Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 6, 2018
“Love and the Lynching Tree”
John 15: 9-17
As God has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
By now most of us know the story about Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, two men arrested at Starbucks in Philadelphia for Sitting While Black. The details are remarkably simple. They were meeting someone and wanted to wait for all the parties to arrive before ordering. In the meantime, one asked to use the restroom. Within minutes, the manager called the police claiming, “They refuse to order anything.” The police arrived two minutes later, put the men in handcuffs, and led them out the door, while the man with whom they were meeting walked in. The men very carefully and thoughtfully did not object; they didn’t say anything so as not to get shot, after all, that would have been resisting arrest, not to mention, one of them might have put his hand too close to his pocket, leading the officer to believe his life was in danger. Donte and Rashon’s parents had given them “the talk” so they knew to comply. Don’t object. Don’t ask questions. They were held at the jail for 8 hours. 8 hours?!
This week they settled with the city for $1 each, twelve and a half cents for each hour they spent locked up, not unlike prison wages. Plus, the city agreed to create a program for young entrepreneurs. And Starbucks will close their 8,000 stores for an afternoon of racial bias training. The temptation is to give Starbucks credit for acting so quickly and concretely, more than a mere apology, and for recognizing it was racial biasand therefore not just organizing some generic “diversity training.” But we have to be careful not to make Starbucks the hero.
On Thursday I watched coverage of the story on the Today Show. In their banter, Savannah, Hoda, and Willie congratulated the young men for their actions and commented on how much good will come out of a bad situation. They all smiled and nodded their heads. It was a feel-good story of redemption. But something about that felt very wrong. I realized, it was just another cover for racial guilt. We don’t have to address the underlying issues if something good comes out of it. We can just move on because all’s well that ends well.
Meanwhile, police were called to CSU this week because a white parent on a campus tour for prospective students felt uncomfortable with the presence of two young Native American men, also considering whether to attend CSU. The official statement from the university, apologizing for the incident, added, the officers were “obligated to respond to an individual’s concern about public safety.”
Perhaps that’s progress… At one time, a mob would have simply invited a crowd of onlookers to watch as those two prospective students were hung from a lynching tree, a celebratory event as “public safety” was restored. A man might have been lynched for smiling at a white woman, or looking her in the eye, or walking too closely behind. And likely for sitting at Starbucks without ordering anything. Or no reason at all. Thousands of men were lynched, but also hundreds of women, such as Laura Nelson and Mary Turner, who was 8 months pregnant, uncontrollably distraught over seeing her husband just lynched. Men, women, and even children at events also known as “lynching bees.”
Children such as Jesse Washington, a black teenager who was lynched in Waco, Texas, on a beautiful spring day in May 1916, charged with the rape and murder of a white woman. After the verdict, he was dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco's city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch. There was a celebratory atmosphere and, it’s reported, many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers, hung him over a bonfire and then repeatedly lowered and raised him over the fire for about two hours. After that, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of the lynching of a child in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.,
I debated whether to actually read all those gruesome details but I wondered, are we so fragile that we can’t take the truth?
That’s Bryan Stevenson’s vision behind a lynching memorial that opened last weekend in Montgomery, Alabama, which he said addresses a topic inadequately acknowledged in our country. Lynching was domestic terrorism; a means to sustain white supremacy and racial hierarchy. One new thing I’ve learned so far: Did you know that Black Veterans were particularly targeted?
Stevenson wrote: No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.
Why? A man who has been valiant in service will not be subservient enough at home. Uppity.
Stevenson’s project is officially known as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It stands alongside The Legacy Museum, an important complement to the memorial to show the succession of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, to mass incarceration today. Each one newly devised to restore “public safety,” or rather, racial order, including loitering laws. Also known as “You don’t belong here.”
The project identified more than 4,000 victims, which of course is only a fraction of the overall total. The Smithsonian developed an interactive map with colored dots to show where documented lynchings happened. Naturally, the South is saturated with color. I was, however, disturbed to learn that a black man had been lynched off a train bridge in Grand Forks, not far from our farm.
Given the domestic terrorism of the KKK in Denver, including by Mayor Stapleton, I expected to see more dots on the map in Denver. There were 4 in the city, 2 Chinese men and 2 Italians. In the West, these incidents more often victimized Native Americans, Chinese, Italians, and Mexicans than African Americans, but that would not give much comfort to 16-year-old John Preston Porter, lynched and burned at the stake in front of 300 in Limon, or Calvin Kimblern, lynched by a mob in a mass spectacle before 6,000 in Pueblo. He was dragged, stripped, and hung twice from a telephone pole at Eighth Street and Santa Fe Avenue. Afterwards, the coroner decreed that he 'was not a human being' and declined to investigate his death.
The opening of the lynching memorial just so happened to occur mere hours before the death of the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the author of the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The timing of Cone’s death and the opening is almost unnerving.
Dr. Cone wrote, “The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. Both are symbols of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They also both reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.”
Calling the crucifixion a first-century lynching is powerful. Doesn’t that make you think? Hung from a tree. Hung because it was demanded of a mob screaming “Crucify him, Crucify him.” Executed unjustly. Done to send a message to terrify their communities. And all to keep order in the Empire, to restore public safety, also known as order. Therefore, Dr. Cone provocatively asserts, African Americans are Christ figures.
Dr. Cone is considered the father of Black Liberation Theology, writing even before Central American theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez. The broad concepts of liberation theology began in Latin America in the 1950s and 60s by priests working among the poor. But Vatican officials sought to denigrate liberation theology as Marxism. Kind of how Dom Helder Camara was quoted as saying, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”
Dr. Cone died last week at age of 79. He was an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a professor at Union Theological Seminary for 50 years, a peer of the perhaps more well-known Dr. Cornell West, who described Cone as a “theological genius, the greatest liberation theologian to emerge in the American empire.”
