The Cross and the Lynching Tree
I thought of theologian James Cone’s 2011 book The Cross and the Lynching Tree while reading Blaine Harden’s book Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West.
Cone argues that interpretations of the cross that do not hold it in relationship to the scourge of lynching of African-Americans in the U.S., particularly between 1880 and 1940, are false and self-serving. Here’s Cone:
Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
How does that intersect with Harden’s account of the murder of Marcus Whitman, an event that galvanized forces pressing for the U.S. to create the Oregon territory, unleash the U.S. military on Native Americans in the northwest and expropriate Indian lands?
The Whitmans, Marcus and Narcissa, were murdered by members of the Cayuse Tribe. A small tribe to begin with the Cayuses had been, at the time of the Whitman’s, decimated by measles and overwhelmed by wagon trains of white settlers arriving in growing numbers via the Oregon Trail. Wagon trains passed directly through their homeland. More settlers, 1000 plus, arrived in a single wagon train than the membership of the entire Cayuse tribe. That number is estimated to have been around 300.
Rumors that Whitman, a doctor as well as missionary, was conspiring to poison the Cayuses, who were dying despite Whitman’s treatment of them, fueled the attack. That and the Cayuse practice of eliminating “medicine men” who failed to help or heal, drove the Cayuse attack on the Whitmans.
Subsequently, five members of the Cayuse Tribe were put on trial and convicted for Whitman’s murder in a legal process that left a lot to be desired. They were all sentenced to death by hanging. The Cayuse were not afraid to die, but hanging seemed to them as inhumane and humiliating, not a death befitting a man. Here’s Harden:
“As warrior horsemen, the Cayuses were aggressive, violent, and proud of it. To acquire horses, slaves, and other wealth, they killed and risked being killed. They shot, knifed, and tomahawked their enemies. But they did not hang them. Nor were they hanged by their enemies. The idea of being choked to death at the end of a rope struck the convicted Indians as inhumane, terrifying, and insulting.
“‘They grew very much excited when told their doom,’ remembered Eliza Spalding . . . who attended the Cayuse trial and hanging. ‘They said the wouldn’t mind being shot, but to die by the rope was to die as a dog and not as a man.'”
That is where the cross and lynching tree come together again. Both were intended to dehumanize and degrade their victims. To render them less than human.
In her magisterial book on the crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge argues, among other things, that how Jesus died matters. He died in the most shameful, degrading way that the Roman world knew — by being nailed to a cross, which leads as does lynching to death by asphyxiation. Rutledge’s point is that in the crucifixion God identifies, is in solidarity with the de-humanized, with all those who treated as sub-human, who are the objects of shame and humiliation, those who are cast out by all others.
As Paul puts it in Romans Christ died for the “ungodly.” It was not the noble death of a good man in a just cause. It was a death in which God embraced all those identified by society, it’s political and religious powers, as beyond the pale, as sub-human, as objects of utter and complete shame.
The Cayuse got this, that it was the meta text of hanging. Like crucifixion in the ancient world, it wasn’t only death. It was degradation. It was humiliation. It was showing that the victims weren’t even human.
The story Hardin tells of white “Christian” treatment of Indians is what is really shameful. It is a story of blood-lust and revenge, in the name of Christianity and American Manifest Destiny, by white settlers who rushed to the simplest framing of the Whitman murders and used that to enact and excuse greater evil and drive “the taking of the American West.” There were some missionaries who did take the part of Indians andwho did truly care about them, but those were the exceptions.
I was raised to take pride in my status as an Oregonian, a fourth generation Oregonian at that. That’s getting harder.