The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I suspect that many of us at Plymouth don’t particularly like talking about the cross and crucifixion. It can be hard for us to make sense of it today, just as it was in the first century when Paul wrote, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” And yet, when you look at the predominant symbol of Christianity, when you look at the front of Plymouth’s sanctuary, you see the cross, an ignominious and horrific means of execution employed by the Roman Empire. And we know that Jesus died a tortured and shameful death upon a cross.
I need to tell you something: I do not fully understand the meaning of the cross. Yes, I’ve been to seminary. Yes, I’ve been ordained for a couple of decades. Yes, I’m a pretty bright guy. But there is an aspect of the cross that I may never understand.
I get it that Jesus was put to death by Rome because he was a threat, a political agitator who proclaimed a radical regime change that he called the kingdom of God. I see the collaboration of the religious authorities and the scribes. I understand that early Christians explained the cross in the context of Isaiah’s prophesy of the suffering servant. But I still don’t understand it on a visceral level, because I am a white man in America who lives with incredible privilege, including the privilege of not having lived the connection, the echoes, the resonance of the cross and the lynching tree.
Jane Anne tells a story that during her ordination process, she included a bit more about the theology of the cross than most candidates and it made some people uncomfortable, and that one of her defenders was a saint of the UCC, the Rev. Clyde Miller, who was our conference minister for 13 years. As a Black man raised in the South, Clyde understood the cross and its significance for the Black church in this country. He had an intimate understanding of the cross as God’s critique of the powers of this world and the way that God can turn suffering and defeat into victory.
I don’t know how aware you are of the history of lynching in our country or if you’ve ever thought of it as a system of tacitly legitimized terror perpetrated by white Americans against our Black sisters and brothers. Even into the 1920s, anti-lynching bills passed by the US House of Representatives were defeated repeatedly by a solid bloc of Southern Democrats in the Senate, and the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was finally passed by the House 366 days ago, on February 27 last year…but it was held up by the Senators Paul and McConnell from Kentucky, and it died with that session of Congress. What does that say to our African-American sisters and brothers in the wake of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery who was shot and killed while jogging by two armed white men in a suburb of Atlanta? Doesn’t it say, “We still think it’s okay if Black lives are forfeit?” Doesn’t it say, “Black lives don’t really matter?” And lynching Black Americans wasn’t just a southern phenomenon, though the vast majority of lynchings occurred there; in 1900, John Porter, a 15-year-old Black adolescent was lynched in Limon, Colorado…he was burned alive.
Theologian James Cone writes, “If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population — slavery, segregation, and lynching — then they might be about to understand what is coming at them from others. Black people know something about terror because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree.”
Have you ever thought about the crucifixion as a lynching? About Jesus as the “victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence?” I invite you to use your imagination and try to walk for at least a few yards in the shoes of Black Americans who saw the lynching tree as the ultimate symbol of terror. You’ve seen the horrific photos of crowds of white terrorists, sometimes with their children, gathered around the mutilated body of a Black man or woman hanging from a tree or the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till looking at her son’s disfigured body in a casket. It wasn’t simply a death, but a visible message about white supremacy. New Testament scholar Paula Fredrickson says that crucifixion in ancient Rome was analogous to lynching in the United States. “Crucifixion,” she writes, “was a form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”
James Cone continues, “Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history.” That understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion is difficult for white Christians to fully understand. Black liberation theology sees the experience of Black Americans as a permanent underclass resonate with the experience of Jesus, a Jew who lived under Roman occupation and suffered its institutional violence.
“If the American empire has any similarities with that of Rome,” he writes, “can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of a black man on the lynching tree? Can American Christians see the reality of Jesus’ cross without seeing it as the lynching tree?” Can you see the cross as a reflection of the lynching tree? When you come back to Plymouth, I hope that when you see the large wooden cross in our sanctuary, you will pause and consider that.
Dr. Cone writes, “It has always been difficult for white people to empathize fully with the experience of black people. But it has never been impossible.” I invite my white sisters and brothers to work at empathizing…especially when it is deeply disturbing.
As we continue our journey through Lent together, may you take time to ponder the cross…what it means for you, what it means for Black Christians, and how it informs your faith in God.
If we really stand up for God’s kingdom of justice, of the first being last and the last being first, it is likely going to cause some turbulence for you and for your church. If we are going to make “good trouble,” as the late Congressman John Lewis said, we have to be prepared for the consequences.
I invite you also to consider what it means for you to take whatever privilege you have in this life and be willing to forfeit it for the sake of the gospel. What are you willing to risk for God’s liberating reign, here and now and still unfolding? Will you take up the cross and follow Jesus?
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 1 Corinthians 1.22-23 (NRSV)
 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), p. 16.
 Paula Frederickson, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. (NY: Vintage, 200), pp. 233-34.
 Cone, op. cit., p. 33.
 Cone, op. cit., p. 64
 Cone, op. cit., p. 49
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.