- Dr. Christopher Sheklian
On The Cross and the Lynching Tree: An Armenian Perspective
Every year, the Armenian Church devotes an entire season of the liturgical calendar to Feasts of the Cross. Beginning on the Sunday nearest to September 14th with the Exaltation of the Holy Cross [in Armenian Khatchverats, Խաչվերաց], a feast celebrated by nearly all the ancient churches, much of the next two months is given to veneration of the Holy Cross. In addition to the Feast of the Exaltation, which comes with a full eight-day octave and a preparatory day called “the Feast of the Dedication of the Cross,” the next months include the celebration of the Discovery of the Holy Cross by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, and a uniquely Armenian feast of the Cross known as the “Holy Cross of Varak.” Though the famed liturgist Robert Taft has written that “we might call the Armenian tradition ‘incarnational,’” clearly there is a special place for veneration of and theological reflection on the Cross in the Armenian Christian tradition.
Such an emphasis on the Cross in the liturgy, hymns, and commentaries of Armenian Christianity offers a profound point of commonality with the Black theological tradition in America. James Cone, the author of the 1969 Black Theology and Black Power, was one of the most prolific and influential thinkers in this Black theological tradition. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, published in 2011, he argued powerfully for the centrality of the lynching tree in the theological imagination of American Christianity. Cone found that “the lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha—should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion” (42). Even Reinhold Niebuhr, Cone noted, who “among white theologians” was “particularly sensitive to the evils of racism and spoke and wrote on many occasions of the sufferings of African Americans,” “failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time. To reflect on this failure is to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination” (43).
What if other marginalized voices in the landscape of Christianity in America could contribute to that theological imagination of African Americans? What if, in addition to the sorely needed concrete actions of solidarity by Oriental Orthodox Christians with Black brothers and sisters in America, we built a powerful Christian critique of racism in America that draws on a shared theological imagination? What if we Oriental Orthodox Christians acknowledged the “defect in the conscience of white Christians” in America as partly our own failures and offered our theological traditions as a way of cultivating a new anti-racist American Christianity?
To be sure, many Oriental Orthodox Christians can and should build solidarity along less theological lines. Yet, if we are honest, an emphasis on shared suffering or marginalization—no matter how true—as the basis for solidarity with Black Americans often de-emphasizes the Black experience itself. Armenian Christians truly know suffering. Not just oppression in general, but the specifics of race, racism, and racial violence were at the heart of the Armenian Genocide. While we can use this shared experience of suffering at the hands of racial violence to encourage and build solidarity, experiencing racial violence in history or in other parts of the world does not absolve complicity in the systems of white supremacy still operative in the United States today. For most Armenians (but not all) who have had access to legal whiteness since United States v. Cartozian in 1925, and access to symbolic whiteness for much of the twentieth century, it is important to recognize that the “defect[s] in the conscience of white Christians” includes our consciences. Anti-racist solidarity, then, cannot stand on shared phenomenological or historical (racist) suffering alone.
Instead, in addition to concrete efforts in our communities which we might undertake as Americans, Christians, or simply human beings, Oriental Orthodox Christians can help address the defect in the conscience of white Christians that has also been a major failure of theological imagination. As Cone suggests, the striking similarity of the Cross on Golgotha and the lynching tree in America should be obvious to any American Christian. If this theological comparison has been glaringly absent in American Christian thought outside of Black liberation thinking, the inability to see the Cross in the lynching tree has also been a major theological stumbling block to specifically Christian anti-racist solidarity. Of course, the universal message of God’s love embodied in Christ’s response that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord and likewise to love your neighbor—and the important implication of the parable of the Good Samaritan that everyone, especially the marginalized and maligned in our midst is our neighbor—should be enough to build such a Christian solidarity with Black Americans. That it hasn’t been enough is at the heart of Cone’s devastating indictment of white (Christian) America.
