SalvationSufferingTheology & Spirituality

Godforsakenness and Redemption Pt. 1: The Lynched Savior

Julius Bloch, Lynching link to image

In this series I examine atonement, specifically the cross and Christ’s cry of dereliction, in conversation with the historical reality of the lynching of thousands of Black people in America during the 19th and into the 20th (and arguably 21st) century. In this article I examine the relationship between the cross and the lynching tree made by James Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and in subsequent articles I build on Cone’s account. A summary of my argument is that the cross, and specifically Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross, represents the redemption of the worst possible human experience, which I refer to as Godforsakenness. I argue that on the cross Christ experienced Godforsakenness, and in this way redeemed the worst that humanity can experience in this life, including the lynching tree.

 

Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning. [1]

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone, the founder of academic Black Liberation theology, points us towards perhaps the most devastating historical denial attempt to deny Being to Black people, namely lynching. Lynching, in essence, was white Americans stating that once Black Americans were no longer enslaved by and performing forced labor for white people they had no value beyond serving as objects of ridicule and torture. Cone includes an early 20th century account from a white Floridian who stated to a northern counterpart, “The people of the South don’t’ think any more of killing the black fellows than you would think of killing a flea…” [2] Lynchings were public events, festive gatherings that white people would attend with their family and friends—what Cone describes as “a ritual celebration of white supremacy.” [3] It was common for Black bodies to be cut up into souvenirs for sale, and the proceedings were recounted in local newspapers. Cone records a postcard with a photograph of a lynched Black body that was sent from one attendee of a lynching to a friend that said, “This is the barbeque we had last night.” [4] This level of violence, this degree of attempted dehumanization, is what must be redeemed by Christ’s atonement. 

Yet, in the midst of this horror and brutality, many Black people were able to hold on to hope and faith in their God. For those who were Christian, it was specifically Christ who knew their suffering and was present with them in it. To explain this situation, between “a world where the possibility of violent death was always imminent” and the hope that “had to be carved out of wretched conditions,” Black Christians consistently turned to the spirituals. [5] One in particular, “Nobody Knows,” captures these opposite extremes of Black existence: 

Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,

Nobody knows my sorrow, 

Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen, 

Glory Hallelujah [6]

The first three lines recount the often abhorrent experience forced upon Black people. Yet, the final line, “speaks of hope that trouble would not sink them down into permanent despair.” [7] What gives Black people this hope in the spirituals is Christ’s solidarity with them. Indeed, in an alternative version of “Nobody Knows,” the line “Nobody knows my sorrow” is replaced with “Nobody knows but Jesus.” [8] The lynched savior, Christ, was able to be present with them in their suffering and give them hope for redemption and a brighter future. 

Cone sees the cross as the point of contact between the extremes of Black suffering and divine redemption. He argues that the cross and the lynching tree must interpret one another in America. The cross has all too often been transformed into “a harmless, non-offensive ornament,” that serves as a status symbol for the wearer. Alternatively, America has spent much of the last century or so trying to forget the lynching tree. Cone notes that even sympathetic white theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr failed to make a connection between the cross and the lynching tree. [9] Indeed, nearly all white and many Black ministers and theologians failed to wrestle with the “strange fruit” of the lynching tree out of ignorance, shame, fear, or lack of prophetic imagination. [10] Putting the lynching tree and the cross together makes clear that the cross is not only a site of divine redemption but also horror and atrocity—the evil of this world attempting to snuff out goodness itself. However, the cross also speaks to the fact that Black people possess “an identity far more meaningful than the harm that white supremacy could do to them,” because, just like the evil present at the cross could not defeat Christ, the evil they have faced and continue to face does not define them. [11]

This new identity, granted through the cross, entails for Cone both that God is present with the oppressed, but also that if we wish to be present with God we must stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Thus, “humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” [12] Salvation is available only through solidarity with the oppressed according to Cone, because the cross is God’s method of atonement, and God has chosen to be for the “least of these.” It is then through this solidarity, which requires that “Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy that it was” that Christians are able to “discover in [the cross], through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.” [13] Put differently, in the cross God identifies Godself with the poor and oppressed and makes salvation possible. Therefore if we wish to be present with God and participate in God’s act of salvation, we must also identify with the poor and oppressed. “God must therefore know in a special way what poor blacks are suffering,” Cone argues, “because God’s son was lynched in Jerusalem.” [14]

God’s identification with the poor and oppressed through the cross in turn opens up the possibility of transcendence for the poor and oppressed. Cone states, “The cross is an ‘opening to the transcendent’ for the poor who have nowhere else to turn—that transcendence of the spirit that no one can take away, no matter what they do.” [15] This transcendence allows the poor and oppressed to have hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation. And, “once contact with the transcendent is found, a new existence in the world becomes possible.” [16] Thus, God does not merely enter into the situation of the poor and oppressed, God makes the transformation of their situation possible through divine solidarity. For, Cone would certainly agree that a God who suffers alongside the oppressed but does nothing to alleviate their suffering is not worthy of worship. Indeed, as I argue in the next installment in this series, solidarity necessarily involves liberative action. 

