On the evening of Saturday, August 12, 1911, a man named Zachariah Walker was heading home on a country road when he saw two strangers walking towards him. Walker had been at a bar all day, enjoying a hard-earned day off, and he was just drunk enough to think that it was a good time for a little prank. He drew a gun from his pocket, held it straight up in the air, and fired it twice. The men bolted, and Walker, chuckling to himself over his little joke, continued the walk home. Unfortunately for Walker, a man named Edgar Rice, who was a security guard at a nearby business, heard the gunshots, and came out to investigate. He accosted Walker on the road and, without any authority to do so, threatened to arrest him. Walker, made aggressive by fear and drink, in his own words, “got sassy” with Rice. The sass turned into an argument, and the argument turned into a fight, and the fight quickly turned deadly serious. Rice began clubbing Walker with his nightstick, and when Walker ripped the stick out of Rice’s hand, Rice drew his pistol and lunged. Walker shot first, firing two bullets into Rice, who immediately fell, dead.
Walker knew better than to wait around for the police, for he was black, and Rice was white, and this was 1911. He ran and hid out in a barn, hoping that he could stay out harm’s way until the search was called off. But the next morning, he was spotted by a boy who was out collecting eggs for breakfast. Walker was arrested, but not before trying to kill himself by shooting himself in the temple. The shot missed, and he arrived at the jail bleeding but very much alive. He was taken to the hospital, where a doctor operated on his face, removing the bullet and repairing his jaw. In a fog of anesthesia, Walker confessed to the killing but insisted that it was an act of self-defense. By this time, word had gotten out about not only the death of Rice but also Walker’s location, and a hostile crowd began to form in the street. The sheriff came out to address the crowd, but instead of trying to calm them down, he told them that Walker had bragged about the crime, never mentioning that Walker had claimed self-defense. The crowd erupted at this information, and cries of “Shoot him! Kill him! Lynch him!” began to explode into the night air. The sheriff left, leaving the crowd to do whatever it wanted to do, and in that instant, Walker’s fate was finally and tragically sealed.
The crowd rushed into the hospital, tore Walker from his hospital bed, and carried him to a field about a half-mile away. As they dragged him along, they cursed and beat him. The mob, some three thousand strong by now, made a makeshift pyre, lighted it, and threw Walker into the flames. Not once, not twice, but three times Walker tried to crawl out of the fire, and not once, not twice, but three times this crowd of men, women, and children, forced him back in, beating him with railroad ties, throwing a rope around his neck and hauling him back like an animal. He cried out to the crowd from the flames, “For God's sake, give a man a chance! I killed Rice in self-defense. Don't give me no crooked death because I'm not white.” But the people would not give him a chance, for God’s sake or anyone else’s. They let him burn, and they let him die, and then they collected souvenirs from the ashes.*
Lynching is but one rotten fruit of the twisted tree of racism that has grown up in this country. From the end of the Civil War until 1950, over 4000 men, women, and children were lynched – hanged, beaten to death, burned, or drowned – solely because they were black in a society where power was white. If our nation’s national sin is slavery, then lynching is an ugly, cancerous growth born of that sin, along with the forced failure of Reconstruction, the travesty of Jim Crow, the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement, and the modern brutality of mass incarceration.
There are clear parallels between our nation’s lynching stories and the story of the Passion. They are, in many ways, the same story – an innocent victim is condemned, beaten, and killed for no other crime than being who he is; a crowd is made wild out of fear; the authorities exercise their power by choosing not to exercise their power; and in the end a body lies hanging on a tree, a strange fruit, a crooked death. At the same time, it may seem incongruous to focus on the sin of lynching on this Good Friday. It may seem inopportune to talk about lynching now, in a place such as this. It may seem inconsistent to draw attention to the systematic oppression of one people by another on a day when we speak about being drawn together to the foot of the cross. It may seem inappropriate to pile more violence upon the violence of the Passion, where our Lord is betrayed and beaten, battered by the mob’s anger and their cries of “Crucify him, crucify him!,” and finally killed in an agonizing death, where no one gave him a chance, for God’s sake or anyone else’s.
In his seminal work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James Cone argues that for Christians in this country to confront the ravages of racism that continue to poison our society, we must begin by acknowledging the link between the cross and the lynching tree. We – particularly we white American Christians – must be willing to hold both symbols together to remind us that the justice and redemption of the cross cannot be separated from the injustice and suffering of the world. We must be willing to humble ourselves before both the lynching tree and the cross, not just because the hope of the cross transforms the lynching tree, but also because the lynching tree transforms the cross. Cone writes, “…we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The lynching tree frees the cross form the false pieties of well-meaning Christians.”
So while it may seem incongruous or inappropriate to talk about the lynching tree on a Good Friday in Philadelphia in 2018, it is actually imperative. It is imperative because it is this symbol of our brokenness, of power run amok, of the perversion of justice, that helps us to see the depth of the sin from which Jesus’ death saved us. The lynching tree challenges us to see that the cross is not intended simply to comfort or inspire us. It does do that, just as it has comforted and inspired the millions of black Americans who have suffered the pain of racism in this country. But the cross is not just here to comfort us. The cross is also here to provoke us. The cross is here to “provoke us to love and good deeds,” as the author of Hebrews writes. The cross is the ultimate provocation, calling us forth, calling us out to look out for the least of these, to stand up for the abused and the neglected, to give voice to those who have suffered for far too long at the hands of those in power. If the cross does not provoke us to this kind of powerful, active love, then we are missing something of this Good Friday.
On April 26 of this year, the Equal Justice Initiative, under the leadership of Bryan Stephenson, author of our Lenten book Just Mercy, will open the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first memorial to victims of lynching, in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is made of 800 columns, one for each county in the United States where the EJI has been able to accurately document a lynching. Outside the memorial proper, there will be another 800 columns, identical to those inside. The plan is for these columns to be taken back to the counties they represent and placed at a documented lynching site as a local memorial. One of these columns will be taken to the county where Zachariah Walker was lynched, which is not some county in the deep South, but Chester County, in the city of Coatesville, right here in our own diocese.
You and I are inheritors of hundreds of years of systemic racism in this country. Right here in Philadelphia, we are inheritors of the lynching era and prejudice, whether we want to be or not. We are inheritors of the world’s ancient bigotry, which seems to be getting worse, as in these days we watch the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes and the cruel bullying of those who are black or Muslim or trans or queer or an ethnic minority or some other other. We are inheritors of hatred, you and I. But we are also inheritors of this cross. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We are heirs of this great sacrifice and the love that shaped it, and today, in the shadow of this cross, we are asked to do something with it. Today, we are called forth to love as Christ first loved us, to love like this beautiful, crooked death, to love fiercely and fully, to love bravely in the face of brutality, to love those who are oppressed and afflicted and in anguish, to love in word and in deed, to love our neighbors and our enemies, to love those who are hard to love, to love those who are hard to see, to love in the name of our Lord Jesus, to love all in the shape of this holy cross. For our sake, God let his Son die this crooked death, to give us a chance to do just this, to be loved and to love wholly and freely. Come, let us bow down before the wood of this cross. Come, let us worship. Come, let us be provoked by this great love to our own love.
*The details of this story come from the book Coatesville and the Lynching of Zachariah Walker by Dennis B. Downey and Raymond M. Hyser
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Good Friday 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia