Seeking Lynching Stories as Accounts of Faith

On a similar topic to my last post on James H. Cone’s newest work, earlier this year, the New York Times profiled the research of Reverend Angela D. Sims, Assistant Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri.  Motivated in part by James Cone’s work on the cross and the lynching tree, Rev. Sims—an ordained Baptist minister who also holds a Ph.D. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia—has been traveling across the United States interviewing elderly African-Americans about their personal experiences of lynching.  As of February 25, Rev. Dr. Sims had captured, through audio recordings and interviews, the memories of 85 lynching witnesses and near victims from a diversity of locations, including Alabama, Texas, California, and New Jersey.  Rev. Sims will publish a book on her research entitled Conversations with Elders:  African-Americans Remember Lynching, and archive her recordings at Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History.

Sims’ research has two purposes.  The first is to understand how these individuals withstood their travails—how they persevered and survived—through faith, an outlook Sims calls the “ethic of resilience”:  A relationship with God with the power to defeat shame; subjugation to a cruel and indifferent social order; and, perhaps most essentially, hatred of whites and American society.  The second purpose is to understand the healing power of this ethic—how these individuals’ forgiveness of their victimizers invokes the power of grace.  Sims posits that their ability to see God even in the midst of terrible violence has the power to confer salvation and redemption on others—actually to heal the community at large.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

Strange Fruit: James Hal Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

On September 1, Orbis Books will release The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York .

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees . . . ,/ Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,/ For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,/ For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop—/ Here is a strange and bitter crop.

 Strange Fruit, words and arrangement by Abel Meerepol, as performed by Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of Strange Fruit conjures America’s horrific legacy of lynching—where white mobs tortured and murdered at least 3500 black men and women for a variety of supposed offenses (from “insulting” whites, interracial sex, to other generally unproven “crimes”).  The ugliness of lynching, which persisted from Reconstruction through the mid-1960’s, is difficult for both white- and African-Americans to face.  Lynching was carnage turned community pastime:  Whole families came for the spectacle; and merriment, food, and whiskey (and American flags) abounded.  The festivities obscured the sinister murder at their center and dulled the ritual’s true function: re-establishing and maintaining the power of whites over blacks in post-slavery America.

For more on Professor Cone’s theology of the cross, the lynching tree, and his conception of their interrelated impact in contemporary American and global society, please follow the jump. Read more

Lane’s “The Age of Doubt”

Here is a lovely looking book by Christopher Lane (Northwestern), The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty (Yale UP).  The book is an intellectual history of religious belief and religious doubt in the Victorian period (with a nice discussion of Thomas Huxley).  My own writing projects in criminal law have led me to think that the ideas of the Victorian era are both deeply interesting and useful today, and this book has relevant insights in that respect.  It looks excellent.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

The Victorian era was the first great “Age of Doubt” and a critical moment in the history of Western ideas. Leading nineteenth-century intellectuals battled the Church and struggled to absorb radical scientific discoveries that upended everything the Bible had taught them about the world. In The Age of Doubt, distinguished scholar Christopher Lane tells the fascinating story of a society under strain as virtually all aspects of life changed abruptly.

In deft portraits of scientific, literary, and intellectual icons who challenged the prevailing religious orthodoxy, from Robert Chambers and Anne Brontë to Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley, Lane demonstrates how they and other Victorians succeeded in turning doubt from a religious sin into an ethical necessity.

The dramatic adjustment of Victorian society has echoes today as technology, science, and religion grapple with moral issues that seemed unimaginable even a decade ago. Yet the Victorians’ crisis of faith generated a far more searching engagement with religious belief than the “new atheism” that has evolved today. More profoundly than any generation before them, the Victorians came to view doubt as inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, as well as a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and unbridled certainty. By contrast, a look at today’s extremes—from the biblical literalists behind the Creation Museum to the dogmatic rigidity of Richard Dawkins’s atheism—highlights our modern-day inability to embrace doubt.

The Talking Cure

Jacques Lacan’s famous discussion of Freudian psychoanalysis as a form of talking cure, in which the analyst is able to shape the meanings of the subject’s hangups and mental infirmities, came to my mind during the recent exchange between Rick Garnett, Paul Horwitz, Rob Vischer, and others (see here) on the issue of quizzing political candidates about how their religious beliefs will affect their decisions.  Yesterday, as my colleague Mark notes, Ross Douthat had a column on the issue, with a number of interesting recommendations for journalists.

But I had a thought that may strike some as perhaps a little heterodox.  I want to make a point in (partial, limited) defense of the Rortian “religion as conversation-stopper” view (which Rorty only really very partially revised after an elegant intervention by Jeffrey Stout a few years ago). Read more