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Sexualized Racism: Crucifying Jews and Lynching Blacks

January 7, 2015

[René] Girard compellingly argues that human sexuality often incites a violent response. He shows this in terms of marriage and community relationships…. He says, “Sexuality leads to quarrels, jealous rages, mortal combats. It is a permanent source of disorder even within the most harmonious of communities.” — Kelly Brown Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls

Let me confess in my own body and soul the profound biases (i.e., deep and implicit and involuntary responses) to a Southern Baptist Christian upbringing. I grew up an American missionary kid in South Vietnam the last decade of the Vietnam War (or the American War depending on who you ask) until 1975.  My white father’s assignment by the Foreign Mission Board was “field evangelist,” and my white mother’s was “church and home.” When I was 4 years old, my left temple was busted open by a rock thrown at me by a Vietnamese kid, which led to my having to get stitches in a U.S. military clinic. My two white brothers, my anh and my em [big brother and little brother], and I quickly learned how to befriend certain gangs of Vietnamese boys, and we, I can confess, participated in our share of rock fights over the years. There were no clinics for the Vietnamese kids, unfortunately. Often the violence was brought on by sexualized and racialized taunts. There’s the Vietnamese equivalent to “M*ther F*cker,” which is some of my earliest language learned (and I didn’t learn that English phrase until I went to the USA after the war and went to public school in Texas at age 13). There’s the phrase Mỹ lai, which is the equivalent of “B*stard.” There’s a Vietnamese finger gesture somewhat equivalent to the “middle finger” in the West (except it’s to signify fe-male genitalia), and if that didn’t work, well, exposing one’s male genitalia might provoke a fight. That with public urination on the other person often did the trick. Once I got beat up so badly that when my father returned home from church that evening he left again to try to find some in the gang who had injured me to confront them. Another time a Vietnamese soldier found me and my em walking alone, and slapped me on the cheek without explanation, and told my father it was in retribution for what I’d done to his son. Another time my father discovered us all in the middle of a rock fight and first caught and confronted my Vietnamese friend (or enemy) and then, in the middle of the fishing village we lived in, spanked me to show his Christian justice or something. (I just read today Derek Flood’s Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, and some of it brought back to mind much of the sort of gospel I was raised on.) Anyway, I want say that my parents owed their gospel much to the Southern Baptist church, which was formed out of racialized doctrine (and racialized practice), in order to justify from the Bible the owning of black slaves by white Christians. Before we left for South Vietnam, we lived in Texas, where my father pastored a Southern Baptist church and where he and my mother employed an African American woman, “The Help.” Throughout their years as American Southern Baptist missionaries, they likewise always employed such “help.” If sexism existed in America during the Vietnam war, then it did in Vietnam at that time as well. Many of my childhood memories are of the American GIs trying to pick up Vietnamese women and of Vietnamese women working to get picked up. Some of my childhood friends were Amerasian whites and others Amerasian blacks. You can imagine the sort of privilege a kid like me had there during those days and years. And you must only just imagine the home life of missionaries and their children if you haven’t lived that.

When Kelly Brown Douglas in What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls quotes Girard and Orlando Patterson to develop her own contention that “lynching exemplifies the brutal potential of a platonized tradition… through the matter of sexuality,” I confess I find this rings true. She tells the history of America, of Christian white theology, as including how “white society confirmed its belief in black people’s inferior and satanic nature by characterizing … [t]he black male … a rapacious brute and the back female a seductive Jezebel… to sexualize a people… an effective for maintaining control and power over that people.” This rings true in the history as I understand my own people. Brown Douglas, self-identifying as a black female, is trying to give a good answer to the good question “How could you, a black woman, possibly be Christian?” She starts her book with horrific stories of nearly 5000 human beings in the United States lynched publicly not too terribly long ago with no prosecutions of the perpetrators to ask other questions, like, “Why is Christianity so often implicated in vicious crimes of racial, gender, and sexual hatred?”

She uses the present tense in these questions, as if there is still some problem to continue to grapple with. And so does James H. Cone when he tries to look back at the past. He tells the interviewer:

I’ve been writing The Cross and the Lynching Tree over a long period of time. I was writing it before the Obama and Wright controversy emerged. The book emerged out of my attempt to understand what the gospel of Jesus and his cross might mean for America. Especially for America since they crucified so many marginal black people in its history through lynching, the same way Roman society crucified Jesus and so many marginal and poor people during the time of the empire.

I wanted to suggest that maybe if Americans could see the cross in the light of the lynching tree, they might be able to understand what the cross really meant in the 1st century and what the cross might mean for the people who have put other people on crosses.

