Today, we invite you to explore Jesus Christ’s death by way of James Cone’s prophetic meditation on the cross and the lynching tree; engage with the successes and limitations of the American bishops’ attempts to address racism with the help of Bryan Massingale; and embody Cone’s challenge to see the crucifixion as a lynching with the hopes that it helps us see the suffering caused by racism more clearly, with the help of Sister Thea Bowman, Catholics United for Black Lives, and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
You will prosper, my servant,
you will be raised up and highly exalted.
Even as the crowds were appalled after seeing you —
you were so disfigured as to no longer look human —
so will the crowds be amazed at you,
and rulers will stand speechless before you;
for they will see something never told
and witness something never heard,
“Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the might of YHWH been revealed?”
You grew up like a sapling before us,
like a root in parched soil.
There was no beauty in you, we saw you without esteem;
there was nothing to attract us.
You were rejected and despised by all;
you know suffering, and you are acquainted with sorrow.
People avoided your gaze;
we held you in low esteem.
Yet you bore our infirmities
and carried our suffering.
We thought you were being punished,
struck by YHWH, and brought low.
But you were pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon you lies a chastening which brings us wholeness,
and through your wounds we are healed.
All of us, like sheep, have gone astray:
each of us goes our own way.
But YHWH laid upon you
the guilt of us all.
Though treated harshly, you bore it humbly
and never opened your mouth.
You were like a lamb led to slaughter, or a sheep before shearers:
you were silent and never opened your mouth.
Taken by force and condemned,
who would ever have foreseen your destiny?
You were taken from the land of the living,
and fatally struck down for the sin of the people.
You were buried with the wicked
and entombed with the rich,
though you had done no wrong,
and deceit was not found in your mouth.
But YHWH was satisfied to crush you and put you to grief:
if you give your life as an atonement for sin
you will see your descendants,
you will prolong your days,
and the will of YHWH will prevail through you.
Through your suffering,
you will see contentment and light.
By your knowledge, my Righteous One, my servant,
you will justify many
by taking their guilt upon yourself.
Therefore, I will grant you a reward among the great,
and you will divide the spoils with the mighty;
for you surrendered yourself to death
and allowed yourself to be counted among the wicked,
while you were taking away the sins of many
and interceding for sinners.
Response: Abba-God! / I place my life in Your hands.
In You, Adonai, I take shelter; / never let me be disgraced.
In Your righteousness deliver me,
Into Your hands I commit my spirit, / You have redeemed me, Adonai.
R: Abba-God! / I place my life in Your hands.
To every one of my oppressors I am contemptible, / loathsome to my neighbors,
To my friends a thing of fear. / Those who see me in the street hurry past me;
I am forgotten, / as good as dead in their hearts, something discarded.
R: Abba-God! / I place my life in Your hands.
But I put my trust in You, Adonai, / I say, “You are my God.”
My days are in Your hands, / rescue me from the hands of my enemies and persecutors.
R: Abba-God! / I place my life in Your hands.
Let Your face smile on your faithful one, / save me in Your love.
Be strong, let your heart be bold, / all you who hope in Our God!
R: Abba-God! / I place my life in Your hands.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens
— Jesus, the Firstborn of God —
let us hold fast to our profession of faith.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and favor, and find help in time of need.
In the days when he was in the flesh,
Jesus offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God,
who was able to save him from death,
and Jesus was heard because of his reverence.
Firstborn though he was,
Jesus learned to obey through suffering.
But having been made perfect, Jesus became, for all who obey,
the source of eternal salvation.
NOTE: The Passion reading is divided into seven speaking roles:
5) Speaker One (cohort, guard, or soldiers)
6) Speaker Two (attendants or others)
7) Speaker Three (authorities or chief priests)
Where possible the roles should be distributed among seven readers. Where this is not pastorally possible,
the three Speaker roles could be proclaimed by a single person.
NARRATOR: After Jesus prayed for the disciples,
he left with them and crossed the Kidron Valley.
There was a garden there, and Jesus and the disciples entered it.
Judas, the traitor, knew the place well,
because Jesus often met there with his disciples.
Judas led the Roman cohort to the place,
along with some Temple guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.
All were armed and carried lanterns and torches.
