Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus began to teach his disciples
that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … (Mark 8)
When I was in divinity school at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, I made a point every term of going uptown to take at least one course at the Union Theological Seminary, a school known for its more liberal orientation.
At the time, there was a young African American theologian named James Cone teaching at Union. He had made quite a name for himself by developing what he called A Black Theology of Liberation. His message was that Black Power, defined as black people asserting the dignity of their humanity denied by white supremacy, was the gospel in America. God, he said, always puts himself on the side of the poor and those who are robbed of the freedom to realize their potential: God didn’t side with Pharaoh, he was with Moses and the enslaved people of Israel. Jesus didn’t hang with Herod or Pilate, he aligned himself with those weighed down by the oppression they exercised on behalf of the Roman Empire. Defining supremacy simply as the power any group has to make the rules, Cone argued that white American churches preach a gospel based on the rule-making dominance of their membership, and that such oppressive power is antithetical to the liberative gospel of Jesus. God always liberates, Cone says, and never oppresses. And so, Cone concludes, God is not to be found in the white churches of America.
Now, that’s a hard message. And I regret to say, that in my own seminary studies, I perfectly acted out exactly what he was talking about. You see, in the Episcopal Church, seminarians are held accountable to the so-called “seven canonical areas” of study (theology, history, bible, and so on), and what is included in those areas of study is defined by the church. Not surprisingly, black liberation theology is not on the list—at least not when I was in seminary. The powers that be had implicitly let it be known that we were supposed to be reading the Greek and Latin fathers, Anselm, Aquinas, the Caroline Divines, Luther, Bultmann, and Barth—a conformity enforced by the administration of the dreaded “General Ordination Exam” in the senior year of seminary.
And so I dutifully took classes in which we read the required authors, passing Cone by entirely. I saw him in the hall from time to time, but I never attended one of his lectures, I never took a course from him, I never read his work. I followed the rules—maybe rules not explicitly stated, but we students knew what they were, and who had made them: bishops and Commissions on Ministry who had scant interest in anything but traditional Anglican theology. Certainly not anything called a “theology of liberation”!
Not only did I ignore Cone in seminary, but I didn’t really encounter his work until just this Lent, when suddenly he came roaring out of my theological subconscious, where he had apparently become lodged despite my cultivated indifference, and then suddenly made himself known quite emphatically in my awareness. It’s been a revelation, in the full sense of the word.
Suddenly, I found myself reading not only his book, A Black Theology of Liberation (now 40 years old), but also one of his most painful and personal books, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In that book, Cone takes his theology a step further, observing that on the cross Jesus was, in effect, lynched by the Roman authorities, who used crucifixion in their day in the same way as white America used lynching during the Jim Crow era: to keep powerless people in their place through mocking and deadly intimidation.
And so in our own day the cross becomes God’s critique of power—white power—a critique of a system in which white people still set the rules for what constitutes brutality against a black person, and what does not. It’s as if, in today’s gospel, the text had read, “And Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must be lynched …”
And this, Cone says, is the place one has to look truly to find God in the American experience: “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” he writes, “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” (p. xv). That’s strong medicine, and bitter to swallow.
But what Cone seems to be trying to push us to recognize, is that the American story is not one-dimensional, as we so often tell it. It is not all about the American dream—although it is also about that. It has many layers, including 400 years of black suffering at the hands of white taskmasters. And if we want to heal the wounds of that history, we have to be willing to complicate the telling of our national story. As Cone said to Bill Moyers in a televised interview, “The one thing I most wish for in America is that we could lose our innocence about ourselves.”
Yesterday in the Saturday morning mini-retreat, we watched a TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story,” given by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. As an African woman, she recalled how surprised she was when she came to the United States to go to college, and discovered how simplistic her roommate’s idea of Africa was. The roommate assumed Adichie would be poor, speak a native language, and listen to tribal music. Instead, the roommate discovered a middle-class English-speaker who loved Mariah Carey. Adichie’s story, it turned out, was so much more complex than her roommate had imagined.
We might draw out of this episode, the conclusion that we owe it to one another, to recognize that our individual stories are not simple, but complex and multi-layered; and that the stereotypes we hold of people different from ourselves are, as Adichie put it, “not necessarily wrong, but incomplete.” Only with that awareness, can we really begin to understand empathetically someone different from ourselves.
And there is a corollary to that point as well: the stories we tell about ourselves are also too simple. We are both more dignified than we give ourselves credit for, and we are capable of greater wrong than we imagine. Our imaginations remain locked in a simplistic reduction of who we truly are. And hence our Lenten theme, “In the Looking Glass: Knowing Ourselves in order to Understand Others,” symbolized by the mirror there on the altar.
When we look at ourselves, we must learn to see a complex web of experiences and characteristics: the hurts and traumas we’ve endured, the hopes and ambitions we hold on to, the love we have to share, and the prejudices we hide deep within. Seeing ourselves in that light, we can then step back and make room for the complex web that makes up other people as well—especially those who are most inscrutable and even baffling to us.
This, I think, is the biggest task before us in our day: to let the tensions of the current moment complicate our lives, by opening our eyes to the variety of stories that need to be told, both by us and by others. Cone tells a theological story that is very different from the one we are used to, but that doesn’t render it invalid. A Native American would tell yet another story, as would an immigrant, or someone we so often derisively dismiss as a “redneck.”
But the good news is that all those stories, are held together as one story in the encompassing reality of God—not to be harmonized into a single metanarrative, but to be heard and registered in all of their extraordinary uniqueness. Perhaps that is one reading of what Jesus meant, when he said that we must lose our life in order to save it. If we are truly to know our own story, we must first hear and attend to the stories told by others. For we really only know ourselves, when we have come to know the other. And perhaps we only really understand the cross, when we can see in it a lynching tree. Amen.