So That No One Would Laugh at the Church Pt. 3

KKK Jesus Saves
Slavery, Lynching and Memphis

Terrorizing the “other” for the sake of “peace” has played a large role in the formation of the United States. Since its beginnings, the U.S. has forced African people and their descendants to accept the logic that they are subpar, subservient and subhuman. Not surprisingly with a story such as this, citizens and leaders have been inculcated in a mentality of denial concerning U.S. fortune and the ways the U.S. has directly benefited from the plundering of black bodies. Indeed, Belinda Royal[1] petitioning the commonwealth of Massachusetts to unshackle her manacles is just as much a part of American history as George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River to resist British tyranny. Yet the former story is less known while the latter narrative retains a sort of nostalgic mysticism.

This is perhaps why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent treatise is so devastating. In his The Case for Reparations, Coates rejects an ahistorical account of U.S. history and in so doing, exposes the way “democracy” and “freedom” came to thrive in America. Coates suggests that, “The destruction [of black persons] was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy.”[2] Coates explicitly depicts this phenomenon as he explains

Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.[3]

Consequently, says Coates, slaves became “America’s indispensable working class exist[ing] as property beyond the realm of politics, leaving white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values.”[4] One can then imagine the problem that was presented, specifically to the Southern States, upon the end of the Civil War as the abolition of slavery was to be observed by all states. Not only did the freedom of black persons present an economic problem, but their liberty also struck a nerve in way of challenging the axiom of white supremacy. This being the case, certain groups took it upon themselves to erect a social order where slavery found its replacement in macabre acts terrorism.

Lynching, specifically from 1880-1940, would serve as the ominous vehicle of judgment for blacks who needed to be reminded of their place in the new South. Whether it was the KKK or an entire town, the lynching of black bodies served as a way for whites to posture themselves as superior to blacks. Moreover, these lynchings took on a sort of ritualistic and sacrificial tone as they tended to bring about a sort of comradery for whites. Lynching became part of the moral, religious and social cohesion of the southern white culture.[5]

James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, gives a theological account of lynching in the United States. Cone cites Cole Blease, South Carolina’s former governor and senator saying that it was the “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of jury.”[6] Again, the theological language induced by Blease should not come as a surprise as Cone takes the entire first chapter of his book to demonstrate the ways that white Christians either passively or actively supported and participated in lynching dark persons.[7] These lynchings were ultimately preformed because whites believed themselves to be the purest embodiment of what it meant to be both American and Christian.

As noted earlier, blacks had, as far as whites were concerned, infringed on their “divine right” as the superior race. In his Redeeming Mulatto, Brian Bantum contends that whiteness is the very axis that propelled the pseudo-Christianity of America towards its sacramentalizing vigilante-terrorism for the sake of racial, religious and national purity.[8] Speaking of Christians who acquiesced to the racial logic of the day, Bantum unveils the edifice that made such logic possible as he suggests that it was “the religious structures of law, sacrifice, and initiation” that aided in maintaining the domination of dark bodies. These structures were most tangibly revealed in legal codes such as anti-miscegenation laws or sacrificial rites; the sacrificial rite that comes to the fore in Bantum’s mind is lynching.[9] Christian’s endorsement or silence during the lynching period of America leads Cone to rightly conclude that it is impossible for “a community [to] support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing in word and deed the one who was lynched by Rome.”[10] As one considers the above, the rampant racism and lackadaisical attitudes of culture Christians in America seemingly depicts a severe defeat. But for a charismatic and ambitious Baptist minister, reared in the black church, this apparent defeat would actually result in a “double victory.”[11]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the figurehead of the civil rights movement during the 1960’s. This was in part because of his profound commitment to racial reconciliation. However, it is important to note that in our modern milieu, King’s “dream” for a costly reconciliation has largely been domesticated. To domesticate King and his scathing critique of America’s racial logic is not only counterproductive but also dishonest. Pollyanna readings of King serve the dubious desires of American Christians, who wish for the sake of political couth, to keep the radicality of King’s message at arms length. Indeed, King is the perfect example of an “inconvenient hero.”[12]

King is perhaps best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech wherein he combines prophetic Christian symbolism with a form of American exceptionalism. King suggests, during his 1963 speech, that his dream for integration is in fact one that is “deeply rooted in the American dream.”[13] Yet king would reflect four years later in a sermon, during a Christmas Eve service, that his dream had become a “nightmare.”[14] Between King’s growing disillusion with the empty promises of prominent politicians and his ostracization due to his commitment to nonviolence, he began to view the U.S. in a negative light. King’s apocalyptic “nightmare” is connected to his keen observation that American exceptionalism perpetuated a racist mentality that found its manifestation in America’s ghettos and the Vietnam War. King’s shift is perhaps most obvious in a sermon he delivered in 1967, where he condemns America’s proclivity to default to violence in hopes of sowing peace. King instead suggests that peace can only arise through learning to place oneself in the position of the enemy.[15] Indeed, nonviolent enemy love was the overarching theme of King’s message. The principal of enemy love for King was not simply meant to stop at the borders of the U.S. but was meant to extend to all of God’s children. This message was quintessentially un-American.

On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. King’s genius lies in his social vision for the Church as an institution that embraces vulnerability in hopes to show an alternative way of existing in the world. For King, the tragedy of America’s racial logic provided an opportunity for Christians to take the lead in fostering relationships built on a sacrificial reconciliation. King’s “double victory” is demonstrated in the oppressor repenting and the oppressed learning how to forgive his tormentor. More than that, both should then seek ways to learn how to see one another as estranged family members in need of restoration. As should be clear, King had no interest in advocating for a flippant form of tolerance that might pass as “racial unity” in our day; rather, King insisted that Christians were to win over their enemies by personifying cruciformity. This was a message that King was faithful to until the end of his days.

Josiah R. Daniels

END NOTES:

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, May 21, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] This phenomenon, commonly known as scapegoating, has been a popular one throughout human civilization. René Girard, the preeminent voice in regards to scapegoat or mimetic theory, has written extensively on this topic. For example, see his The scapegoat. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

[6] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Reprint edition. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2011), 7.

[7] Ibid., 1-29.

[8] Brian Bantum, Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2010), 25.

[9] Ibid., 38.

[10] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 133.

[11] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reprint edition. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003), 257.

[12] Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008).

[13] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 219.

[14] Susan Bergman, Martyrs. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998), 116.

[15] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 237, 240-241.

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