Then Jesus, aware of everything that was going to take place,
stepped forward and said to them:
JESUS: Who are you looking for?
SPEAKER ONE: Are you Jesus of Nazareth?
JESUS: I am.
NARRATOR: Now Judas, the traitor, was with them.
When Jesus said, “I am,” they all drew back and fell to the ground.
Again, Jesus asked them:
JESUS: Who are you looking for?
SPEAKER ONE: Jesus of Nazareth.
JESUS: I have already told you that I am the one you want.
If I am the one you are looking for, let the others go.
NARRATOR: This was to fulfill what he had spoken:
“Of those you gave me, I have not lost a single one.”
Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it
and struck the high priest’s attendant, cutting off his right ear.
The name of the attendant was Malchus.
Jesus said to Peter:
JESUS: Put your sword back in its sheath.
Am I not to drink the cup Abba God has given me?
NARRATOR: Then the cohort and its captain and the Temple guards
seized and bound Jesus.
They took him first to Annas.
Annas was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.
It was Caiaphas who had advised the Temple authorities
that it was better to have one person die on behalf of the people.
Simon Peter and the other disciple followed Jesus.
This disciple, who was known to the high priest,
entered his courtyard with Jesus, while Peter hung back at the gate.
So the disciple known to the high priest went back
and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter inside.
The doorkeeper said:
SPEAKER TWO: Are you not one of this guy’s followers?
PETER: No, I am not.
NARRATOR: Now the night was cold,
so the attendants and guards had lit a charcoal fire and were warming themselves.
Peter was with them as well, keeping warm.
The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teachings.
JESUS: I have spoken publicly to everyone;
I have always taught in synagogues and in the Temple area
where the whole Jewish people congregates.
I have said nothing in secret.
So why do you question me?
Ask those who have heard me.
Ask them what I said to them — they know what I said.
NARRATOR: When Jesus said this, one of the guards standing by slapped him and said:
SPEAKER ONE: Is this how you answer the high priest?
JESUS: If I have said anything wrong, point it out;
but if I am right in what I said, why do you strike me?
NARRATOR: Then Annas sent him, still shackled, to Caiaphas the high priest.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there and warming himself.
Others asked him:
SPEAKER TWO: Are you not one of his disciples?
PETER: I am not.
NARRATOR: One of the attendants of the high priest,
a relative of the attendant whose ear Peter had severed, spoke up:
SPEAKER TWO: Did I not see you in the garden with him?
NARRATOR: Again, Peter denied it. At that moment a rooster crowed.
At daybreak, they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the Praetorium.
The Temple authorities did not enter the Praetorium,
for they would have become ritually unclean and unable to eat the Passover Seder.
So Pilate went out to them and asked:
PILATE: What charges do you bring against this person?
SPEAKER THREE: We would not have brought him to you if he were not a criminal.
PILATE: Take him yourselves, and judge him by your own Law.
SPEAKER THREE: We do not have the power to put anyone to death.
NARRATOR: This was to fulfill what Jesus had said about the way he was going to die.
So Pilate reentered the Praetorium and summoned Jesus:
PILATE: Are you the King of the Jews?
JESUS: Do you say this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?
PILATE: Am I Jewish? It is your own people and the chief priests
who hand you over to me.
What have you done?
JESUS: My realm is not of this world;
if it belonged to this world, my people would have fought
to keep me out of the hands of the Temple authorities.
No, my realm is not of this world.
PILATE: So you are a King?
JESUS: You say I am a king.
I was born and came into the world for one purpose
— to bear witness to the truth.
Everyone who seeks the truth hears my voice.
PILATE: Truth? What is truth?
NARRATOR: With that, Pilate went outside and spoke to the people:
PILATE: I find no guilt in him.
But, according to your custom, I always release a prisoner at the Passover.
Do you want me to release the ‘King of the Jews’?
NARRATOR: They answered:
ALL: Not him. We want Barabbas!
NARRATOR: Barabbas was a robber.
So Pilate ordered that Jesus be flogged.
Then the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and put it on his head,
and dressed him in a purple robe.
They went up to him repeatedly and said:
SPEAKER ONE: All hail the King of the Jews!
