I’m currently reading a fascinating book by James Cone, a former professor at Union Seminary, called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” The book covers a history of the cruel practice of lynching towards African Americans, especially after the abolishment of slavery in the 19th century. African Americans, especially in the South, suffered extreme injustice at the hands of white supremacists who sought to maintain control over what was thought be a racially inferior human race. Many African Americans were dehumanized, tortured, murdered and lived lives of fear as a result of this deplorable practice towards fellow human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
The book is eye opening, and a glimpse into a world that most white Americans have never considered, thought of, or walked in. The practice of lynching turned “the black dream of freedom into a nightmare ‘worse than slavery’… appropriately called ‘slavery by another name'” (p.5). The lynching tree that many African American brothers and sisters suffered through was “the most horrifying symbol of white supremacy in black life” (p.15).
But even in the midst of such extreme suffering, the lynching tree and the cross of Jesus Christ had parallels, one in which African Americans sought refuge and hope in during despair and fear. “African Americans embraced the story of Jesus, the crucified Christ, whose death they claimed paradoxically gave them life… While the lynching tree symbolized white power and ‘black death,’ the cross symbolized divine power and ‘black life’ – God overcoming the power of sin and death” (p.18). Upon those parallels, many African Americans maintained zeal and hope in overcoming such extreme injustice.
Black ministers proclaimed heartfelt truth and redemption found in Jesus. Through song, sermon and truth, people were able to bear witness to God’s redemptive presence in the midst of their push back to oppression. And here’s why. “Their sense of redemption through Jesus’ cross was not a propositional belief or a doctrine derived from the study of theology. Redemption was an amazing experience of salvation, an eschatological (future) promise of freedom that gave transcendent meaning to black lives that no lynching tree could take from them” (p.74-5).
That right there knocked my socks off.
While study of right theology is of utmost importance (2 Tim 2:15; 3:16-17), our theology is also intended to be experienced. How has my theology shaped my life experiences? How have I been changed through what I believe in life circumstances, good or bad? How has the reality of what Jesus came to do changed me, and continue to change me? How has it come to bear in some cases of extreme hardship and suffering that’s come down the pike of my soul? Can I testify to the fact that God has shown up in some tangible way, when I was at wits end?
Jesus’ apostle Paul was a beast and teaching and training the churches he planted in sound theology. He wanted them sound. It’s needed. And at the same time, Paul prayed for his friends that not only would they know it in the head, but they would experience it in the heart. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ep 3:14-19).
It’s through dwelling on the gospel, in the very best of days and the very worst of days, that our Christian faith becomes real and tangible. It becomes applicable and real when walked through the trials of life. And it has the power to develop a steadfastness through it all. So, here’s my prayer for a religion that’s subjective in my life. Let’s be strengthened by the grace that’s found in Christ. Let’s long to taste and see the goodness of God in all of life.