Sexualized Racism: Crucifying Jews and Lynching Blacks
[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.
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
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.