Since our scripture text today is about love, I began this week by looking for writings on love by Dr. Cone. He said, “The ethic of liberation arises out of love.” That was about it. He was hesitant to speak of love. Though he called Martin Luther King a great theologian, Cone said his analysis of love, particularly of God’s love for both oppressed and oppressor, didn’t take seriously enough white violence in America. It treats the love of Jesus as if it were “indifferent to social and political justice. How can anything in the name of love leave intact the structures of oppression and the power of the oppressors” who perversely demand that love applies to them too? (Which, I must say, sounds awfully familiar to ALL Lives Matter). Dr. Cone suggests, that would mean they are pardoned from any responsibility, left with their riches and power intact. Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power provided a counter-point to Dr. King.
Love, he feared, becomes the justifying word of the oppressors. Kind of like a mob boss who goes to Mass on Sunday to be absolved of killing all week, only to go again the following Sunday to cover another week of murders, etc.
This is pretty heavy stuff for such a beautiful Spring morning, isn’t it? And it begs the question, among this talk about lynching, where is the Good News?
Sometimes we simply need to sit in reality. Let the pain soak in before we move on. We always want to move on. Like Savannah, Hoda, and Willie. “Well, at least some good came out of it.” Smiling, nodding, and “Now here’s Al with the weather.” But what about the 4 black women escorted off the golf course in Pennsylvania? The cops were called on these members because they were allegedly playing too slowly. Or what about the two men at the fitness center in New Jersey, one a member, a regular, and one with a guest pass, who didn’t look like they belonged there… Call the police.
Though Dr. Cone was an AME minister, he was a regular church-goer at The Riverside Church in New York City, a federated UCC and American Baptist. I want to conclude with what Dr. Amy Butler, Riverside’s current senior pastor, said of her congregant.
She started with the old Sunday School song “Love, love, love, that’s what it’s all about. Cause God loves us, we love each other, mother, father, sister, brother. Everybody sing and shout! Cause that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love, love, love…”
“Yes, God is love,” she said. “It’s true. But moderate and liberal people of faith tend to cook down the fierce love of God. We boil the wrath of God right off, until we’re left with a kind of shallow, impotent, teddy-bear-kind of God that we can take out and cuddle when we feel sad, or self-righteous; a God of, in Dr. Cone’s words, ‘mere sentimentality.’ But the God we meet in the Book of Amos and many places in the biblical text is definitely not a God of sentimentality. God among the prophets is a God of righteous anger, or wrath, even.”
“Now confession: the wrath of God is not really a go-to topic for most preachers. But in a world filled with oppression, poverty, and violence, we have to understand (and keep saying) that God is always on the side of the oppressed, outraged at the injustice we perpetrate on each other, filled with righteous anger. God is certainly love, but true love is more than just accepting everybody. What gives love its heft and the power to change things is its perpetual insistence on justice.” As Dr. Cone said, “‘The wrath of God is the love of God in regard to the forces opposed to the liberation of the oppressed.’”
Another wow moment. The wrath of God is the love of God for the oppressed. Yes, God is love. And if we stand with the oppressed, we stand with Christ. The cross and the lynching tree. Whether he was hesitant or not, Dr. Cone just gave me one of the most powerful and inspirational sayings about love I could ever hope to find.
We can end today by once again affirming the Good News that God is love, just not sentimentality. Nor can love be used as excuse not to change or to excuse the structures of white supremacy. Fierce love. That’s the God I want, not one who leaves me comfortable where I am but draws me toward what I haven’t yet become. How about you?
8 Victims of lynching in and near Denver (Not a complete list)
⸬ Italian male lynched in May 1891
⌖ Denver, Denver Co.
He was lynched by a mob after being accused of murder. He drowned in the South Platte river trying to flee the mob.
Also recorded as: Daniel Arata
⸬ Italian male lynched in Jul 1893
⌖ Denver, Denver Co.
He was lynched by a mob after being accused of murder in a mass spectacle before some 10,000 people
⸬ Mexican male lynched in Jun 1866
⌖ Golden, Jefferson Co.
He was lynched by a mob after being accused of Attempted murder
⸬ Italian male lynched in Apr 1867
⌖ Georgetown, Clear Creek Co.
He was lynched by a mob after being accused of assault
⸬ Chinese male lynched in Oct 1880
⌖ Denver, Arapahoe Co.
He was lynched with no alleged offense
⸬ Chinese person killed in late Dec 1880
⌖ Denver, Arapahoe Co.
In Nov 1880 a mob raged through Denver on the (false) rumor that 2 Chinese men had killed a white man during a fight. One Chinese person was killed by the mob and many more injured.
John Preston Porter, Jr., Also recorded as: Preston Porter
⸬ Black male lynched in Nov 1900
⌖ Lake Station, near Limon, Lincoln Co.
Porter was a 16-year-old accused of raping and murdering a 12 year old girl. A vigilante mob of about 300 people burned him at the stake.
Calvin Kimblern, Also recorded as: Calvin Kunblern
⸬ Black male lynched in May 1900
⌖ Pueblo, Pueblo Co.
He was lynched by a mob after being accused of murder in a mass spectacle with over 6000 participants. He was dragged, stripped, and hung twice from a telephone pole at Eighth St and Santa Fe Avenue. Afterwards, the coroner decreed that Kimblern 'was not a human being' and declined to investigate his death
 Each of the dots on the map gives the name, if known, and a description of the lynching, if known.
 Orbis Books, 2011
 A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1973
 Thanks to https://veeritions.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/james-cone-on-the-liberation-of-love/ for these insights