What the cross meant for my Southern Baptist American missionary parents was that Jesus was not on it. They scorned the Roman Catholic crosses that kept him crucified, perpetually hung up in death. They did not, when I was a little missionary kid, teach me about lynching or seek to identify Jesus’s killing with others who have been oppressed and killed.

But that’s typical. It’s “so traumatizing for the Church that we have covered it up – literally,” confesses Wil Gafney.

She goes one to say this:

The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault.

And if you click here, she gives us pictures.

This is all so awfully subjective that I’m afraid my own upbringing is enmeshed with the horrors and realities. It’s American, and Christian, and raced, and sexualized, and violence.

And yet the histories and the violences and the stories and the subjectivities go back further, more deeply, into other racisms and sexisms. Sometimes we can only bear these things in our present time through art. And sometimes even that art is marked.

Marc Chagall, for example, had and made one rather peculiar and “very personal response to the atrocities” of the Holocaust. Here it is:

One art educator at “Ben Uri, The Art Museum for Everyone, The London Jewish Museum of Art,” explains:

This painting was created at the end of the Second World War, and depicts the
anguish Chagall felt at the increasing number of revelations about the persecution of
Jews during the Holocaust. It is a very personal response to the atrocities.

Importantly, many symbols that Chagall used regularly in his works are used in this
one but with different significance. The floating figures do not symbolise love as in
many of his other works, but pain and horror.

Additionally, most of Chagall’s other paintings of Christ have his eyes closed and a
loincloth covering his genitals. Here Christ’s eye is open to look at the Nazi, and the
loincloth removed.

The picture broadens the view of theology, beyond racialized and sexualized Christian America. It also focuses it on the race of Jesus, and on his sexuality, in terms of empire oppressors, like the Romans and like the Germans. That also, I’m afraid, takes me back to my own childhood and all that was covered up in shame.

So why are you reading this post? Or, rather, let me ask the question another way: what’s my point for readers of this post? Well, you have your own stories, don’t you? And many of us are dealing with American race and sex and violence issues today. And we’re finding much in these issues to be horribly profound with histories that run deep. And just maybe our considerations and our conversations about them might help us understand more and work together to positively change much.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2015 1:11 am

    Hey, I thought I was the Girardian on this blog! 😉

    One thing I’ve become aware of this year, as I’ve started to read and follow more African Americans, as I’ve started to pay attention to the fact that the rate of extrajudicial killings of African Americans in this country now exceeds the rate of African Americans killed by lynching during the Jim Crow era, is that “lynching” is a very live word in the African American community today.

    I was not aware of this when I started writing about Girardian and mimetic theology. Many of the Girardian scholars use “lynching” to describe the all-against-one sacred violence of the scapegoat mechanism as a technical term, in a way that, I now believe inappropriately, abstracts away the concrete reality in the living memory of the African American community. It was, and still is, very compelling for me to describe the crucifixion of Jesus as a “lynching”: but I have come to believe that is not a term that I, as a white theologian, should make free with.

    It seems to me that while Cone pointed at the lynching tree and compared it to the cross, Girard pointed at the crucifixion, and compared it to a lynching. The focus of attention is different.

  2. January 9, 2015 7:27 am

    Yes, you are Victoria. 🙂 And at your blog Gaudete Theology I appreciated, for example, your review of Willard M. Swartley’s work on Girard, and the mention of the “feminist critique of Girard’s work from the perspective of contemporary victims” by Rebecca Adams.

    “lynching”… is not a term that I, as a white theologian, should make free with.

    I am not sure I follow. Are you assuming whiteness as a construct of race, and your race in particular, prevents you from sharing the meanings of lynching with the “the crucifixion of Jesus”? Are you somehow, being white, closer to being Semitic like Jesus as a victim of the Romans? As you more Judaic racially and less Africanic like “African Americans in this country” as victims of “extrajudicial killings”?

    while Cone pointed at the lynching tree and compared it to the cross, Girard pointed at the crucifixion, and compared it to a lynching. The focus of attention is different.

    Again, I’m not sure I get how you mean. Yes, of course, there’s a focus difference. But are you hinting at Girard’s race as a construct, his whiteness? Or his colonial and imperial heritage as a Frenchman? In contrast to Cone?

    I believe Cone is the one identifying Girard as one who sees how “so amazingly similar” the “crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States.” Cone’s footnote directs his readers to Girard’s work where the European refers to “The word that comes most readily to the lips is an Americanism, ‘lynching'” and where he develops the amazing similarity.

