March 25, 2018
THE MARCH ON GOLGOTHA
In early 1893, a seventeen-year-old black boy named Henry Smith was accused of killing a three-year-old white girl. Nearly a week later a posse located Henry in, Arkansas, and returned him to Paris Florida by train. He was met at the station on February 1, 1893, by a mob of thousands of white people from across the state. Henry was placed on a carnival float and marched through the town to the county fairgrounds, where he was forced to mount a ten-foot-high platform. Henry was brutally tortured for nearly an hour in front of 10,000 people and then burned alive. According to anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, Henry pleaded innocence until the end. There were at least 4384 racial terror lynchings in the United States from 1877 to 1950.
It is uncomfortable to read about lynchings and even more uncomfortable to view the images of lynching postcards that were sent out to friends and family. I chose not to put those pictures on screen but you can do an easy search on google images. Lynchings were social events for men, women and sometimes even families particularly in the south; thus racism was generationally perpetuated. It is uncomfortable for many of us to admit that Christians committed these acts and the white church was complicit.
It is uncomfortable for us to recall that Jesus too was tortured on and killed. In this church we don’t dwell on the crucifixion during the church year. We don’t fixate on the gruesomeness of crucifixion and we don’t sing many bloody Jesus hymns, but on Palm Passion Sunday and Good Friday, it would be irresponsible for us to ignore the agony of the cross. Not only did God squish holy divinity and heaven’s grace into a human being, which was a considerable sacrifice in itself, but God in Jesus was tortured during his incarceration and on the cross. What we learn from the march on Golgotha is that God is tortured by every lynching, every holocaust, every war and every terrorist attack and that God erupts with compassion and weeping just as the victims and survivors do.
This week I got curious about Simon of Cyrene who was compelled to carry the cross. It was the Roman soldiers who forced him. The Roman occupiers and the wealthy Herodian collaborators in Israel saw Jesus as a direct threat to their power. Since love is the opposite of fear, they worried that people would lose their fear of Rome. They wanted to make a statement and to make sure he didn’t die before the crucifixion so they grabbed this passerby and Simon ends up serving Christ who is serving humanity.
The Coptic Church has this tradition that Simon is African. Although Cyrene is in Libya and was a Greek colony on the shores of the Mediterranean some Scholars point out that Arabs had not yet populated North Africa postulating that Cyrene was a mix of Greeks and Africans. Aware of this long standing Coptic tradition, African American churches have always felt an affinity for Simon for just as he had to carry the cross of Christ, they had to bear the burden of slavery and Jim Crow lynchings. James Weldon Johnson wrote this prose:
Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon
And Simon bore the cross.
Jon led an Antiracism forum on a book called the Cross and the Lynching Tree which was written by my seminary theology professor James H. Cone. Cone writes this:
What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people. The cross is a reminder that the world is fraught with many contradictions – many lynching trees…When black people sing about Jesus’ cross, they often think of black lives lost to the lynching tree. Through their experience of suffering, African Americans have often found themselves existentially at the foot of Jesus’ cross, experiencing his fate, believing that only Jesus understands their lot because he suffered as they have.”
The point of the cross is not in the end suffering and death; it is rather that love conquers fear. Love masters hate. God’s love defeats death through resurrection. God’s love will withstand whatever the forces of evil can muster and God’s love can hold suffering even as it struggles to alleviate it. As Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz Webber has said; evil screams out with anger and violence because evil knows that it has already lost. Resurrection overpowers the cross and lynching tree. Christ serves humanity and we like Simon of Cyrene serve Christ and each other. We will vanquish the shadow of Golgotha when we sing our bright Easter Alleluias.