Vicki Vernon Lott, Ph.D. serves on the Board of Directors and as a consultant for JustFaith Ministries. She is a trained facilitator of Racial Sobriety with Father Clarence Williams and a Racial Equity Consultant with Joyce James Consulting.
JustFaith Ministries promotes “action to address the root cause of injustice while serving with love” as our Mission states. From my perspective, awareness and understanding of the root causes of injustice are prerequisites for addressing it. For example, we need to understand that the stage was set more than 400 years ago for the racial injustices that we see in this country today. Most of us were socialized to view African Americans as inferior, and overcoming that mindset requires both intentionality and telling the truth about history. Unfortunately, we too often engage in superficial action without first exploring the lingering, deep inter-generational wounds of what Joy DeGruy calls “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.”1
The enslavement, lynchings, mass incarceration, police brutality, and so many other injustices of the formerly enslaved of African descent are an integral part of this country’s history. Beginning with the 1619 trans-Atlantic journey called the Middle Passage, Africans were brought to this country involuntarily while being shackled, beaten, and separated from family members. We need to always remember the inhumane conditions of the journey that took six to eleven weeks with dehydration, scurvy, and no hygiene on board.
Upon arrival, the enslaved Africans were then forced into unpaid labor from sunrise to sunset, six days per week as a means for European Americans to build wealth. Having food sometimes not suitable for animals to eat, the enslaved were dressed in sackcloth and lived in small shacks with a dirt floor and little or no furniture. At auction, the enslaved were chained together like animals and stripped of their clothing so buyers could see their physiques. Paraded onto auction blocks and sold as property along with cattle, they were humiliated and degraded at every turn. My great-great grandfather Alex, born in 1845, was listed as property along with the animals that the plantation owner who enslaved him passed down to his son.
Even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, new forms of enslavement and inhumane treatment continued with convict leasing, the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and so much more that is beyond the scope of this reflection. But let’s look at lynching for a moment.
The Equal Justice Initiative, headed by Bryan Stevenson, has documented more than 4400 lynchings of Black people in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. Racial terror lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized Black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.2
Lynchings continued past the 1970s, and well into the 1980s. Postcards and photographs, depicting gruesome images of the bodies of Black men, women, and children who had been tied to trees, mutilated, tortured, shot, and burned alive by White mobs were often distributed as souvenirs that were saved as mementos in family albums and stored away in attics for safekeeping. In the majority of the photos, White people were shown smiling and celebrating the spectacle.3 Lynchings were often held on Sunday mornings in broad daylight, when spectators would leave church to watch a hanging. They would leave the lynching and go back to church.4
Unless we take proactive steps to research and understand historical root causes of these horrific occurrences, we may inadvertently continue to contribute to racial injustices in all our systems and institutions, including child welfare, education, criminal justice, juvenile justice, housing, transportation, banking, healthcare, and faith-based organizations.
But if we really want to tell the truth about root cause of racial injustice involving the Church, we need to go back much farther than the founding of America. Consider, for example, the religious rationale for the “Doctrine of Discovery.” In 1493, the year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull that validated European conquest stating “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread.”
That and similar passages gave rise to Christian colonialism and Christian nationalism because it “gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds. The doctrine created…an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of this land ‘discovered’ to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land.” 5
Exploring the root cause of injustice even deeper, Richard Rohr reminds us that systemic oppression has been with us since ancient times, and that the Bible is written from the perspective of the oppressed. We see in the Gospels that the lame, blind, lepers, etc., tended to follow Jesus, and he lived close to or in solidarity with them on the outskirts of society.
Those with wealth, privilege, and power were the chief priests, scribes, and Roman conquerors. They were on the inside — at the center of power — and were the ones who vilified Jesus.6. The Bible reveals how religion and the empire colluded in the state-sponsored execution of Jesus. Yet even today, many of us still honor people in power and shun the oppressed.
Rohr also points out that Christians were the oppressed minorities for the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, but by the year 400 C.E., they moved from “hiding in the catacombs to presiding in the basilicas.” When Christians gained power and privilege, they began to reinterpret the Bible by ignoring passages like the “Sermon on the Mount,” which says blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Instead, Christians became drunk with power and found ways to rationalize oppression in the name of God.7
Dr. Martin Luther King puts it another way: “Gradually, the church became so entrenched in wealth and prestige that it began to dilute the strong demands of the Gospel and to conform to the ways of the world. And ever since the church has been a weak and ineffectual trumpet making uncertain sounds.”8
We also know from the Gospel that Jesus was from the Middle East and probably didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes as often depicted. Rather, Revelation 1:14-15 says that his hair was like wool and his feet were like polished bronze. If Jesus were walking around the US today in human form, he would probably look like the Black and Brown men who are subjected to racial profiling, mass incarceration, and police brutality.
The young Jesus arguably could have been Emmit Till, George Stinney, or Tamir Rice. If he had made it to adulthood, he could have had the same fate as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, George Floyd, or Tyre Nichols.
In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone urges us to see Jesus in a new light as we envision the cross placed alongside the lynching tree. This visualization can empower us as we work toward racial justice and against all forms of injustice.9 Consistent with the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, here is another striking image of the Cross:
Let us pray:
We pause for a moment to reflect on this image of the Cross, and to remember that Jesus was then, and is now, in solidarity with human suffering. We pray for the wisdom to seek greater understanding about the root causes of racial injustice and all forms of injustice, not just in February during Black History Month, but every day all year long. Open our eyes to be true disciples of Christ who can see the connection between the Cross and the Lynching Tree. May we have the strength and courage to address injustices through the lens of all those who can’t breathe. Amen.
- Joy DeGruy, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (Joy DeGruy Publications; 2005)
- Patricia A. Young, “Acts of Terrorism, or Violence on ‘A Sunday Morning in the South’.”(Vol. 26 #4. African American Literature; Winter 2001)
- Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, “Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery” (InterVarsity Press: 2019)
- Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation “Invitation to Solidarity (May 24, 2020)
- Martin Luther King, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” ((April 16, 1963)
- James Cone, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” (Orbis Books: 2011) p. xix