Joseph B Howard II

 

Why Did Jesus Die: Theologies of the Atonement

Dr. Bill Danaher

December 2004

 

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the Poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here’s a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

Strange Fruit, as sung by Billie Holiday, (1956)

 

It hangs above my altar

Like they hung him from a cross

I keep one in my wallet

For the times that I feel lost

In a wooden frame with splinters

Where my family kneels to pray

And if you listen close

You’ll hear the words he used to say

I’ve got a picture of Jesus

In his arms so many prayers rest

We’ve got a picture of Jesus

And with him we shall be forever blessed

 

Now it has been spoken

He would come again

But would we recognize

This king among men

There was a man in our time

His words shine bright like the sun

He tried to lift the masses

And was crucified by gun

 

He was a picture of Jesus

With him so many prayers rest

He is a picture of Jesus

In his arms so many prayers rest

With him we shall be forever blessed

 

Some days have no beginning

And some days have no end

Some roads are straight and narrow

And some roads only bend

So let us say a prayer

For every living thing

Walking towards a light

From the cross of a king

 

We long to be a picture of Jesus

In his arms so many prayers rest

I long to be a picture of Jesus

With him we shall be forever blessed

 

Ben Harper, Picture of Jesus

 

Power in the Blood is an intriguing and well constructed look at the intersections between the theology of the atonement (the imagination of the cross) and the “peculiar institution” of slavery, as well as the subsequent class and ethnic stratification resulting from it.  Terrell’s writing reveals someone examining identity and history in an effort to discern the ways in which these have been shaped by the Cross, and in turn, how such an identity and history, i.e the specific history of African-Americans, has contributed in ways positive and negative to the experience of African-American women.  From the introduction onward the use of various devices, including bits of Negro spirituals, biblical text and other writings convey the sense of continuity and critique.

Terrell lays the groundwork for her book through a combination of personal narrative, historical overview and technical explanation.  The introduction gives us an overview of the ways in which feminist and black theology has approached the issue of the atonement and the cross, as well as the place of African American women within these perspectives.  Womanist theology is influenced by both movements but feels each is inadequate to address the particular issues facing African American women.  One area where womanist theology seems to differ from feminist theology possibly derives from the fact that womanist theology necessarily reflects on itself as a movement within the larger African American community.  Womanism clearly sees itself as needing to take into account the experiences, needs and history of the African American community and to understand their relationship to women’s issues—indeed, the very identification of womanist was inspired by Alice Walker’s use of the African American folk-term “womanish,” indicates an understanding of identity as shaped within and through the particularities of history rather than apart from them.

The Womanist critique shares common ground with the feminist in that each identify the ideal of Christ’s surrogacy “as problematic in the confession of faith,” yet womanist thinkers perceive it as such “not only because of its utility in sanctioning women’s oppression but also because of its similarity to the historical circumscription of black women in surrogate roles in relationship to white men, white women and their children.”1

This surrogacy has extended even further, to a surrogacy for black men as well, whether in the field during slavery, becoming provider in the post Christian society and, finally being left in the role of single parent “perhaps singularly owing to the targeting, censuring and scapegoating of young black men through the criminal justice system.”

The problematic nature of the iconography of surrogacy has given Terrell her task; to discover whether “the image of Jesus as a surrogate figure have salvific power for black women, or does it reinforce the exploitation that accompanies their experiences of surrogacy?  [. . .] In other words, is the profession of faith in the cross inimical to black women’s self-interests? Or, is there power in the blood?”2

Before questions surrounding the particular experience of African American women in relation to the cross can be properly addressed, and reflection on what future imagings may look like can begin, Terrell must address the broader narrative of the African American community, its formation during and since the time of slavery as well as its overall view of the cross and Christ.

Beginning with her own remembrance of a crucifixion scene from childhood, Terrell skillfully crafts her observations, pieces from selected slave narratives and other miscellaneous sources, bringing them together with analysis and discussion of the early Church.  Her description of the mandala is full and its details are evocative of the dissonance that exists between the image of the Crucified One whose suffering prevents identification, the iconography of the spirit-Christ which she was not so much drawn as driven toward, and her own identity as an African American:

The triumphalist, incorporeal Christ was only mildly frightening, if somewhat recognizable as an imperious-looking white man!3

She links her own experience with that of the character Celie in The Color Purple, with the description of God echoing her own:

He big and old and gray-bearded and white.  He wear white robes and go barefooted.4

Here exposed is one of the primary spectacles attacked in later civil rights and black radical movements: the equation of white with purity and the divine and the equation of black or brown with inferiority, ugliness or sin.  Such imagery of God created and creates undue distance between the African American and the divinity.

