The Cross Was A Lynching

Palm Sunday — April 2, 2023

Today we look back to a week in the early part of the First Century of the Common Era. It culminated in the city’s garbage dump outside the wall of Jerusalem with a crucifixion – several crucifixions.

It wasn’t an unusual sight. One-quarter of the population of the Mediterranean world of Jesus and Paul were slaves. Crosses lined major routes in and out of Roman cities. Crosses were reserved for slaves and the poor. They had no rights. Their masters, for any reason or no reason, could put them to death. The cultured, educated, and powerful – even when guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors – were permitted to commit suicide. But the cross was reserved for slaves and for the poor – the least of the least – a horrible and gruesome death – and their carcasses were left to rot and their bones to be picked clean by vultures.

The purpose was social control. When a quarter of the people were enslaved, and many others living hand to mouth, there was constant fear of a revolt. Theologian James Cone pointed to the same modes of social control of freed slaves used by the Ku Klux Klan and others in the era of Jim Crow where the vehicle was not a cross but the lynching tree . . . more than 5000 lynchings in the United States in the first few decades of the 20th century. 

The prophet is always considered divisive.

  • When Jeremiah prophesied against the abuses of the power of the king, he was thrown into jail.
  • When Amos spoke in the King’s sanctuary (“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”) Amaziah, high priest to the King, threw him out – sent him packing.
  • When Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against the extra-judicial killing of the poor and their supporters by death squads in San Salvador, he was murdered as he celebrated the Eucharist in 1980.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down as he participated in garbage workers’ strike and was planning a poor people’s campaign.
  • When truth is spoken to power . . . truth gets crucified. 

The prophet is usually dismissed, condemned, jailed, silenced, and sometimes killed. King or Queen, emperor or prime minister, President or CEO—whoever the powers may be –-they never appreciate hearing the truth that the welfare of all people matters to God.  Pilate at one point asked, “ What is truth?” Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth . . . .”  And Jesus was killed.

But Jesus of Nazareth was not just another prophet who spoke truth to the powers of church and state. He did challenge the authority of the Roman Empire and its Caesar as he entered Jerusalem with his ragtag army of Galilean peasants. He marched into the Temple and challenged the abuses he observed there. But he was so much more. 

Jesus, we believe, was also Messiah. He was the God made human. He was the anointed one, whom we call the Christ. He may have been put to death for the same reasons so many others have and do suffer – but he was the Son of God. Our theology, our Christology, always seems to stumble and fall short of satisfactory explanations of what this means. 

How is he God, Son of God, Christ, Messiah? The Church has struggled mightily through Councils and deliberations of saints, bishops, and theologians over the centuries—but our understanding falters and our words seem too paltry to portray the depth of what it means to be the Suffering Servant of God.

James Cone has written:

One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy. What kind of salvation is that? No human language can fully describe what salvation through the cross means. Salvation through the cross can only be apprehended through faith, repentance, and humility. . . .  Salvation is broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and (oppressed) people empowered to love themselves (despite their internal oppression).[1]

At the end . . . we’re left with a composite image (taken from the four Gospels) of the Christ of God hanging on a cross with a crown of thorns, hanging between two thieves, sign over his head proclaiming that he’s the sovereign. And even at the point of death . . . he’s still in charge . . . arranging for his mother’s care, welcoming the thief into Paradise, and most of all, forgiving the people and the powers that nailed him there.

Whatever else this Jesus may mean—at least this one thing we affirm—that when we look at and listen to him . . . we’re seeing and hearing something of God and something of ourselves. We see in him all the victims of slavery and oppression and the powers of this world. As it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “They are crucifying again the Son of God.”[2]

And, in him, we hear proclaimed the infinite mercy of God. He hangs there, arms outstretched, as if to embrace the entire creation, healing it and us, as he asks his Father to forgive . . . to forgive all the inhumanity done to him and that we do to one another.

As we stand beneath the Cross of Jesus today, ponder these words of theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.[3]


[1] James H. Come, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis Books: Marynoll, NY, 2011, p. 157 

[2] Hebrews 6:6

[3] (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, p. 63)

About The Author

Scroll to Top