Sanctification of the Lynching Tree

Rev. Corey L. Brown

The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana (1930)
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One of the most powerful books I have read is Dr. James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. For those of you not familiar with the book, it compares the plight of the enslaved Africans in America to the Roman Empire’s crucifixion of Christianity’s namesake. With Cone’s recent passing, he was able to articulate the theological relevance and its perpetuity, at least for the foreseeable future.

I was raised in the deep South, in southern Georgia, about as far as you can live without being in Florida. The summer months of riding and driving the backroads were filled with seeing acres and acres of farmland, owned by many former white slaveowners. How do I know that? Because at the end of the well-manicured, long tree-lined driveways are the stately manors. Because I was once a passenger on the buses rounding up workers from the black communities to work the fields, pick cotton or peas, crop tobacco, or pitch watermelons, I’ve had a tiny taste of slave labor. It was voluntary and I had to beg my parents to let me go because there was no need for me to go. No, I’m not that old and this was not in the 1950s; this was in the early 80s. If you travel through the South nowadays, you won’t see many black workers, but Latinx immigrants riding in former non-air-conditioned school buses to work the white man’s plantations which had been in his family for generations. Some of the longtime African American workers have made it to “overseer” status and are too old to work the fields, but drive the trucks and buses or operate processing equipment. Some farmers invest in the large equipment, but many of them had the attitude that “if their system of human-based farming isn’t broke, why fix it?” Besides, which undocumented migrant worker is going to report low wages and deplorable working conditions?

I remember acres and acres of peach and pecan trees. Tree farming requires much more of a time investment than farming cotton, peas or tobacco; it requires the farmer to not be totally invested in the harvest, but also in maintaining the source of the harvest, the trees. In the gardening/farming world, there’s a phenomenon called pruning. To the uninformed, pruning looks like the destruction of the plant or tree. Jesus’ Gospel teaching focuses on the actions of the Creator in cutting off and pruning of branches. Cutting and removal is reserved for non-producing branches, while pruning is removal of the extra or extraneous to make more room for the productive parts. Pruning is defined as cutting off or cutting back parts of a plant or tree for better shape or more fruitful growth.

Western Christianity’s sanctification of an instrument of torture hewn from a tree continues to the ever-present lynching tree. Just because decades have passed since the days of Strange Fruit (Abel Meeropol) hanging from the Poplar trees, it doesn’t mean the blood of black and brown bodies isn’t still saturating the roots and covering the leaves.

Government-sanctioned police action and radicalized “Stand Your Ground” fundamentalists summarily executing black and brown men, women, and children, keeping the blood flowing.

Modern lynching: Fatal shooting of Philando Castile by MN police officer
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The pruning process is effective in removing the ineffectual components of racism, things that don’t work anymore in the oppression of others. The pruning process is effective in reaping abundant harvests of racism that work for the time, for “such a time as this.” Today’s Trees of Racism are genetically modified and much heartier than the lynching trees of the Jim Crow Area. These trees can be dormant for years, appearing dead, then blooming after decades of hibernation.

In the words of Dr. King, “If not now, when” will the injustice end? It has to start in the church, the place that can reason with the unreasonable. As I have studied and been witness to the transformation of the Black Church to meet not only the spiritual needs of the African Diaspora from the height of the Atlantic slave trade to the Jim Crow era and to today’s continued oppression through intimidation, murder, and mass incarceration, I ask more of a rhetorical question, what transformation has taken place in the White church to embolden the stance against injustice towards black and brown bodies? Just as it is true that White Abolitionists wanted an end to slavery but never truly accepted the freed slaves as equal human beings in the eyes of the G-d they worshipped, there are voices in the White churches who cry out over the voice of the muted, unrepentant White Church institution which has sustained the systemic and institutional racism. How many lynching trees hang in White or majority White Christian sanctuaries?

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