I was sitting in a committee hearing room at the state capitol, listening to story after story as the public testifiers filed in and out. The bill under consideration would eliminate public assistance benefits for anyone in the state of Minnesota who has had a drug conviction within the last ten years. It is one of 12 such bills currently being considered by the state legislature, all targeted to reduce the eligibility for receiving public assistance by stigmatizing people living in poverty and by making the access of benefits more difficult, more shameful, and less helpful than the current system.
This hearing was no different than many of the vitriolic scenes we’ve all been seeing at the capitol these days, except for one thing: it took place on Ash Wednesday. And while the poorest citizens of our state stood in line to explain how this piece of legislation would make their lives even more difficult, one member of the committee listened indifferently, a faint smudge of ash crisscrossing his forehead. The bill passed, along with two others of its kind. And I went home that night with a pious cross seared into the backs of my eyeballs.
Many of us this Lenten season have rightly adopted fasts of many kinds to embrace simplicity, increase mindfulness, or practice solidarity. But this year on Ash Wednesday, my understanding of Lent was profoundly troubled as I ingested the image of that indifferent ashen cross. What is the purpose of fasting if it does not improve our participation in the world as fully human? How are we to engage one another if we only focus on our God? Most fundamentally, that ashen cross made me wonder: what is Lent really about?
The answer was looking at me head-on. Lent must be about our contemplation of the cross.
For a small child growing up in first-century Galilee, as did Jesus and the disciples, the cross would have cast a long shadow on an already-stressed childhood. You see, Galilee was one of the many far-flung colonies of Rome, annually mined for taxes, leaving the community strapped for sustenance and increasingly in debt. Known to be constantly struggling against Roman imperial rule, Galilee, either in Jesus’ early lifetime or in his mother’s, staged a revolt against the Romans, resulting in the crucifixion of thousands of Galilean men. The cross was a tool of terror, inflicted upon local insurgents and anyone who dared question Roman authority.
Jesus was neither the first, nor the last, to be strung up on that tree, that strange fruit of Galilee.
Perhaps this familiarity with the terror of crucifixion was what led Peter to rebuke Jesus in our text for today. The Greek word for “rebuke” was an extremely strong verb, more often used by Jesus when rebuking an unclean spirit to come out of a person. For Peter to rebuke Jesus was a strong term indeed, and it was probably based in his desire not to lose his friend to the cross.
But Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter, and offers to modern-day readers what to us is confusing and vaguely challenging, but to the disciples what must have been mind-bending and downright terrifying. Jesus insisted he would die at the hands of the Roman-backed leadership in Jerusalem. And any disciple who intended to follow him in earnest ought also to take up his or her own cross, that dreaded instrument of terror and death. For what was the purpose of all that healing and teaching if it simply faded away the first time it was challenged? And what was the purpose of miraculously changing the fabric of the world if Jesus were only to shrink away at the first sign of distress?
Tell me, what is the purpose of life if we live only in the fear of death?
On the night of January 27, 1956, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received a death threat at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, warning that his home would be bombed if he did not stop organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. King refused to step down, and three days later, his home, as promised, was bombed. No one was injured in the blast, but for the remaining twelve years of his life, King and his family lived with the ever-present threat of death due to his leadership on racial justice.
As a small child growing up in the Jim Crow South, the young Martin King would have known the ever-present threat of death with an intimacy few of us can imagine. From 1880 to 1940 at least 5,000 black people were lynched, certainly in the south, but also in the likes of states such as New York, Illinois, and even as far north as Duluth, Minnesota. Lynchings were public spectacles, at times attended by tens of thousands of people, intended to keep black people subservient to white. Yes, the lynching tree was a tool of terror, and young Martin King would have known quite well the risk he took, what with all that strange fruit strung up in the poplar trees.
Over the course of the next twelve years, Dr. King would increasingly frame his work for racial justice as a cross to be borne. In a letter to his wife Coretta from the Georgia State Prison, King wrote, “I know the whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to… but… this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people.” In a world where dying on a tree was a not-so-distant memory, King’s metaphor of bearing the cross was not terribly metaphorical. But what was the purpose of all his preaching and teaching if Dr. King simply faded away the first time it was challenged? And what was the purpose of miraculously changing the fabric of America if he were only to shrink away at the first sign of distress?
Tell me, what is the purpose of life if we live only in the fear of death?
For the last few months, the city of Duluth has been engaging in a conversation about race and contemporary racism, inspired by the now famous and infamous Un-Fair Campaign. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Un-Fair campaign began by putting up billboards and posters around the city of Duluth, with messages about race and privilege in a city where over 90% of its residents are white.
More than anything, the campaign is attempting to begin a conversation about what racism looks like in an America that no longer formally enslaves, no longer condones lynching, no longer institutionally segregates, but nevertheless operates according to the unspoken rules of an insidious system of discrimination, inequity, and racism.
The unspoken rules of this invisible system rightfully change state law when a child is injured in a suburban hockey game. However, they do not change the way our state is ordered when a four-year-old boy is shot and killed with a stray bullet in North Minneapolis.
Such unspoken rules imprison nearly one-third of all American black men between the ages of 18 and 28. Nearly half of the more than two million people behind bars in America are black — a total larger than the number of Black Americans currently enrolled in college.
And finally, such unspoken rules make it very uncomfortable to even suggest that a state bill limiting access to public services might be easier to pass because those affected by such a bill are disproportionately people of color.
This is what institutional racism looks like today: a distinct privilege based on the color of one’s skin which is yet difficult to name, protected by fear, cloaked in silence, and perpetuated by indifference. Today’s Roman cross, today’s lynching tree, is the silent indifference with which otherwise good people find themselves complicit. It is but a great cloud of indifference, and not a little fear, that keeps people with privilege from speaking out with passion on contemporary issues of racism.
Likewise, it is a great cloud of indifference that keeps the cross in abstract, sentimental piety. What kind of world is this, that the terrible cross on which Jesus died has been marketed to adorn golden threads, hung about our throats like a handy trinket? What kind of world is this, that the lynching tree of our recent history is so readily forgotten, remembered only by those so injured as to be unable to forget?
No! This cross of ours is a symbol for the struggle for life! Both the ultimate location of despair and the centerpiece of hope, the paradox of the cross is that from our gravest despair springs our deepest empathy; from our greatest grief emerges our wildest love; and that only in the experience of death does our thirst for life become manifest.
The cross is not some token to display, like an ashen emblem of disfigured piety emblazoned upon our foreheads. It is the symbol of humanity’s great resistance to the powers that could otherwise overtake us. Let us labor toward the promise of beloved community, shouldering up the hope of a world that is to come, bearing the weight of all we have the capacity to be. Let us take up this terrible, astonishing cross. Amen.