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Lynching Then and Lynching Now: Racial Justice as Christian Imperative

May 7th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Malcolm Foley

The United States has a long history of racial terror lynchings. Particularly from the Civil War until this day, thousands of Black men, women and children have been indiscriminately killed for a myriad of reasons. When that killing took place at the hands of 3 or more, it was called a lynching. In attempts to address the phenomenon legally, the definition of the term has been restricted, particularly by the NAACP, to be a killing in which the killers acted under the pretext of justice, their race, or tradition.

If this is in fact the definition of lynching, Ahmaud Arbery was undeniably lynched.

But Black communities (and anyone familiar with this history) do not need that definition to see the resonance and to feel the terror that comes with reading such a story.

The same feeling wracked communities in Montgomery, Alabama on July 25, 1917 when Will and Jesse Powell were lynched to a tree for brushing against a farmer’s horse.

That same feeling wracked communities in Missouri and Arkansas in June, 1926, when Albert Blades, 22, was hanged and burned for attacking a small white girl. Evidence actually suggests, however, that he was merely present at a picnic grounds where this girl was playing with her friend and she was startled by his presence.

That same feeling wracked communities in Texas and around the country when Botham Jean was murdered in his own apartment.

The message was the same then as it is now: if you “fit the description”, you are not safe to walk. You are not safe to sit in your own apartment. You are not safe to run outside. Such is the purpose of racial terror lynchings, both now and historically.

So then the question remains: what ought we do about it? To answer that question, as both a historian and someone who is fundamentally devoted to the body of Christ in such work, I must answer that question by answering these questions: how has the body of Christ failed to do such work and how can we do better?

The first, most important and most hopeful thing to know is that the body of Christ has not been silent. But it is equally important to know that the voices have been those of Black Christians, often manifesting as Isaianic and Johannine cries in the wilderness against white supremacy, defined in this piece as the thoughts, words, acts and systems that suggest and enforce white superiority. Henry McNeal Turner, Ida B. Wells, and Francis Grimke are but a few of the names of those prophetic voices and we will return to them at the end of this piece. But when one looks to the mouths of white Christians in the history of lynching, however, one must prepare for profound disappointment.

In a response to one of the most brutal lynchings in American history, the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, Bishop Atticus Haygood of the Methodist Episcopal Church South penned an editorial titled, “The Black Shadow in the South”, to explain why Smith had been burned alive. In that editorial, he hit many of the points that we recognize today in coverage of police shootings of unarmed black men and women. He framed the burning alive of Henry Smith as a communal act of self-defense tinged with moments of collective, temporary insanity to justify the brutality. Smith had been accused of rape and murder but hundreds of others were accused of much lesser offenses ranging from bumping a white person’s shoulder to “being saucy” to nothing at all. If you want to read those stories, read Ida B. Wells’ A Red Record and Southern Horrors.

But in the stories of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson and others, we constantly hear this justification: that somehow murder is the proportionate response to one’s discomfort. Post-hoc rationalization also kicks in. For lynching defenders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was the claim that even if the executed man or woman wasn’t guilty of the crime of which they were accused, they were guilty of something. Today, it is the clause at the end of every news story outlining the criminal record of the murdered.

But it was the case and is the case now that at the time of such murders, no such details were known about the victims. All that was known was their color. And throughout American history, that has been sufficient for a death sentence.

The continuing voice that issued from white pulpits, insofar as it addressed lynching at all, was a voice of justification, often tinged with explicit theology. In 1903, Robert Elwood, pastor of Olivet Presbyterian church, preached 1 Corinthians 5:13, “God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you,” as an explicit warrant to lynch George White quickly. Haygood hemmed and hawed his way into trying to find some way to explain why a crowd of thousands would torture Henry Smith for an hour with red hot iron brands, burn out his eyes, thrust the irons down his throat and burn him. Instead of naming, hating and resisting evil, the first impulse was to somehow explain it. Some of us share that impulse and often, that is precisely the space of indecision and inaction in which our true enemies according to the Apostle, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers, move.

