Good Friday: Impunity, the Lynching Tree, and the Cross

Good Friday is a terrible day, and at the same time terribly hopeful. The hope rests in the defiant spirit of Jesus, even as the mob and the religious leaders and the governor conspire to kill him. On Good Friday we endure the story of the crucifixion. We listen again to this terrible story, the awful way our Savior, our Jesus, was betrayed, arrested, denied, beaten, mocked, and killed. We stand powerless as witnesses, unable to stop the tragedy, unable to intervene. Then we are left to try and make sense of what we witnessed.

A new word entered my regular vocabulary the past year. I’m sure I knew the word before. I probably had to define it for a quiz in 11th grade English class. But this word has become part of my active vocabulary over the course of the last year. The word has become a lens through which I see our reality here in St. Louis, in the United States, and indeed around the globe. Our mission statement as a church says we seek to walk in the way of Jesus and to reveal Christ’s reconciling love in our city, nation and world. This year, this word has become a filter, a lens through which I see that work. The word I have spent so much time with: impunity.

I mentioned on Sunday the work of Dr. James Cone tying together “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Dr Cone’s central insight is this: “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.” Dr. Cone’s work spends time with a reality most of us wish to avoid. Only recently have we begun really talking about lynching in America. Just last year the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” opened in Montgomery, a monument to the thousands of black folk who were hung from trees, shot, burned, and otherwise victims of extrajudicial killings.

Dr. Cone writes that often tens of thousands of White Americans would attend these lynchings. They would take photos, pack picnics, and send postcards of the scene. White Americans used lynching as a tool of terror, to keep black Americans subservient, frightened, in their place. When lynchings occurred the police hardly ever intervened. It was more likely that officers would show up in plainclothes and participate. As he wrote about lynching, compared the crowds of American lynchings to the crowd that gathered to kill Jesus, Dr. Cone used my vocabulary word: “White people were virtually free to do anything to blacks with impunity.”

I picked up the word this from my friend Noah Bullock, the Executive Director of our partner organization Cristosal. When he was here in St. Louis back in October, in a speech at WashU, Noah pointed out that impunity is a critical component of the societal forces driving so many Central Americans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, to seek refuge in the United States.

When Noah uses the word, he is specific. He talks about the murderous gangs of Central America, the maras. The gangs fund their enterprise by extorting business owners and home owners, who must pay so-called rent to the criminals. The gangs are known for enforcing the rent through extreme displays of violence, through the public and brutal killings. The gangs use murder as a weapon of terror. Most impoverished Central Americans have no way to combat the terrorist gangs, because the police are not much better than the gangs. Central American police also murder and extort the people with impunity.

A group from Holy Communion is headed to El Salvador at the beginning of June. On our last trip, two years ago, our group visited a neighborhood outside the capital San Salvador. In that community a group of neighbors, led by women, had organized to push back the gangs. These neighbors demanded funds from their municipal authorities to paint over graffiti. They met with local gang leaders and insisted that the gangs cease recruitment among the young people who were attending school in the town. They won, and began to build an island of safety, and even a rehabilitation program for former gang members.

When we visited this community, we met a boy who was beloved in the neighborhood. He was developmentally delayed, and walked with a profound limp. Yet, as is characteristic in close-knit Central American communities, this young boy belonged. He was being raised by his mother and grandmother, but really by the whole neighborhood. Everyone kept an eye out for him.

I recently learned that this young boy had been killed by the police. Worse, the police published a graphic image of this young boy’s bloodied body on social media. They put a semi-automatic weapon in the dead boy’s hands to stage the photo. The caption on the police’s post read, “another rat is killed.” The police claimed that the disabled child was a dangerous gang member. The community knew there was no way this boy was involved in a gang. He had never held a gun.

This neighborhood is working with Cristosal to bring a lawsuit against the police. They know the likelihood of success is low. Police officers are almost never brought up on charges, especially those officers who work on special gang-violence squads. Even bringing a lawsuit is dangerous. The police might come back, in uniform or out of uniform. There have already been threats. But the women, the neighbors will do this work because they feel they have to challenge the impunity of the police, just as they challenged the impunity of the gangs.

Impunity is rampant in Central America, and it leads to further insecurity. When the police terrorize your community, where do you turn? How do you settle a dispute with your neighbor? When your government is unable or unwilling to administer justice, communities are left with no recourse.

Impunity pushes against the natural rule of things, the very nature of the universe. The story of Cain and Abel we heard tells the tale. The very ground cries out that Abel has been killed. A murder should naturally bring consequences. With impunity, this is not the case. There are no consequences. Impunity is unnatural, contrary to our sense of the way things should be.

Why report a murder, why give a witness statement when the only encounters you have had with law enforcement leave you feeling threatened? It is easier to run, to try and escape to the North. Black Americans made the same choice faced with the lynching and the daily degradation of life in the American South. Thousands moved north. Impunity itself degrades the sense of security, the sense of human dignity in a community. Families flee places where violence happens with impunity.

