Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” – Abel Meeropol
When Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” this was not the fruit he had in mind.
Yet a look back through American Christian history will show white preachers proclaiming Biblical endorsement for slavery and lending moral sanction to the terrorism of lynching. In churches around the nation, the sanctuary regularly became a den of thieves and the sermon a rallying cry for a mob. After-church picnics were often the settings for the horrible spectacle of torturing, hanging, and burning African Americans, where people would gather from miles around and smile as their pictures were taken close to the swinging bodies. Photographs and postcards were conciliation for those who didn’t get trophies of fingers, ears, or other body parts.
This barbaric cruelty – manifest in slavery and lynching and underlying segregation — was a prominent face of American Christianity from before America became a nation until shockingly recently. While Christianity also proved to be a force of empowerment for African Americans who saw in the Gospel a message of comfort and liberation, a triumphalist, militant, white supremacist interpretation of scripture twisted the Good News into a weapon of mass destruction and wielded it against black bodies.
The rotten fruit of white supremacist Christianity has contaminated the soil in which new seeds of faith are planted. White supremacist ideology has yet to be fully uprooted, and thus continues to poison human relations and the Body of Christ itself.
Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of Goucher College, in her eye-opening examination of racism in American Christianity, What’s Faith Got To Do With It? Black Bodies, Christian Souls, wrestles with the question of whether there is something endemic to Christianity itself that makes it vulnerable to such manipulation as to twist a message of life into an instrument of death. What she found was that a platonized tradition (one that elevates the mind and soul above the body) mingled with an exclusivist theology and a cross (mis)understood as an instrument of God’s wrath produces a lethal cocktail. I want to dissect this cocktail and examine each component to expose the vulnerability of Christianity to racism among other forms of imperialism. Whereas Jesus radically overturns the traditional understanding of God’s power with self-giving love, enslavement to the love of power undermines the way of Jesus, turning hope to terror.
A Deadly Cocktail
Douglas describes the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity as being essentially anti-body and anti-sexual. Platonism elevated the soul over the body, while Stoic thought emphasized reason and sought to subdue passion. The dualistic divisions between body and soul and reason and passion were given a moral dimension when brought into relationship with the dominant understanding of the Judeo-Christian God. Thus, as Douglas maintains, the soul is divinized while the body is demonized. Such an understanding can lead to belief in a moral benefit or blessing to punishing or abusing the body.
While Christianity can be interpreted in such a way as to affirm the body and extend love to all, as I will explore later, scripture also leaves plenty of room for an interpretation that is harmful and destructive not only to the body, but to certain bodies in particular. Paul’s warnings against the works of the flesh, for example, in Galatians (“fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, etc.”), interpreted in light of a philosophy that already emphasizes the spiritual above the material, can serve to divide all people against their own bodies and be on guard against their desires, beyond necessary self-control to a stern distrust of the body. But in combination with a hermeneutic that so stringently divides good from evil, one that speaks of a “jealous God,” a “chosen people” and an exclusive salvation (“No one comes to the Father except through me”), the temptation to “other-ize” is given theological cover. And the belief that God embodied a particular person, with a particular shade of skin, can provoke a temptation to demonize those of other shades. A dualistic understanding of light and darkness on a symbolic level combined with white supremacist ideology reincarnates Jesus in a white body and demonizes those who do not share his physical image.
Finally, the utter cruelty with which the black body has been treated under a white supremacist interpretation of Christianity cannot be understood apart from the violence of scripture culminating in a punitive understanding of the cross. The ruthless power of an awesome and terrible God is highlighted in stories that speak of rigorous purity codes, harsh punishment for disobedience, and even divinely-mandated genocide. In these stories, God’s love is limited to an exclusive people, demonstrated in violent conquests over enemy others, and tempered by “discipline” that is sometimes deadly. A reading of scripture that takes claims of God’s violence at face value will interpret the cross in violent terms as well. A violent God, whose own Son’s death atones for the sins of some but not for all, can be invoked by some against others in all manners of torture, humiliation, and oppression. Combine that with an already devalued understanding of the body and a white supremacist hyper-sexualization of black people, and one can then see how white American Christianity could sanction the systematic enslavement, torture, and lynching of the black body. One can trace the strange fruit back to its poisoned roots.
Remnants of Racism
Christianity is thus dangerously vulnerable to deadly imperialistic interpretation. African Americans are by no means the only victims, but their victimization has particular qualities touched upon in this essay. The unholy alliance between white supremacy and Christianity is just one of many sources at the heart of the racism that has plagued our nation since its inception, but I maintain that the false Christian justification for the subjugation and degradation of black bodies is crucial to understanding race relations not only in the past, but in the present as well. While overtly racial prejudice may have waned, the roots of white supremacist theology still harm black bodies and the body of Christ. Religious devaluation of the body still combines with hyper-sexualized portrayals of African Americans in the media to devalue black people. An inequality of wealth and opportunity and a prison industrial complex that disproportionately targets African Americans segregates and isolates along racial lines, thus “other-izing” African Americans in the eyes of many whites. A judgmental hermeneutic that diminishes mercy and justifies violence effectively reinforces institutional racism and cloaks it in religious morality.
Seeds of Hope
Yet Christianity has also proven a healing balm and a source of dignity to African Americans. A hermeneutic that provides a “reading from below,” or, as James Alison would say, “the intelligence of the victim” exposes white supremacist Christianity as the antichrist incarnate by revealing God in solidarity with, rather than judgment of, victims of violence. Thus Christ is most revealed in those whose humanity has been denied. Dr. James Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, puts it eloquently:
I claim that no American Christian can understand completely the full theological meaning of the American Christ without identifying his image with the recrucified black body hanging from a lynching tree.
With the bitter fruit of white supremacist Christianity exposed and the image of Christ revealed in the black body, I would like to more deeply explore a healing hermeneutic, one that affirms the body, embraces all in love, and reveals the cross not as a instrument of God’s violence but as the subversion of human violence by God. I will do so in my next installment of my Dismantling Racism series when I meditate on the black body of Christ.