Journal of Southern Religion

The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice 
Part III:  Sacrificing Christ/Sacrificing Black Men

Donald G. Mathews

Conceiving of God as Supreme Hangman and the Christ as Divine Substitute Who paid the penalty for human sin in blood sacrifice did not make white Christians lynch black people. The formula did however reflect a state of mind; it reflected the ways in which views of moral accountability and penalty could allow–when fused with whites' racial antipathy, patriarchal prerogative, sexual apprehension, and economic tenuousness–public violence against a black man associated with a crime of rich symbolic significance. In such an event we are confronted with a myth as powerful as that of Christian atonement for it is a myth also of a specific kind of fall, a resulting collective disorder, and a punishment appropriate to the crime. The offense was defined by the myth of the "black beast rapist" intent on ravishing innocent white women;97 the myth inherent in the image became one of the most pervasive white Southern parables of sin, guilt, punishment and salvation. Both myths coincided in the shared recognition that punishment changes things in the community far beyond the mere effect of the act itself upon the "criminal". There is a shared sense that the one upon whom the myth is centered–the Christ or the "rapist"–must die to relieve the discord (sin, anguish, conflict) that is so dangerous to community. Both Christ and rapist become a sacrifice which, as Rene Girard points out, produces "the sacred."98 They do so by plunging all the meaning of community into one act of violence that resolves potential collective conflict and therefore "saves" the community; the subjects of sacrificial violence take upon themselves the sins of community as the scapegoat did in ancient Jewish ritual when consigned the community's sins. The black man like the scapegoat in the Old Testament does not take on sin voluntarily. But voluntarily or not, he is sacralized by collective transference99 to him of sin and violence. This violent transference is justified by appeal in both cases to the justice of God. With regard to Christian atonement, the sacrificial reading of Christ's death lays responsibility for the victim's death upon Divine Justice.100 Killing the black victim is also understood to be the "will of God," that is, just. In both cases punishment is necessary to sustain sacred order, and in the case of the black victim, punishment may be a "sublimation of people's self-assertive instincts and hostilities."101

"Given the brutality of lynching and the contempt with which its victims were treated, one might be excused some skepticism that in executing a black victim, whites were making him sacred."

White Southerners did not think of their executions of black men as similar to Christ's sacrifice although black Southerners did so.102 Walter White, the author and secretary of the NAACP, did not quite make the connection invoked by literary figures and historians, but he did believe that the religion of white Southerners had created the "particular fanaticism" that led to lynching. He recounted a list of atrocities inflicted by Christians against people unlike themselves from medieval pogroms through defenses of slavery to Belgian rule in the Congo; the list could have been much longer. He lashed the mentality that tried heretics and witches, preached "hell-fire" and racial superiorty, and illuminated the night with fiery crosses. The "insane rage" he saw in posturing ministers represented an emotional and ignorant people and he lay all this to the [white] "Christian South."103 Angry as he was at whites' religion, he did not probe the internal punitiveness of a religion he identified with ignorance and fanaticism to think about the sacred nature of the violence he documented in his work. Given the brutality of lynching and the contempt with which its victims were treated, one might be excused some skepticism that in executing a black victim, whites were making him sacred. Such skepticism reflects a point of view, however, that does not see that in the ritual of lynching a communal transference to the subject of violence all of the violence implicit in community itself; or, if it sees the transference, does not understand its religious ambience. Yet reporters at both the lynching of Sam Hose in 1899 and of Leo Frank in 1915 wrote that in a ghastly event they observed something "sacred" was happening.104 As Girard points out, from one point of view "there is . . . hardly any form of violence that cannot be described in terms of sacrifice."105 He believes that the violence which many, perhaps most scholars believe always has its reasons will inexorably find its victim within community as long as the reality of violence in collective life is hidden from communal consciousness.

It is important to remember that Girard thinks of sacrifice not in terms of a priest appeasing deity, but of the practice in ancient societies of selecting outsiders, persons of no status, to provide sites of violence that "solve" problems of collective unrest and implicit conflict because they may be killed without fear of vengeance.106 And, as Edward Ayers, among others, has pointed out, black men seized for lynching were often marginal to the communities in which they were sacrificed.107 Sacrifice is "an act of violence without risk of vengeance," just as is legal execution within the judicial system; it exacts judicial punishment as a substitute for private vengeance that avoids a circle of violence that would otherwise never stop. Sacrificial rites are "essential" in "societies that lack a firm judicial system," Girard writes; they take the place of revenge.108 (On this point one may wonder at the extent to which even a well developed judicial system transcends revenge, given public comment on a jury's indecision about punishment in the second trial of an accused conspirator in the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building.)109 It is possible to think of the American public's vengeful participation through the media in such matters as jury trials, verdicts and executions as indicative of a sacrificial mentality. The accused subject is sacralized in that he [sometimes she] bears the burden of all implicit violence within community when attention is focused upon him or her. The violence of which one is accused becomes symbolic of all violence inflicted upon "the innocent" which becomes in collective perception "the community" that believes itself to have been victimized.