A group from Holy Communion will visit El Salvador to participate in a conference looking at violence and impunity. We are going to talk about our own reality here in St. Louis. Last year St. Louis was the most violent city in America. We even outranked San Salvador in the worldwide list of most violent cities. Less than one third of the homicides committed in the most violent neighborhood in St. Louis, up near Natural Bridge, result in an arrest. The violence is spiraling because the violence is unchecked. People are being killed with impunity, and that impunity partly results from a lack of trust between the neighborhood and the police.

The resonances between St. Louis and El Salvador are terribly painful. The theologian Ignacio Ellacuria, himself a martyr , a victim of state-terror in El Salvador, talked about the victims of history, those who have been subject to violence from their neighbors and systemic violence unchecked or perpetrated by governments. Ellacuria called those who suffered the “crucified people of history.” Dr. Cone likewise talks about the victims of lynching as the “recrucified.”

The word “impunity” does not appear directly in John’s Gospel, but I have found the word helpful as I contemplate the story. John wrote after the “destruction of the temple” in 70AD. For years I thought of that date as a historical marker. I thought of the stones being toppled. I hadn’t counted the human cost. In 70AD The Roman Emperor Vaspasian’s son Titus commanded a four month siege of Jerusalem. His 60,000 legionaries pushed through the walled city, until finally they made their way to the temple. By the time they breached the temple walls, Jerusalem resembled hell on earth. Thousands of bodies hung on the Mount of Olives and the surrounding hills, rotting in the the sun. Titus had ordered five hundred Jews crucified each day during the siege. They were running out of trees to make crosses when the temple was finally taken.

The Romans acted against the Jews with impunity, with no respect for life, no sense of consequences. John wrote his Gospel with these scenes in mind. John’s Gospel is particularly difficult because John simplified his language as he told the story. John talks about “the Jews” as one character. He glosses over the diversity of opinion in the Jewish community. Most Jews of Jesus’ day hated Rome, and hated the high priest and the official leaders who were seen as Rome’s stooges. Caiaphas, in the story wants to use Jesus as a scapegoat, to slake Rome’s thirst.

He and Pilate get in an argument, because Pilate’s motivation is to put down a Jewish King. Pilate, in the story wants to demonstrate power. The motivations are complex in a state acting with impunity.

As I said on Sunday, there is a reason we take the role of the crowd as we tell this story. As hard as it is to shout “crucify him,” I believe it is important that we own these words. For centuries Christians terrorized and murdered Jewish people. Christians acted with impunity against their Jewish neighbors, and used John’s Passion as a rationale. We need to own the words so we don’t support this Antisemitism.

But we also need these words because we are a diverse church in a majority white denomination. We must wrestle with our history, with the present reality, of White Supremacy. As Dr. Cone wrote, the cross is about identity. Until we can identify Jesus with the black bodies who were hung from trees, burned, shot, killed with impunity, until we can identify Jesus with those who have been terrorized, we will not understand what it means to be Christian in America.

This brings me to a bit of grammar. So much has been written about a preposition when it comes to the cross. Theologians in Europe and America have spent centuries talking about the word “for,” that word that appears in our Nicene Creed. What does it mean to say, “Jesus was crucified FOR” us? Much has been written, though no church or theologian has ever settled the question.

Black liberation theology, and Latin American liberation theology hold a key to understanding the story of the crucifixion. Yes, we say that Christ died for us, but another preposition has been more important in the black church, and in the churches of Latin America: “with.”

In Jesus, God chose to be with the suffering, with the victims, with the crucified of history. In response to the terror of Rome, Pilate chooses demonstrations of power, Caiaphas chooses a scapegoat. Jesus chooses to suffer with the people.

“Jesus suffers with us,” the black church preaches. Jesus died with those who were lynched of Mississippi and Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, and California. Jesus dies with every person put to death by a perversion of justice. Jesus dies every day with those who are killed in North St. Louis. Jesus died with that little disabled boy in El Salvador murdered by the police. Yes Jesus died for them, but we understand his death for them because Jesus died with them. Jesus is one of history’s victims.

Prepositions matter, because the story of the Passion is the center of the Christian story. Jesus’ cross means that those who are victims and those who are willing to put their lives on the line for justice, for love, they do not suffer alone. Jesus is with them. Jesus is for them. Jesus walks with those who choose to challenge impunity.

The hope in Good Friday rests in the defiant spirit of Jesus. To the end he challenges the powers that be, he argues with Pilate, Jesus questions the high priest. Part of what makes Good Friday so terrible is that we must listen to this story and we stand powerless as witnesses.

But, the truth is, we are not powerless. We’re not. We can intervene. We say, as a church, that we seek to walk the way of Jesus. From the cross we learn that walking the way of Jesus is walking WITH people, walking with those who have been made victims. Walking with Jesus knows that when we suffer, we are not alone. Walking the way of Jesus means questioning systems of power and challenging cultures of impunity.

We will understand the cross when we walk with the victims. We will know the power of the cross when we see those who continue to be crucified, and we know that they are Christ, they are God’s beloved. We will know the power of Christ’s reconciling love, the power of Christ’s outstretched arms, when we know that Jesus’ saving embrace saves us by identifying with those who suffer.

Good Friday is a terrible day, and it is terribly hopeful. Because God does not abandon us, God suffers with us. Jesus walks the painful road, and invites us to walk along with him, to walk with the victims, to stand as witnesses to a way of love, a way of justice, a way of hope.

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