NARRATOR: And they struck him in the face.
Pilate came outside once more and said to the crowd:
PILATE: Look, I will bring him out here to make you understand that I find no guilt in him.
NARRATOR: So Jesus came out wearing the purple robe and the crown of thorns,
and Pilate said:
PILATE: Look upon the one you accuse!
NARRATOR: When the chief priests and the Temple guards saw Jesus, they shouted:
ALL: Crucify him! Crucify him!
PILATE: Do it yourself. I find no reason to condemn him.
SPEAKER THREE: We have a law that says he ought to die
because he claimed to be the Only Begotten of God.
NARRATOR: When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid.
He went back into the Praetorium and asked Jesus:
PILATE: Where do you come from?
NARRATOR: Jesus did not answer.
PILATE: You refuse to speak?
Bear in mind that I have the power to release you —
and the power to crucify you.
JESUS: You would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you by God.
Therefore the person who handed me over to you has the greater sin.
NARRATOR: Upon hearing this, Pilate sought to set Jesus free.
But the crowd shouted:
ALL: If you set him free, you are no ‘friend of Caesar.’
Anyone who claims to be a king defies Caesar.
NARRATOR: Hearing these words, Pilate took Jesus outside
and seated himself on the judge’s seat at the place called the Pavement
— “Gabbatha,” in Hebrew.
Now it was almost noon on Preparation Day for the Passover.
Pilate said to the people:
PILATE: Here is your king!
ALL: Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!
PILATE: Do you want me to crucify your king?
SPEAKER THREE: We have no king but Caesar!
NARRATOR: Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus, carrying his own cross,
to what is called the Place of the Skull — in Hebrew, “Golgotha.”
There they crucified him, along with two others, one on either side of Jesus.
Pilate wrote a notice and had it put on the cross; it read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
The notice, in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, was read by many people,
because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.
The chief priests said to Pilate:
SPEAKER THREE: Do not write ‘King of the Jews,’
but, ‘This one said, I am King of the Jews.’
PILATE: I have written what I have written.
NARRATOR: After the soldiers had crucified Jesus,
they took his clothing and divided it into four pieces,
one piece for each soldier.
They also took the seamless robe.
The soldiers said to one another:
SPEAKER ONE: Let us not tear it. We can throw dice to see who will get it.
NARRATOR: This happened in order to fulfill the scripture,
“They divided my garments among them,
and for my clothing, they cast lots.”
And this is what they did.
Standing close to Jesus’ cross were his mother;
his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary of Magdala.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there,
he said to his mother:
JESUS: Here is your son.
NARRATOR: Then he said to his disciple:
JESUS: Here is your mother.
NARRATOR: From that moment, the disciple took her into his household.
After this, Jesus knew that now all was completed,
and to fulfill scripture perfectly, he said:
JESUS: I am thirsty.
NARRATOR: There was a jar of cheap wine nearby,
so they put a sponge soaked in the wine on a hyssop stick
and raised it to his lips.
Jesus took the wine and said:
JESUS: It is finished.
NARRATOR: Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was Preparation Day,
the Temple authorities asked Pilate
to let them to break the legs of those crucified,
and take their bodies from the crosses.
They requested this to prevent the bodies
remaining on the cross during the Sabbath,
since that particular Sabbath was a solemn feast day.
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first one
and then the other who had been crucified with Jesus.
But when they came to Jesus, they found that he was already dead,
so they did not break his legs.
One of the soldiers, however, pierced Jesus’ side with a lance,
and immediately blood and water poured out.
This testimony has been given by an eyewitness whose word is reliable;
the witness knows that this testimony is the truth, so that you will believe.
These things were done to fulfill the scripture,
“Not one of his bones will be broken.”
And again, another scripture says,
“They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus
— but a secret one, for fear of the Temple authorities —
asked Pilate for permission to remove the body of Jesus,
and Pilate granted it.
So Joseph came and took it away.
Nicodemus came as well
— the same one who had first come to Jesus by night —
and he brought about one hundred pounds of spices,
a mixture of myrrh and aloes.
They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths,
according to the Jewish burial custom.
There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been crucified,
and in the garden was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried.
Since it was the day before the Sabbath and the tomb was nearby,
they buried Jesus there.
