The 2013 Theology & Peace conference, "Lynching, Scapegoating and Actual Innocence," just concluded in Chapel Hill N.C. Our reflections were led by two black theologians and one white. It was a life-changing experience for the racially mixed group which attended. Here is a first response after our return.
Ah, dear God, no! Suddenly those images appear in my head.
Drifting into view between moments of sleep and awaking. Not a dream but a daylight nightmare. Hateful historical postcards from the heartland.
Ah, my white soul, my massacring white soul. Where can I go to get away from you?
In the old spiritualized, immaterial, Greek sense that soul of course is colorless. But as Kelly Douglas Brown showed us so convincingly this theory actually became a cover story, a philosophical fiction playing out in the real world with terrible consequences of white privilege and violence. The Greek soul belongs to a heavenly, higher, perfect realm of “light”. A white body bespeaks something closer, “nearer” to this heavenly space. While something black, the color of the earth, must be lower, inferior, perhaps not even having a soul at all, just a body. A black body.
Ah, my platonized Christianity, what horror!
Up there, as Julia Robinson showed us in so many mind-rending slides, swinging between the bright sky and the dark earth is the black body, beaten, tortured, monstrous, surrounded by a host of onlookers, white in their white-souled innocence. A holocaust offering of sheer meat for a platonic god who is also a sacrifice-demanding wrathful deity. For, after all, this god needed the death of his very own son as a displacement for universal divine wrath, so why not demand the death of these expendable black bodies for instances of human wrath? It was ever the one and same cultural frame.
Meanwhile, all the other black bodies know in their hearts and memories it could have been them as the selected victim.
Oh, body and soul, where will we go to find freedom?
Where indeed! Black theology allied to Girardian theory shows us that the God of Jesus has always been with the black body suspended lynched and crucified on a tree. That’s the point, and it always was the point, and now the whole post-platonic community of Jesus is beginning to understand this, white and black. White because Jesus reveals the victim and undoes all the violence fastened upon him or her, and now the meaning of Christianity is not to get to an ethereal otherworld, but to transform the violent material existence of this one. Black because as James Cone wrote “’Calvary’…was (always) redemption from the terror of the lynching tree.” “Oh see my Jesus hanging high” Black Christians sang, and they knew that Jesus’ death already transformed their body terrors, and by extension those of all other human victims.
Lynchings are now faith, in the strange paradoxical, subversive language of the gospel, and they are faith for black and white alike. They are a faith which leaps beyond the dangling monster on the tree into a radical future of life. Because Jesus was the first monster: for the temple authorities—“He has blasphemed”; for the emperor—“There is no king but Caesar”; for the ungovernable crowd—“Crucify him!” But for the God who raised him from the dead he was the beloved Servant and Lord of creation, of a new creation without violence, without victims.
The Black body knew this truth, despite Anselm, despite Calvin, and before Girard. This for me was the great discovery of our conference. From now on Theology & Peace cannot go forward without the active participation and leadership of people of color. (This was already evident in the splendid election of Julia Robinson to our board!) The black body experience has become an icon and pathway for the transformative post-platonic Christian faith that we long to build.