Beginning her historiographical survey and analysis, Terrell concludes that the “ideation of the cross as the central motif in past and current African American religious expressions is traceable to enslavement and the process of Christianization.”5 This process of Christianization took place in the midst of slavery and social instability; “despite their compassionate embrace of one who so identified with them, both cross and croker sack were thrust upon these latter-day ‘black Simons.’”6 The nature of slavery prevented the formation of lasting bonds between slave families and denied male slaves the opportunity to “protect or provide for their families [. . .]” further attacking any sort of normative social cohesion which might begin to form.  Indeed, as in modern totalitarian systems, the institutionalization of rape, systematic control of sexuality and reproduction, as well as the pervasive instability caused by particular forms of disappearance and the cultivation of absurdity, was used to inculcate a sense of powerlessness, “Rape was thus an effective tool for the humiliation of the entire slave community, children, wives and husbands.”7

The denial of marriage to slaves—preventing the formation of basic societal units which might lead to further cohesion and increased resistance and rebellion—further demonstrates of the imposition of an ontological inferiority.  Such an imposition was of fundamental importance to the structure of the slave economy and its importance as societal unit and symbol is clearly attested in the response of former slaves during the reconstruction era.  One black soldier exhorted his fellows, in line with the image Terrell has presented:

Fellow Soldiers:–

I Praise God for this day! I have long been praying for it.  The Marriage Covenant is at the foundation of all our rights.  In slavery we could not have legalized marriage: now we have it.  Let us conduct ourselves worthy of such a blessing—and all people will respect us—God will bless us, and we shall be established as a people.8

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that the end of the war did not bring even the most basic changes often assumed by contemporary people.  Here I might paint an even darker picture than Terrell, for, while slavery de jure was abolished, it often continued in a de facto manner through contract and bond-servanthood throughout the South even under the martial law of Reconstruction.  Indeed, one could argue that the slave economy simply evolved, loosing to some extent a distinctly ethnic and agrarian character and developed into the share-cropping system, textile mills and corvee labor on railroads and other public works into the 20th century.  Because of such institutionalization, former slaves working with the freedmen’s bureau and the military courts found it extremely difficult to reassemble families, thus exacerbating and prolonging the troubles faced by the black community, so that Terrell is able to see her step-father as constrained in his role as provider in similar—if not always as violent—respects as his slave progenitors.9

Terrell ably demonstrates that her statement regarding the early church’s development of atonement doctrine: “Thus, the early church’s own cross had a profound impact on its development of atonement doctrine” can be applied to the African American community’s experience of faith under persecution in an equally justified manner.10  Indeed, Terrell demonstrates great skillfulness in blurring the lines between the slave experience and the martyrdom of the early church.  The prime example of this occurs when, after quoting David Walker, she states that “Some martyrs ‘were obligated to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, sharp shells, etc., upon their points, others were scourged until their sinews and skins lay bare.”11 After this, in a wonderfully crafted manner, Terrell succeeds in completely erasing the line that separates the early martyrs from the slaves by quoting ex-slave Mary Reynolds in a place that would normally be structured to contain contemporary support of the martyrs’ experiences:

Shoes was the worstest trouble.  We weared rough russets when it got cold, and it seem powerful strange they’d never git them to fit . . . We prays for the end of tribulation and the end of beatings and for shoes that fit our feet.12

After affecting this blurring, Terrell effectively turns the table by demonstrating that while renunciation was not frequent among the early martyrs, it provided a way out—alternatively, slaves and later African Americans had no route to escape from their skin color.