    As you see, my post begins with the epigraph, an excerpt from womanist Kelly Brown Douglas. I really should have started in a few sentences earlier. So let me start again. Brown Douglas:

    As for black people, consonant with their sexualized depiction, sexual crimes became a common pretext for their lynching. Given this link between sexuality and black lynching and violent attacks against other sexualized bodies, Girard’s observations concerning the relationship between sacrificial violence and sexuality become germane, especially as they help to further enunciate the implicit danger of platonized Christianity.

    And you see the quotations from Wil Gafney, also self identifying as womanist (if also as feminist). She refers to the crucifixion of Jesus as a “sexual assault.” The image she uses on her blog –

    – is not the Chagall painting I show. And yet both pieces of art show Jesus sexualized. Nobody yet is making the point that his penis is not like the Roman male anatomy because it has been marked Jewish, circumcised.

    Can’t a non-Semitic Africanic female make such observations, focusing the attention the same way that the male Jewish artist does?

    Victoria, I’m just asking to try to follow your thought. Thank you for self identifying as “white” and for letting me do that too. There is, in these States of America today, a certain default and unmarked set of privileges that come with this “race.” And yet what prevents us from deconstructing this construct?

  3. January 9, 2015 10:09 am

    Thanks for the further background from Cone, Brown Douglas, and Gafney: all good and important details.

    To explain my point further: I think it was good, and appropriate, for Girard to draw that connection and observe that “The word that comes most readily to the lips is an Americanism, lynching.” This is a real relationship, and Americans have a word for it, because we have had a practice of it.

    But what I have experienced myself doing, and what I believe I have observed in the works of other white theologians, is that the word gets used almost glibly: too readily, too easily, too frequently, without due remembrance of the victims of Jim Crow lynchings, whose near relatives are still alive today. Furthermore, it gets used rhetorically to embrace all instances of the scapegoat mechanism, including those which do not result in death, including those which do not involve physical violence.

    In a similar way, the terms “tribalism” and “tribes” are used for the in-group dynamics, and the various in-groups, without due awareness that these words have themselves been used to Other Native Americans and Africans as primitive, less-than, uncivilized.

    What I have learned from listening to Black and Native American voices is that these words are potent, charged, live words to the communities who suffered from them. The term “lynching” is a term of terror.

    Therefore, I believe it is not for me as a white theologian to use it as if it were simply another precise technical term, like “scapegoat” or “mimetic rivalry,” or to routinely use it as shorthand for “the operation of the scapegoat mechanism,” or to routinely use the term “lynch mob” as shorthand for “a mob that has been caught up in the frenzy of the scapegoat mechanism.” Because it isn’t a term of terror to me. I don’t have a visceral understanding that this is a bloody term in the way that Cone and Brown Douglas and Gafney do. So it is a term for me to use respectfully, and rarely, and in a way that points out that the lynchings of black people by white people are like the crucifixion of Jesus, rather than in a way that utilizes the lynchings of black people by white people to explain the mimetic understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus: which is how I have predominantly seen it used in the Girardian community.

    I haven’t taken up the sexualized aspect of your post, but the point that Jesus’ penis was marked as Jewish is a very powerful observation.

  4. January 9, 2015 3:39 pm

    Victoria,
    Now I get it. Listening to Black and Native American voices, as you do, does indeed show what we whites have done and might do all over again and may actually be doing. This is the North American historical and present day context. Cone describes Africa and Africans after his visits rather differently in theological terms than he does America and white and black Americans.

    If we return to Girard, in Europe looking across the Atlantic, then is his starting point of understanding Roman “crucifixion” in Jerusalem something he is able to apprehend better and more fully and with more appreciation of the terror, racially and sexually, because he is Franco-Caucasian? Why do any of us goyim — whether Girard or Gayle or Laidler, or Brown Douglas or Cone or Gafney, or Kidwell or Tinker or Woodley — get to use words like “cross” and “crucifixion” in non-Semitic theologies as if we have the slightest clue about what that must mean?

    It seems to me Marc Chagall comes closest to connecting השואה /Shoah/ in Europe with ὁ σταυρός /ho stauros/ in the Middle East.

    How can, or should, Christians (not-Jewish theologians) make such a comparison?

    Is it fair for Cone to assert the following?

    Just as the Germans should never forget the Holocaust, Americans should never forget slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree.

    Should he quote fellow non-Jewish, African-American C. Eric Lincoln as appropriating this word in a much more abstract (and unfair to Jewish sensibilities) context like this one below?