 

Surrogacy and the Cross

There are, however, important critiques of the salvific nature of the cross, primarily coming from feminist and Womanist theology. Delores Williams presents perhaps the most forceful critique of the salvific nature of the cross in her book Sisters in the Wilderness. Within, she argues that doctrines of the atonement based on the cross have justified the oppression of Black women, specifically in their role as surrogates. She demonstrates that Black women have consistently been forced to stand-in, or be surrogates, for Black men and white women. Black women were historically seen as able to replace enslaved men, which has contributed to the masculinization of Blackness. This masculinization identifies Blackness and maleness, attempting to make Black women invisible. [17] Additionally, Black women have been forced to stand in for white women as “mammies” raising white children at the expense of their own families and well-being, and have been sexually assaulted and raped by white men as a perverse substitution for their white wives. [18] This oppressive surrogacy continues into the present both in harmful stereotypes regarding Black women—the “salacious Jezebel,” the “asexual mammie,” and the “masculine superwoman” [19]—the continued invisibilization of Black women due to the identification of Blackness with maleness, and the perspective that Black women are both solely responsible for the Black family while simultaneously being the reason for its supposed pathology. [20]

These stereotypes are deeply problematic, as Williams notes, “…the surrogacy roles black women have filled during slavery and beyond are exploitative. They rob African-American women of self-consciousness, self care, and self esteem, and put them in the service of other people’s desires, tasks, and goals.” [21] This suffering experienced by Black women serves to compound white society’s general sense that Black women are less than fully human—that they exist inasmuch as they can be put to use in the service of others. Williams argues that, since a dominant understanding of atonement [22] in Christianity involves an understanding of Jesus dying in the place of sinful humanity, “Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure… Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred.” [23]

The question then must be asked, can a Messiah who saves via surrogacy serve to free Black women from their enforced surrogacy? Williams’ answer is a resounding, “No.” Rather than saving Black women, Christ as the ultimate surrogate has the effect of divinizing power imbalances and the enforced surrogacy that results from them. This, then, encourages Black women to find a kind of “holy” resignation in their surrogacy and for wider society to accept this injustice, rather than driving people to create a more just world. Therefore, Williams strives to elucidate an account of the atonement that “show[s] Black women [that] their salvation does not depend upon any form of surrogacy made sacred by traditional and orthodox understandings of Jesus’ life and death.” [24] Rather, Williams sees Christ’s life and resurrection as salvific. 

 

Cone, Atonement, and the Cross

How, then, does Cone deal with Williams’ critique of the cross? Cone states that he accepts her rejection of substitutionary atonement and the potential for the  divinization of suffering—“I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself,” he states. [25] He then goes on to state that what he does find redemptive about the cross is 

God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed… What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. [26]

Here Cone attempts to both agree with Williams’ critique but maintain the cross as the means of salvation. For Cone, Christ does not stand in our place and take our punishment, but rather stands alongside the oppressed and empowers them to fight for their humanity and liberation. Cone states that “the freedom promised is already present in the community’s struggle for liberation.” [27] So, though ultimate freedom is available only eschatologically, the foretaste of it is already present and available for those who commit themselves to the struggle for liberation in solidarity with the oppressed. Christ enters into the depths of Black suffering so that even the worst evils humanity can experience and thrust upon one another can be redeemed by being brought into communion with God. 

Cone argues, Jesus’ presence with Black people on the cross opens up the possibility of Black Being, because Christ has overcome nonbeing. “‘To take one’s troubles to the Lord in prayer,’” Cone argues, “is to recognize that the One who said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am’ can cause being to replace nonbeing, merely through the assertion of the Word.” [28] Cone recognizes that Black Being, which is denied within the confines of white supremacy, is in fact present within the ultimate context of the cross. The cross smashes the idolatry of white supremacy—idolatrous because it makes whiteness of ultimate concern rather than God—and unveils the true nature of reality, namely that God stands as the God of the oppressed and has brought the oppressed into communion with the divine by suffering alongside them hung upon a tree. 

In my next article, I introduce the category of Godforsakenness, which is the experience of being abandoned by God without hope for redemption. I, however, believe that this experience is redeemed through the cross, a case that I make by examining Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I ultimately argue that through the cross Christ has infused all of human experience with divine power, so that we can have hope for redemption even in the most hopeless of circumstances.

 


View Sources
David Justice

David Justice

My research focus is the theology and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. I primarily explore the fundamental transformation and, at times, destruction necessary to make the Beloved Community a reality. In making this argument I draw on his rootedness in the Black church and put King into conversation with feminist, Womanist, and decolonial thought. I am currently a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University in Theological Studies and an MA student in Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My wife Mariah and I have two kids who are adorable and love wearing us out. You can find me on social media @DavidtheJust

Previous post

Some Preliminary Reflections on Metaphysics

Next post

Orthodox Pastoral Care and Psychotherapy