of God and hopefully bring enlightenment to all of us today.
In the frame “Everything happens for a reason,” the persecution of the black community in all of history, especially during the lynching era (1880-1940), and the continuation of suppression today by white supremacists is enough evidence that God is a torturing sadist or this theology/view of God is constructed by man to encourage people to accept that their suffering has a purpose. Accepting this phrase is to blindly trust that God has everything in control, and He ordains it all.
Can you put yourself in the shoes of a black woman who is cutting her husband down from a tree? Do these words sound hopeful or damning? Can you imagine what this community went through? All they had was the cross of Jesus that symbolized that beauty can come from tragedy.
While the suffering of the black community has aided in the liberation and progression of racial reconciliation and equal rights, to say that burning bodies swinging from a tree were ordained by God for a future liberation is a dark twisted view of love. “Everything happens for a reason” is a saying that has made white people feel better for their ancestral crimes.
We often don’t know what to say when we learn hard truths like this. We don’t know what to say about the history of the lynching era or when we realize our great grandparents were most likely involved. We like to talk about “good” things, and we don’t bring up historical tragedies because we start to feel guilty and we don’t like to feel guilty.
However, I believe we should feel guilty for what humans have done to other humans and what humans are doing to humans today. This is not to bring shame to ourselves, but to actually feel something. We don’t want to feel guilty, because we don’t want to feel the darkness that is connected with such tragedy. BUT we must. We must feel. We must lament. We must repent. Not repent because we have ever lynched anyone, but because it is actually scriptural to repent for our ancestors’ crimes, and we must repent for where we go wrong every day in our own lives.
A Prayer we can all say today: “God help me see my sisters and brothers as your reflecting image so that I may love them unconditionally as you have loved me. Forgive me for choosing selfishness, anger, hate, and superiority. Teach me to be humble and to be equal with others.”
White people will never be able to understand what the black community went through or what they are going through today, but researching, having conversations, lamenting, and repenting is the beginning of a reconciled world. We must feel so we won’t become numb to the marginalized.
James E. Cone says it “takes a whole lot of empathic effort to step into those of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”
If we choose blindness and don’t accept the hard truths of the human experience, we are just wearing the cross around our necks as a trophy of salvationverses a symbol of suffering turned to beauty.
James E. Cone says,
“Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called ‘the crucified peoples of history.’ 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.”
Jesus said following love would come with persecution (John 15:20). He didn’t say “I have ordained the persecution of many people so that the gospel may be heard.” The fact that beauty can come from destruction is part of the divine miraculous works of God on earth today through the works of his people. We have the opportunity to engage in gospel miracles by doing our part of lamenting and reconciling. We have the free will to do so (Galatians 5:13).
To reconcile means to not ignore the past, but acknowledge it, lament it, repent of it, and makes steps towards being better in our everyday lives by engaging the communities that we may be uncomfortable with, but this will add to the greater good of the kingdom of God.
Martin Luther King Jr. says, “Resistance and nonviolence are not in themselves good. There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”
To accept the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is accepting the God of the lynching tree. The God of the Crusades. The God of the Holocaust. The God of the Columbine shooting. The God of 9/11. The God of Titanic. The God of the white man. The God of cancer.
The list is too big.
Our God is the God of love. Period.
Our God did not ordain these tragedies for His good. Our God did not have a purpose for this darkness. If He did, count me out. But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because Jesus contradicts this very idea. And I interpret the Bible and the world through Jesus.
God gave us free reign on this earth, and we killed each other, including God.
Our mission is to simply partner with love in turning tragedy into goodness. Not tragedy into more tragedy. God has given us an opportunity to fight tragedy with love.
The love of Jesus who is Love.
The cross is a symbol of how we crucify Jesus every day when we kill each other. This is not a racial issue, but simply a human issue. We do not see each other made in the image of God and we do not see our enemies as our sisters and brothers. Once we get that engrained into our souls, we can begin to make the world a better place.
Cone says, “The Gospel of liberation is bad news to all oppressors because they have defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.” And while America doesn’t practice slavery anymore, and we have come a long way in the reconciliation narrative, we can still enslave others with our words, thoughts, and deeds no matter the race.
Every day I strive to say this prayer for myself and on behalf of the world:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
And the best news is that we are all forgiven. Even the worst of us.
Now, let’s love.
Lord, make us one. Make us better. Make us one. Amen.