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone puts white supremacy’s terrorizing symbol of the lynching tree into correlation with Christianity’s central symbol of the cross. Known as the originator of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone spent his career writing about the Black experience, but had never before engaged lynching because, as he states in the introduction, it had been too painful. Finally doing so was a wrenching, but ultimately liberating experience for him: “The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross” (xviii).
The central challenge offered by Cone is that we must view Jesus’s crucifixion as a lyching, and we must learn to see Jesus in the lynched black people who are the victims of racial violence. Cone believes that doing so will simultaneously confront two damaging tendencies of the contemporary church:
Cone begins with a harrowing overview of the reality of Jim Crow, where whites used lynching as way to constantly reaffirm their own dominance, and to remind African Americans of their “inferiority and powerlessness” (7). Cone describes the chilling reality that there was theological justification for lynching, and that extralegal violence as a means of controlling and terrorizing the Black population “was grounded in the religious belief that America is a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black’”(7).
This theological justification for lynching was met by near total theological silence, even by progressive theologians who were outspoken about racism, such as Reinhold Niebuhr. Cone suggests that guilt, shame, fear, and unwillingness to confront the full truth of white supremacy are the reasons theologians avoided the subject of lynching.
The Black Church, however, innately understood the Christological (meaning relation to Jesus Christ) implications of lyching, which is clear in the Church’s hymns and spirituals. Black religious imagination found solace in the cross, understanding it to be a statement of God’s solidarity with the poor black people on the lynching tree, for “the symbol of the cross spoke to the lives of blacks because the likeness between the cross and the lynching tree created an eerie feeling of mystery and the supernatural” (75). Additionally, the redemption of the cross meant that slavery and the lynching tree do not have the final word about the identity of Black people. Thus, it is no surprise that the Civil Rights Movement emerged out of the Black Church: “It was Jesus’ cross that sent people protesting in the streets, seeking to change the social structures of racial oppression” (28).
Cone also examines the work of artists – Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and others – who made the explicit connection between lynched black people and Jesus on the cross, even as theologians did not. Cone concludes with a powerful meditation on the cross, urging us to open our eyes to Jesus Christ’s lynching, which will simultaneously help us see the cross for what it really is, and bring God’s redemptive power to the suffering caused by racism:
The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering – to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor” (Cone, 162-163).
American Catholic Social Teaching is woefully inadequate on the subject of racism. As theologian Bryan Massingale says in his essential book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, “Perhaps the most remarkable thing to note concerning U.S. Catholic social teaching on racism is how little there is to note” (43). Massingale goes on to observe that there have only been a handful of documents devoted to racism from the American bishops, which tend to be short and light on rigorous social analysis compared to pastoral letters devoted to other social issues.
Since Massingale wrote those words in 2010, the problem of racism in the United States became increasingly impossible to ignore with the emergence of the Alt-Right and a seemingly never-ending spate of highly publicized police shootings of unarmed Black men. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) responded in 2018 with a pastoral letter devoted to racism called “Open Wide Our Hearts.”
The document calls for “a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society” (7). In its analysis of racism in America, it goes farther and deeper than prior documents, acknowledging that, “Too many good and faithful Catholics remain unaware of the connection between institutional racism and the continued erosion of the sanctity of life. We are not finished with the work” (10).
However, it still does not go far enough, and Massingale’s stinging critique still rings true: like its predecessors, this document “suffers from a lack of passion,” and feels as though “Catholic engagement with racism is a matter of low institutional commitment, priority, and importance” (77). It does acknowledge the evils of systemic racism and violence, but quickly provides counterexamples of all the Catholics who have defended the rights of people of color (12, 14). There is an “Acknowledging Sin” section, in which it admits that the Catholic Church has been “complicit in the evil of racism” (21), but it is only three paragraphs long and appears near the end of the document.
Perhaps most tellingly, “Open Wide Our Hearts” is very self-referential, with nearly all its citations referencing other ecclesial documents, such that its account of racism feels disembodied and abstract. Despite a call for the Church to “listen to each other’s experiences” (25) in order to grow, the USCCB apparently did not heed its own advice, as there are no voices of people of color referenced in the document anywhere.