    The Negro church died in the moral and ethical holocaust of the black struggle for self-documentation because the call to Christian responsibility is ….

  5. January 9, 2015 4:15 pm

    I haven’t taken up the sexualized aspect of your post, but the point that Jesus’ penis was marked as Jewish is a very powerful observation.

    Did you know that the white officer not indicted in the killing of Eric Garner was involved in two separated cases in which his alleged victims of his abuse accused him of sexualized inappropriatenesses, according to the following report?

    Darren Collins and Tommy Rice alleged in a 2013 federal court lawsuit that [Officer] Pantaleo and at least four other officers subjected them to “humiliating and unlawful strip searches in public view” after handcuffing them during a March 2012 arrest on Staten Island.

    The court complaint charged that the cops, searching for illegal drugs, “pulled down the plaintiffs’ pants and underwear, and touched and searched their genital areas, or stood by while this was done in their presence.” ….

    Kenneth Collins, a 22-year-old Staten Island man, in November filed a lawsuit alleging that Pantaleo and other police officers violated his rights during a February 2012 marijuana arrest. Along with being arrested falsely, he “was subjected to a degrading search of his private parts and genitals by the defendants,” the court complaint charged.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/04/choke-hold-cop-pantaleo-sued/19899461/

    Here’s some context, perhaps, from Robyn Wiegman’s American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender:

    Caught there, within the framework of a subjectively reductive sexualization, the phallicized black male displays the anxieties and contradictions underlying the “logic” and disciplinary practices of white masculine supremacy: in reducing the black male to the body and further to the penis itself, white masculinity betrays a simultaneous desire for and disavowal of the black male’s phallic inscription. To put this another way, the white male desires the image he must create in order to castrate, and it is precisely through the mythology of the black male as mythically endowed rapist that he has effectively done this.

    In the process, the creation of a narrative of black male sexual excess simultaneously exposes and redirects the fear of castration from the white masculine to the black male body and it is in the lynch scene that this transfer moves from the realm of the psychosexual to the material.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=9780822315919

    And this psychosexuality transfer seems to have existed in this world for some time, when some men dominate others, according to this study:

    Freud points out the widespread tendency to equate penile castration with circumcision, which, he maintained, must have been a relatively milder substitute that was designed to take the place of penile castration in primeval days.

    Thus, to the Greeks and Romans, both mutilations must have seemed to be the ultimate in mindless, barbaric irreverence, excess, and depravity. In this context, it is immediately understandable why the Seleucid and later the Roman imperial administrations, charged with the self-imposed task of civilizing the known world, unhesitatingly criminalized the ritualized disfigurement of the penis.

    http://www.cirp.org/library/history/hodges2/

    I’m looking at the racialized and sexualized language of “Saint” Paul’s letter to his fellow ἀδελφοὶ /adelfoi/ (or “brethren”) in Κολοσσαῖς (or “Colossae”) in Asia just across the sea from Greece. It’s that letter also written with brother Timothy (whose account of being circumcised as an adult male by Paul to be more marked Jewish is recorded in Acts). Paul has Roman citizenship, which he uses to his advantage, and he uses the signs of Jewishness too.

    Can I translate what we call Chapter 2 verses 13 to 15 this way fairly enough?

    13 and you men, corpses both in your fallenness and in your penis foreskins, he made alive together with him, favoring you all with grace over all your fallenness,14 having wiped our handwritten charges that opposed us away, and he has taken it away, nailing it to the Roman crossbar. 15 Castrating the potency of the chiefs, the imperial authorities, he made a public show of them, triumphing over them in himself.

    13 καὶ ὑμᾶς νεκροὺς ὄντας [m]ἐν τοῖς παραπτώμασιν καὶ τῇ ἀκροβυστίᾳ τῆς σαρκὸς ὑμῶν, συνεζωοποίησεν ὑμᾶς σὺν αὐτῷ· χαρισάμενος ἡμῖν πάντα τὰ παραπτώματα, 14 ἐξαλείψας τὸ καθ’ ἡμῶν χειρόγραφον τοῖς δόγμασιν ὃ ἦν ὑπεναντίον ἡμῖν, καὶ αὐτὸ ἦρκεν ἐκ τοῦ μέσου προσηλώσας αὐτὸ τῷ σταυρῷ· 15 ἀπεκδυσάμενος τὰς ἀρχὰς καὶ τὰς ἐξουσίας ἐδειγμάτισεν ἐν παρρησίᾳ, θριαμβεύσας αὐτοὺς ἐν αὐτῷ.

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