A Lynching that Cuts to the Heart

This sermon was delivered by Rev. Luke Hansen, S.J. on May 3, 2020, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, at Bellarmine Chapel, Cincinnati. The liturgy was livestream and is available here.

Lectionary readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

In early March, before the world changed, I traveled to Alabama with a group of Xavier University students. We were on a “civil rights immersion,” visiting Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery.

In Montgomery, the Equal Justice Initiative has built a memorial for the victims of lynching and a legacy museum that tells the story of racial violence, from slavery to mass incarceration.

I will never forget one particular image in the museum. It’s a photo from August 1920, 100 years ago, of a group of white men and boys in Shelby County, Texas, standing underneath dangling feet. A 16-year-old boy had been lynched.

At least one man and one boy are smiling. It was haunting. And even more haunting: I could see myself in the faces of those white men. I was cut to the heart. I asked myself, “Would I have been standing with them? What am I doing today?”

Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed:
“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,
and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do?”

Peter not only preaches that God raised Jesus, but he also tells the crowd: You crucified Jesus.

Why would he add this point? It’s unlikely that anyone in this crowd had any role in killing Jesus. In fact, Luke tells us that the people gathered were from “every nation under heaven.” So what’s going on here?

In Luke’s Gospel, the Risen Jesus invites his disciples to reckon with his gruesome death. He told them, “Look at my hands and my feet” (24:39). Jesus chose to refer to the parts of his body “most mutilated from being nailed to a tree” (Ched Myers). Jesus is Risen, but the memory of violence remains with him.

Recall the conversion of Paul, which we heard at Friday’s Mass. How does Jesus reveal himself to Saul on the road to Damascus? Jesus asks a question: “Saul, Saul, why have you persecuted me?” Jesus reveals his presence not in glory but in the suffering of those whom Saul is arresting, imprisoning and executing.

Peter told the crowds: “You crucified Jesus.”

Crucifixion was a form of public execution meant to intimidate and terrorize people. It was reserved for revolutionaries. It warned people: “If you challenge the power structure, look at what will happen to you.”

When the crowds heard Peter, they were cut to the heart, and they asked, “What are we to do?” Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized.” “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

What about us?

In that museum in Montgomery, I encountered a contemporary crucifixion.

It cut to the heart. It demanded a response.

Lynching is “a form of racial terrorism intended to intimidate black people and enforce racial hierarchy and segregation” (Equal Justice Initiative). Thousands of black Americans were victims, including at least 15 in Ohio. Slavery had officially ended, but people continued to see blacks as inferior.

Today racial violence continues in mass incarceration. In the U.S., 1 in 4 black males will go to prison in their lifetime.

Anthony Ray Hinton, who was freed after 30 years on death row in Alabama, says that the method of execution has gone from the tree to the electric chair to the gurney. “At the end of the journey, they are still putting you to death,” he said.

Just like the crowds listening to Peter, just like Paul on the road to Damascus, we need to see what we have done, what we do. We crucify Jesus.

What has cut you to the heart? What response has it demanded of you?

The name of the boy who was lynched in Shelby County, Texas, is Lige Daniels. I had never heard the name Lige, so I looked it up. It’s a version of the Hebrew name Elijah, which means, “The Lord is God.”

The body of Jesus hung from that tree in Texas. But Jesus didn’t stay dead, and neither did Lige. Today he is with Jesus in paradise.

The body of Jesus continues to suffer in our jails and prisons, on death row, in execution chambers. Resurrection beckons.

Let us see the Risen One. Let us see the crucified ones.

May it cut to our hearts. And let us ask ourselves, in God’s presence, “What are we to do?”

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