While Terrell is clear that Christianity was used as a tool in the oppression of African Americans, she is equally clear that it provided positive things to the community as well.  While in some instances it seems that it underpinned a resignation, she is clear that just as the martyrs went to their fates differently, so did slaves react to their oppression in different ways which weren’t always predictable or predicated only by what form of Christianity they were exposed to.  Indeed, Terrell demonstrates that, just as the outward appearance of the Brer Rabbit stories is benign, they contain a wonderfully adept critique of the power structure, so too did slave religion and the Black Church develop as a critique of the Churches which colluded with slavery and later oppression, just as the faithfulness of black Christians often served as a living criticism of white Christians—from the slave who was able to say to her mistress You no’ holy.  We be holy.  You in no state of salvation,” to the marches in Birmingham and elsewhere, the violence of institutional oppression and the cruelty of the world testified against itself just as it had at the crucifixion.  Terrell puts it this way:

In fairness, sacrificial may not be the right nomenclature for the slaves accommodating words and actions that, on the surface cannot be deemed critical.  Yet, as the conservatism of the Black Church suggests, it is clear that many of their descendants (1) do not acknowledge that Christianity is subject to a history of interpretation that perpetuates their subjugation, and (2) have internalized hermeneutics of sacrifice in a manner devoid of reference to their social, political and economic locations.  What appears accomodationist in the context of slavery often portended survival and enabled self-expression, both of which are part of the black liberation project and even foundational to it.13

Questions:

  1. Reflecting upon the selection of Feminist theology we’ve discussed and the current example of Womanist theology, what differences—if any—do the works display in their approaches to history or identity and how might such differences be at play in disagreements such as that between Rosemary Radford Reuther and Delores Williams?
  2. How are feminist and womanist analyses of the atonement—as portrayed in our selected texts—similar to or distinct from one another?  In what particular areas do they have the most agreement and/or disagreement?
  3. How has the “leveling” aspect of Evangelicalism harmed and helped the African American community?
  4. There seem to be multiple connections between the experience of African Americans and other oppressed groups in latin-American countries—down to the gradation of social class by skin tone—what similarities do you see between Womanist theology and Liberation theology?  What would or does womanist theology find attractive about liberationist understandings and what might be problematic?  How does this compare with any feminist relationships to liberation theology you are aware of?
  5. In her discussion of slave religion Terrell highlights the importance of the Cross as a means of identification between the black community and God.  Does the identification of the slaves with the Crucified God and their subsequent ability to say to their oppressors “You no’ holy.  We be holy.  You in no state of salvation” belie the idea that traditional notions of Jesus as paschal lamb and God as omnipotent, inculcate a “theology of quietude” and a faith of the victim which associates worldly authority with divine favor and resistance to such authority with sin?
  6. Terrell devotes her first chapter to demonstrating the similarity between the African-American slave experience and the persecution experienced by the early church.  Is her characterization of each experience a fair one and if so, what might Terrell’s argument gain from demonstrating their commonality?  Is there a possibility that such a demonstration could actually harm her arguments?
  7. Sociologist John Shelton Reed, formerly of UNC, has argued that Southerners represent a distinct ethnicity; in her second chapter, “There is a Fountain” Terrell speaks of the beginnings of “southern (as distinct from northern) American culture.”  Given the importance of the African-American historical narrative to the trajectory of Black and Womanist theology, how might these theologies be affected by the additional third layer of socio-historical analysis necessitated by the distinction between a Southern and a Northern American culture?  Would Womanist or Black theology be intrigued by or hostile to Reed’s proposal?


Works Cited

Paul D. Escott, David R. Goldfield, Sally G. McMillen, and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, ed. Major Problems in the History of the American South. second ed. Vol. II: The New South, 1999.

Terrell, JoAnne Marie. Power in the Blood?  The Cross in the African American Experience. Edited by Dwight N. Hopkins, The Bishop Henry Mcneal Turner/Sojourner Truth Series in Black Religion. New York: Orbis Books, 2003.


  1. JoAnne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins, The Bishop Henry Mcneal Turner/Sojourner Truth Series in Black Religion (New York: Orbis Books, 2003), 6. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., 1. []
  4. Ibid., 2 []
  5. Ibid., 10 []
  6. Ibid., 17 []
  7. Ibid., 42 []
  8. David R. Goldfield Paul D. Escott, Sally G. McMillen, and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, ed., Major Problems in the History of the American South, second ed., vol. II: The New South (1999), 33 []
  9. Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience, 2., For an example of how this bond servanthood worked in practice to deny the reconstruction of families post-slavery, see Appendix A. []
  10. Ibid., 22. []
  11. Ibid., 24 []
  12. Ibid., 25 []
  13. Ibid., 57 []