by guest writer Sean O’Conaill
Part I – Redemption as Freedom
“The cross stands at the centre of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree.” James H. Cone
Nothing is clearer in the New Testament than that its authors passionately believed that they had been ‘set free’ in their own time by the Easter events – and that the same freedom would be experienced – in the present – by all who believed.
How else could Paul say of the resurrected Jesus: “Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3: 17) To recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah was – for Paul and those who listened to him – to see him as a liberator in the fullest sense of that word, even under the ever-dangerous Pax Romana.
As to ‘redeem’ was literally to pay the full cost of the freeing of a Roman slave, to call Jesus ‘redeemer’ was to proclaim him as one who had bought self-respect for all who believed in him, whatever ‘the world’ – the Roman World – might think. It was also therefore to claim that he had freed them from the delusion that the world as it was had any power of judgement over them.
Given that this is what ‘redemption’ originally meant – the fully-felt experience of release, by Jesus, from the most oppressive captivity – the fear that Rome’s judgment was God’s too – can we truly say we understand Redemption today if we see ‘freedom’ as something achievable only via politics and ‘armed struggle’, and ‘Redemption’ as a mere possibility of life after death?
What does it mean now to call Jesus ‘Redeemer’ – Liberator – in our own time and place?
Not much, it seems, if we compare youthful Irish enthusiasm for the 2016 celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising with levels of attendance by the same generation at Christian Easter ceremonies in the same year. Two millennia of Church and secular history have kicked the proposed benefits of Christian redemption way down the road – literally into eternity.
And yet increasingly those same generations are oppressed by fears for their own future in this life – fears that the unexpected onset of a viral pandemic in early 2020 – and then tales of tundra on fire and permafrost melting in the Siberian Arctic by July – will do nothing to allay. Even if the educational ‘normality’ of 2019 could be restored, that too was imposing a straitjacket of expectations that was overburdening Ireland’s mental health services for young people in the same year. Oppression is experienced electronically by too many young people these times – as ‘trolling’ 24/7. A fiercely competitive achievement culture in the workplace, and in academia, adds yet another layer of pressure to the vast uncertainties of the moment.
As for reliance upon politics alone to deliver freedom, the killing of George Floyd, an African American, in Minneapolis, USA – on May 25th 2020 – reminded all of us that in the world’s supposedly most politically liberated society the starkest oppression still threatens too many. Unexpectedly in early June the US Black civil rights movement of my own early adulthood took on another dimension when I was sent photos of the three white children of a close friend – not yet out of grade (i.e. primary) school — holding up their own posters for Black Lives Matter on a street in the Boston (USA) conurbation.
How, I asked myself, could that have happened if Martin Luther King had not risked sudden death every day and night of a solid twelve years (1956-1968) – as the stand-out target for US white supremacist hatred? And how could he have done that if the most sacred book of the white enslavers of his ancestors had not conveyed to his own people a message those same captors had neither seen nor expected: that the uplifted Christian cross offers wordless reassurance and constant support to the most oppressed of the earth – even if the figure on it is usually depicted as white?
The Meaning of the Cross
As explained marvelously by James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, for African Americans traumatized by the worst lynching era in the USA (c.1865-1945) – when an estimated 5,000-7,000 of their people were murdered in the most contemptuous way2 – the Christian cross had nevertheless birthed for many an enduring hope. Martin Luther King’s own father had witnessed such a lynching – and yet had taught his son that it is always those who do the lynching who are on the wrong side of history.
Surely that invites a different ‘take’ on the meaning of the Cross from the one still blessed by the Catholic Catechism? The late eleventh century teaching of St Anselm of Canterbury – that Jesus suffered crucifixion to repay to his Father a debt of honor on our behalf, a debt incurred by our sins that our own sufferings cannot satisfy – has totally lost traction as ‘Good News’ for younger generations today. Is that surprising when the same understanding cannot inspire convinced and passionate preaching from their clergy?
The reason the word ‘honor’ is itself theologically problematic should be especially obvious just now. Honor is the opposite of shame, and in every era, in all contexts, it is always the power-seekers who claim the right to shame others. Daily the US Trump administration wields this weapon mercilessly, by word and action. Just as ‘the Donald’ is always right and perfect and admirable – busy from the early hours on Twitter in the proving of his superiority – i.e. the vindication of his honor – anyone who challenges that claim is always ‘dumb’ and asking to be insulted.
A Distorted Christianity
That in this very purpose of self-aggrandizement President Trump would flaunt a Christian bible outside a Christian church – as a means of identifying supporters of Black Lives Matter with enemies of ‘law and order’, and of Christianity – raises an important question about the origins of that mindset. What theology – what understanding of the Christian message – underlies the alignment of so many self-identifying Christians with the cause of a person so clearly self-infatuated and so visibly indifferent to the grossest injustice and suffering?
Could it be that in retaining the notion that God is tied inexorably to the necessity of vindicating his own honor, and in thinking of Redemption as merely rescue from Hell after death, we make ourselves blind to the fact that we thereby theologically licence egotism – biblical pride – the tendency to hunger after glory or celebrity or ‘success’ in this very same unjust world?
Given that on the contrary Jesus identified with the slave – the one least glorified – and was called liberator of the poor-in-spirit (i.e. those we now call depressed) by his own closest followers – was it ever a good idea to try to extol the Trinity as some kind of cosmic debt-collection agency, and the Crucifixion as the means by which one member of that Trinity becomes incarnate to pay off the balance of a debt of honor to another?
Is it not the meaning of the Cross and the Creed that on the contrary God’s love dismisses human misconceptions of honor, to prove that it is with the least regarded – those who carry most of the oppressive burden of human ambition – who are always most deserving of respect? And that no one’s dignity can in fact be enhanced by shaming another to win attention – or lost in the suffering of an act intended to shame? Was it not above all to convey this teaching that the Gospel events took place?
Was that not the far more liberating teaching that Martin Luther King received, correctly, from the Cross and the Gospel – a teaching not received by the white European adventurers and colonial landowners who had enslaved and lynched his own people?
And could it be that through the descendants of those enslaved by Europeans who had lost the full meaning of Redemption our theology – our understanding – is being reattuned to the ever-liberating message of the Cross – that God is never on the side of vanity and oppression, and always with those who, like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and John Lewis, risk their lives in the cause of a world in which everyone is respected as truly equal in dignity, and therefore also truly free?
Have white people who flaunt the Bible, and who yet still fearfully bid for white supremacy, pondered yet on why the African American people that white men enslaved could find in the same book the wellspring of their firmest conviction: that God, and therefore the future too, were on their side?
Or ever pondered on the most important lesson we can learn from the past: that supremacy never delivers freedom?
This is the first of two essays on recovering the true meaning of the cross. Read on for part two.
- James H Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis Books, 2013
- ‘At least 2,000 more black people were lynched by white mobs than previously reported, new research finds’, Washington Post, USA, June 15th, 2020
image credit: 1200px-White_supremacist_35782612633.jpg