That the greatest commandment hasn’t been enough to build Christian anti-racist solidarity also suggests that a deeper excavation of Christian theology is needed. Without claiming either the inherent paucity of Western, American, white Christian thinking or the natural superiority of our own traditions, we can assert that other marginalized Christian traditions might help to build that Christian anti-racist position alongside of Black liberation theology. Such a theology, grounded in theological traditions and experiences well outside the American mainstream, could provide a powerful starting point for a new American liberation theology that makes use of the full diversity of Christian voices in America. It would confront the lack of imagination and the defect of conscience in the face of systemic racism and the continued suffering of Black Americans. What better place to begin than the Cross?
Cone argues that the Cross, perhaps even more than the empty tomb or the child in the manger, is the predominant Christian symbol for Black Americans: “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” (33). In other words, it is precisely because of the “eerie feeling of mystery and the supernatural” in the comparison between the lynching tree and the cross that “the symbol of the cross spoke to the lives of blacks” (81). To use Niebuhr’s own appropriation of a Nietzschean phrase, the cross is the ultimate “transvaluation of values,” the expression that the low can become high, that suffering can be redemptive, and that Christ’s suffering on the Cross was necessary to the salvation of all humanity that comes with His Resurrection. This is the Christian joy that St. Paul called a folly and a stumbling block to those who would try to apprehend Christ’s message and ministry solely through reason. Cone argues that this aspect of Christian joy, the paradoxical triumph of the Cross, is central to the Black American Christian experience. This is precisely because of the insistence that “the final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption on the cross—a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows” (33).
The Cross is at the heart of Armenian Christianity, too, as we have seen. In fact, the Armenian word Nshan (Նշան), whose primary meaning is “sign,” is often used to mean the Cross itself. In other words, the Cross is the ultimate sign for Armenian Christians. It is the sign of life. It points us to Jesus Christ, and through Him, to the Father, and salvation in the Holy Trinity. Armenian crosses, unlike the Crucifix common in Catholicism, is always the empty Cross, to emphasize that the Cross points beyond suffering to the redemptive victory of Christ through His sacrifice. That sacrifice is celebrated every week in the Divine Liturgy. For all Oriental Orthodox Christians, liturgy is at the heart of Christian experience, and the heart of the liturgy is the reception of Holy Communion, the partaking in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and participation in God’s plan of salvation. For this reason, the empty Armenian Cross, the Cross that already points to victorious redemption beyond suffering, is often adorned with grapes, symbolic of the Communion wine, the sacrifice of Christ’s blood on the Cross. The Armenian Cross, the sign so central to the Armenian Christian experience, clearly resonates with the Cross that proclaims that the “final world about black life” is the redemption on the cross, “a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows.”
Armenian Christianity is particularly well placed to see the comparison between the lynching tree and the Cross, especially the Cross understood as sign. Armenian Christian interpretative practices, from Biblical exegesis to commentaries on the liturgy, rely heavily on a method of interpretation that sees events or people in light of each other. Famously, Jesus Christ Himself used this method when he described his death, burial, and resurrection in terms of the three days the Prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale. Jonah therefore becomes a type of Christ. Armenian writing is full of this method of interpretation, with the added quality that all types should ultimately be seen in light of Christ Himself. The Cross, as “sign,” clearly partakes in this logic. From an Armenian Christian interpretative perspective, Cone’s insight into the relationship between the cross and the lynching tree is perfectly obvious: the lynching tree, and the suffering of Black Americans in the United States is easily interpreted as a type of the Cross at Golgotha and Christ’s suffering. In other words, Cone’s analysis sits squarely within the Armenian Christian interpretive tradition.
With such a capacious interpretative technique, we can bring Armenian Christian reflection on the Cross to bear on our understanding of the lynching tree in America. This creates an Armenian Christian, Oriental Orthodox perspective on the Cross, the lynching tree, and the suffering and marginalization of Black Americans. Such a perspective could be put in conversation with the Black theological imagination and other liberatory theologies, generating a truly American Christian response to racism forged through the meeting of diverse theologies in America.