So then what can we do moving forward? Is there still a way for the church of Christ to be a beacon of hope in the midst of the encroaching and oppressive darkness of white supremacy? There are two: we must read our Bibles differently and we must act in our world differently.

Being a confessional Presbyterian, I have found much hope and beauty in the Westminster Standards. When asked why I, as a black man, attempt to remain in a communion which historically was the architect of my ancestors’ enslavement, I respond that I am so because of its doctrine and polity and in direct resistance to its history. When I read Question 135 of the Westminster Larger Catechism and I consider what it means to “resist all thoughts and purposes, subdue all passions and avoid all occasions, temptations and practices that tend toward the unjust taking away the life of any,” my mind immediately moves to antiracist resistance. The sixth commandment calls us to much more than that, but it does not call us to less. It is not enough for us not to murder one another. We must actively support one another’s lives.

This means that our interaction with the Scriptures must be fundamentally shaped by the commands which Christ has given us: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves. This means that when we consider the Gospel, we must be reminded that the good news of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return is personal, communal, and cosmic good news. It means that our actions and priorities ought to be shaped and dictated by the prophets, Christ and the apostles, who unanimously saw the two great abrogations of those two commands as idolatry and the oppression of the poor.

This means that when we confess our sins to one another, those must be our categories. This means that when we look to our theologians, preachers, and exegetes, we ought to expect to come to a deeper understanding of how we are idolaters and how our thoughts, words, and deeds tend toward the oppression of our neighbors. We ought to weep and repent. Then we ought to consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

This means that when we consider the poor, however, we must consider not only those who are materially poor, but those whom society has treated as inferior. In the American context, race has been the most oft-used weapon of oppressive war; thus, Christ’s church has a particular responsibility to beat that sword into a plowshare and seek to heal the wounds that weaponized racialization has wrought. Battling an enemy like weaponized racialization requires us to use all of the resources we have at hand, whether they be moral reasoning, history, sociology, biblical interpretation, theology, or activism, to see it weakened and defeated.

White supremacy, in a move that is typical of sin, has erected walls of protection around itself, to the point that some think that it is reasonable for two armed white men to demand that a jogging black man stop for them and then for them to shoot him, as they did with Ahmaud Arbery. Such evil walls of protection then produce and reinforce a society in which such men are not only used to getting their way, but also are assured by their communities that there will be no consequences because Black life is continually diminished. It must be a priority of the Christian, then, to see the dismantling of such walls of protection.

This means, yes, you’re going to have to get political. I have already said everything I need to say about “social justice” elsewhere. You and I are going to have to mobilize the political capital we have to be obedient to Christ’s command. If it is true that we are to set ourselves carefully and constantly against that which kills our neighbors, you and I must vocally resist the thoughts, words, actions, and systems that prop up white superiority and denigrate Black humanity.

We must interrogate and dismantle the narratives of Black criminality that give people the overweening confidence to go out and murder a man because they think he fits a description. We must assure the endangered brothers and sisters in our midst that we are members of one another. If we have truly been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, then when one of us suffers, the whole Body suffers.

Lynching was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and it still happens. There is no comforting or redeeming end to this history. White supremacist violence can only be described as demonic: for its resilience is supernatural. While men and women are no longer being burned alive in front of crowds of thousands, the fear of unjust death still remains for every Black family in this country and there seems to be no place of refuge. But it is only this way because people have made it so.

Thus if the American Christian wishes to live out the gospel they claim to believe, they must seek racial justice in their personal relationships and in the world around them. Anything less crucifies the Savior anew and puts him to open shame. We have tasted of God’s indiscriminate grace and mercy. To justify death with subtle manifestations of partiality, greed, and pride is to, by our actions, deny the person and work of Christ. That is admittedly strong language, but it is not unprecedented, as I follow in the line of Black Christian anti-lynching thought and work. As Francis Grimke so aptly put it, “race prejudice can’t be talked down; it must be lived down,” and Black people have been trying to live it down ever since it reared its infernal head. It’s about time that the universal Church joined us in that endeavor. Lives have been, are, and will be at stake.

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