Massingale believes that beyond the official Church documents, the Catholic tradition does provide significant resources for the task of racial justice, such as the practice of lament, compassion, and solidarity, all of which could guide the Church toward a more honest engagement that can truly open our hearts to people of color. Finally, in that spirit of open heartedness, Massingale suggests that the Catholic Church learn from Black religious experience, particularly its understanding of community and hope, and its “emphatic insistence upon and unreserved commitment to the principle of the freedom and equality of all persons under God” (133).
The centerpiece of the Good Friday liturgy is the adoration of the cross, when the congregation processes up to the front of the church to kiss the image of the crucified Christ. This beautiful ritual is sorrowful and solemn, but perhaps has lost some of the horror of the actual historical event of Jesus’s public torture and state execution when, as James Cone reminds us, Jesus’s crucifixion was a lynching – a public act of violence perpetrated by a colonizing Roman power, with the intention of instilling terror.
We invite you this Good Friday to heed James Cone’s exhortation to look at Jesus on the cross and see a lynched person. How many of us who process up the aisle to adore the cross with a heavy but grateful heart also turn away from the image of George Floyd being killed? Or Ahmaud Arbery? Or Philando Castile? Let us bring our brothers and sisters who are the victims of the violence of racism into our prayers, with the hopes that if we see them on Christ’s cross, then we can learn to better see Christ in them.
Know their names: Black people killed by the police in the US
Sister Thea Bowman was an African-American nun who tirelessly strove for racial reconciliation, and successfully brought sorely needed visibility to African-American culture and people in the Catholic Church.
Born in 1937 in Jackson, Mississippi, Bowman converted to Catholicism at age nine. She grew up during Jim Crow and thus had to learn to navigate a world riven by segregation and racism. She also grew up in the heart of “her African-American culture and spirituality, most especially the history, stories, songs, prayers, customs and traditions. Moreover, she was cognizant that God loved and provided for the poor and the oppressed. Her community instructed her, ‘If you get, give – if you learn, teach.’ These life lessons instilled in her an abiding love for God and to be charitable toward those most in need” (“Biography” from www.sister thea bowman.com).
Bowman became a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the only African American in her community of sisters. Vatican II’s liturgical reforms allowed her to explore African-American heritage and spirituality in the context of her religious life, an exploration which bore fruit for the whole Church when she returned home to become the director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson. There she fought against racism and advocated for cultural understanding.
Recognized for her holiness by all who knew her, she died in 1990. In 2018, the U.S. bishops endorsed her cause for sainthood.
Watch her rousing speech to the U.S. Bishops:
For more information:
Catholics United for Black Lives (CUBL) was founded as a response to the “tragic and demoralizing social and racial environment of 2020.” It was founded by Black Catholics who “have sought community online as a means to cope with the effects of trauma, loss and frustration” (“About”). CUBL mines the Catholic tradition for resources for resisting racism in society, but also in the Church itself; it recognizes the racism within the Church and seeks to use the solidarity found in community to push the Church to live up to its own values and to better apply its own social teaching to Black lives. They offer support and resources to Catholic ministers, activists, and other gadflys who are interested in sharing their mission:
We are faithful Eucharistic Catholics who wish to evangelize the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of our beloved Church. We hold to a consistent life ethic, and will work through direct action and evangelization to advance the dignity, sacredness, and value of every black life from conception to natural death with no exceptions (“About”).
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the great American songs of the 20th century. Written in the midst of Jim Crow and first sung in 1939, it is as unsettling and powerful a protest song as has ever been written, unnervingly poetic as it describes a lynching. In the effort to feel closer to Christ on the cross this Good Friday, “Strange Fruit” would be a fitting and effective place to start. James Cone comments in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
Just as the old slave spiritual ‘Were You There?’ placed black Christians at the foot of Jesus’s cross, ‘Strange Fruit’ put them at the foot of the lynching tree. Both songs created a dark and somber mood. One was sung in a church and the other in a nightclub, but both addressed the deep-down hurt that blacks felt and gave them a a way to deal with it…Billie’s ‘Strange Fruit’ elicits reverence for the dead from blacks and terrible guilt from whites who still reap privileges from the society that lynching created” (137, 138).