Clementine Hunter’s Crucifixion, 1950. Fenimore Art Museum.
By Deanna Gemmer
For seven months I was a mother to a beautiful boy with the most gorgeous curly hair and dark skin. We brought him home from the hospital on my daughter Dani’s birthday and for weeks she proudly proclaimed that she “got a brother for her birthday!” While I had parented three daughters (two biological, one foster) this was my first experience with a little boy and I polled my mom friends for advice. They all told me our bond would be different, that there was something different to a mother/son relationship. I scoffed. He was so tiny. We were his “in between” family, not his permanent one. I would love him like I loved all my children.
I should have listened to my friends. There really was something different to our bond. He was my happiest baby, with the biggest grin on the block. When daycare workers and visit supervisor would gush and coo, I would smile knowing he saved his best smiles for me. He charmed everyone he met and I was so proud to be his mom. And while I haven’t mothered him in over three years, this sweet boy still has a piece of my mother heart, and probably always will.
I think of his face as our country wakes to the issues of systemic racism. I think of his face as I hear the stories of mothers having to teach their sons to be extra careful around police officers. I think of his face when I see marchers hit the street proclaiming BLACK LIVES MATTER. I think of his face every time I encourage someone to recognize their own privilege, and to humbly share a bit of it to raise someone else up. I want this country to be a different place for all black young men but in particular I want this country to be a different place for my black boy.
But we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot to atone for. There are many things about our history as a country and as a people that we need to honestly confront. It is hard work to look upon the violence and injustice we have perpetrated.
This is the invitation of Lent—to do the hard work of repentance. To own our sins, to seek restitution, and then to live in the freedom of the cross.
The cross, the humiliating death of Jesus, the torture of the rabble-rouser. The death meant to humiliate, to teach a lesson, to put into his place a Jewish boy while warning anyone else who even dared to think about upsetting the proper order.
A death that theologian James Cone suggests, may remind us of the lynching tree of early America. Both the cross and the lynching tree were “public spectacles,” designed for a similar purpose that administered a cruel and painful death. “A crucified Jesus and lynched black bodies were not pretty objects to look at.” So we have sanitized the cross, turned it into beautiful images and fancy jewelry. And we don’t even know what to do with the lynching tree, so we relegate it to a bygone era and pretend it never existed.
But the reality of race relations in our country today tell us that we must confront the reality of the lynching tree. And as Christians, we may do it alongside the reality of the cross.
People who have never been lynched by another group usually find it difficult to understand why blacks want whites to remember lynching atrocities. Why bring that up? That was a long time ago! Is it not best forgotten? Absolutely not! The lynching tree is a metaphor for race in America, a symbol of America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the theological meaning of the cross in this land…God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree upon the divine self and transformed both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. *
I am a white woman with immense amounts of privilege. Yet God transformed my life because of a love a little black boy. I am learning and I am listening and I am committed to working for a different world for him and for every person of color.
May I humbly suggest during this Lent season, that you join me in not only gazing upon the Cross of Christ and pondering its meaning and mystery, but also upon the lynching tree as well. James Allen has curated a book of lynching photographs called Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America but a quick google search will leave you with several photographs to look upon as well. These are painful, heartbreaking images. Sit with them and let them teach you. Look into the faces and see the humanity. Open your heart to the pain and to the possibility of transformation.
If we have the courage to confront our past, we may just find hope for our future.
* Cone, James. Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
Deanna Gemmer is a writer, speaker, ministry leader, and seminary student. She is married to Darin, the director of Camp Indianola, and mother to two inquisitive and insightful daughters, as well as foster mom to several more children God allowed her family to love. She loves Jesus, camping, earl grey tea, and reality television. You can find her online at deannagemmer.com.