I finished out The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone last night (review on Monday). I borrowed this book from a friend awhile ago, and I’m glad I did. It has given me much pause for reflection on how I understand the cross, and how my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ might understand it. Being that it is Good Friday, I could not think of a better time to post some thoughts from Cone’s perspective on the cross.
Good Friday never meant much to me growing up. I knew I got a day off from school and that was about it. Some people went to church; we never did. We saved that for Easter Sunday. I grew up knowing that, on Good Friday, Jesus died for my sins and would come back from the dead three days later so that I could go on an Easter Egg hunt with all my cousins and get a $50 check from my grandfather. Whoo-hoo.
Even today, Good Friday is very much another day to me. I often wind up having to work at the hospital, so I’m rarely in church at any point (or for Maundy Thursday, for that matter), and I’ve drank from a very watered-down version of the day for so long that I rarely give it the time or reflection that it deserves. Don’t get me wrong; still a Christian here who definitely pays a lot of mind to the events of holy week (I’ve had some pretty amazing Maundy Thursday experiences in the past), but as a white guy growing up in America…Good Friday doesn’t mean a whole lot. It just wasn’t taken very seriously.
Now, if you were to ask Cone about it, it means a hell of a lot more than you think it does.
African-Americans speak of the Crucifixion as if they were really there. So many Gospel songs, like Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?, show a deep resonance with the unjust and horrific crucifixion of Jesus. For black men and women, Jesus is the innocent man killed by the powers that be for trying to save people not just from “their sins,” but from the violence of the systems that oppressed them. How could they not identify so closely with the Crucified Christ? Jesus is the shining example of God not only identifying with the oppressed, but taking on flesh as one of them, and showing them that love looks like justice for all, and that suffering, even to death, brings redemption for oppressed and oppressor.
This is what MLK believed, what Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy believed, what so many members of the SCLC and SNCC believed, and what Cone continues to believe. So many in black churches find not just redemption in the cross, but liberation and deliverance from their oppressors. The events of Good Friday led King and many others to bus boycotts, lunch room sit-ins, and marches on Washington, demanding rights they were entitled to from birth, but that were stolen from them by white men who refused to acknowledge their humanity.
I’d like to say this is what I believe, but my actions don’t show it. It’s because I’ve done little to understand/identify with the oppressed, the very ones with whom Jesus identified, the least of these. Be they black, poor, a woman, LGBT, whatever, I have only watched from my tower as they cry out to God for deliverance, and become afraid when those prayers threatened to topple that tower. It is only by walking down the stairs and leaving the tower than I can be truly free, that I can be redeemed and forgiven by those I have ignored and even on occasion openly despised. I hope that my descent comes quicker than it has come thus far, and that on this Good Friday I see how my own sins have put Christ on the cross unjustly again and again, and the violence I do to my brothers and sisters by my inaction.
This is what I’ve learned about Good Friday from James H. Cone. He is quite the teacher.
*Artwork by He Qi