The scapegoat mechanism that allowed Christ to take on the sins of the world in a sacrificial reading of atonement, also allowed Christians historically to transform Jews into scapegoats. During plagues in the fourteenth century, for example, Christians murdered Jews in order to stop the fatal consequences of the black death. This and other Christian persecutions of religious minorities was justified by the same scapegoating mechanism that applies, Girard points out, even if those accused are actually guilty of what they were charged with having done. Accusers still seek in the accused "individual the origin and cause of all that is harmful"110 in the community and perhaps even in the society beyond. The prosecution stereotypes the accused in a way that transforms him into a symbol or representative of the evil deplored in the scapegoating process. If one is selected from a stereotyped, persecuted class of "others" as a lynching victim, it may be because he had not sustained in his own person or actions the differences by which the persecuting authority had insisted those whom he represented should have been distinguished.111 And in fact, we know that black men who had stepped beyond places assigned African Americans by law and tradition, and especially if they had been known as a renegades or had appeared as strangers without significant connections to the community, could in times of economic and social crisis be sacrificed to the communal expectation of obedience to the rubrics of kind, order, class, race and gender. Moving out of place to be like white people instead of remaining "black" could be fatal.112 When such anomalous behavior could be associated with sex–even if the charge was not strictly speaking linked with any real "crime"–the juxtaposition of gender, sex, power, and disobedience in the minds of white people could make lynching seem appropriate. Horrified as perhaps most white Southern Christians actually were at the lynching of black men, they could blame the latter for their own victimization with little guilt.

Consider the cases of Atticus Haygood and William Northen, two men of good will who thought of themselves as friends of "colored people." Haygood was president of a Southern Methodist college in Georgia who was consecrated to the episcopacy some time after having written the controversial Our Brother in Black (1881). Addressed to whites, the book preached racial justice within the segregating process; Haygood wanted to educate, elevate, protect, and heal a people whom he believed had not been treated in a dignified and humane way. He urged white Southerners to surrender their racial prejudice in order to fulfill their Christian obligation to African Americans who, he pointed out, had already been "improving" against great odds.113 Soon after writing the book, Haygood accepted a position with a northern philanthropy intent on seeding Southern higher education for blacks with targeted grants.114 He was one of the few racial liberals in the region and was severely criticized there for his commitment to racial justice; he opposed lynching as one would expect him to do. So did William Northen, sometime governor of Georgia, who had entered politics after serving in the Confederate army and acquiring a reputation for standing up for the common man. He, too, was religious; he was an activist Baptist layman who served as the presidents of both the Southern Baptist Convention and of its Home Mission Board. As governor he lobbied for antilynching legislation and warned the public that he would use the militia to suppress mobs; neither the laws nor the warning did much good, but Northen at least had tried. Neither Haygood and Northen, however, for all the nausea which they genuinely felt at the bloody lynching of black men could ever identify with the mobs' victims, for both linked the butchery with the rape of white women and in doing so could sometimes be understood as justifying the very acts which they thought they were condemning.115

Each probably believed that he had been "misunderstood;" but if so, he would have been wrong. Lynching, Haygood and Northen seemed to be saying, was illegal, that is, without due process, and therefore unjustified; but, they added ominously, violence had erupted from an understandable, and therefore by implication justifiable, collective white response to vicious "negro" crime. If African Americans stopped raping white women, they indicated, white men would not lynch them. The meaning was clear enough: black victims of illegal violence were really at fault. With those whites whom they opposed, Haygood and Northen saw the subjects of lynching not as victims of white oppression, and certainly not as scapegoats for the violence endemic to white supremacy which was acted out in its most punitive ritual, but as violators whom "justice" demanded to be punished. Both Northen and Haygood seemed to be conceding that blacks deserved punishment, but that it had to be "legal"! Within the context of a broad mythic understanding among whites that identified justice with white defined order, normality, and distancing, the distinction between legal and therefore legitimate punishment and illegal but nonetheless legitimate lynching116 was too nice to be sustained. The common assumption that in certain commonly understood encounters between blacks and whites, African Americans were always at fault simply by being black made illegal lynching appear to be as legitimate as legal punishment. The abstraction, "justice," was mystified by tradition, power, and gendered myths associated with relations between the races as interpreted by white men; it was sacralized by pious white people who believed that Law demanded satisfaction from all who breached it. Even the Christ had to have been broken upon the demands of Law that humanity might be saved. The subject of lynching had both literally and symbolically broken the law, and "justice" demanded satisfaction. This is not to say that men and women went through a conscious process that linked a traditional white understanding of Christian atonement to the punishment of black men; but it is to suggest that even those who moralized their actions through Christian conversation could not move beyond the scapegoating mechanism inherent in attributing the source of violence to black people. They could not understand, although they could sense, that lynching resolved violence within the social system by attributing its source to African Americans and then punishing a representative (a vicarious substitute) of that class in order to achieve "peace". They could not see that they were party to a ritual of human sacrifice in which the shedding of blood restores order, resolves violence, and fulfills the requirements of "justice." They identified not with the victim of their violence but with the Law that demanded and therefore justified punishment; it was in the very logic of the predominant white Christian understanding of the Universe.

"The black-rapist myth which justified lynching became one of the most pervasive expressions of white culture in the American South; it received canonical status."

Historians have been more interested in sex, gender, and power than the religious marrow of lynching. Their focus has been natural because the fusion of sex, gender, and power had been seared into the minds of white southerners by over three hundred years of history. By the late nineteenth century this way of thinking had imagined the pervasive mythology of a satanic "black beast rapist" that held both black and white in thrall, the former by a cunning hysteria that used the dominating image of a white-told story to sustain white men in power. Whites were restricted by the myth, as well, for the violence that dominated the story of rape-capture-punishment-release revealed a ferocity in white men when "innocence" was violated that forewarned white women and dissidents of the danger of breaking taboo. The mythic quality associated with the image of the "black beast rapist" lay not in its falsity but its credibility when told as a story that assumed all white women were innocent of desire for black men and that every affront sensed by a white man from a black constituted a danger to white women. It made no difference that statistics could demonstrate that only about twenty-five per cent of all lynchings in the South could be traced even to the claim much less the fact of rape. The black-rapist myth which justified lynching became one of the most pervasive expressions of white culture in the American South; it received canonical status. When in the 1890s, Ida B. Wells challenged the myth as based on the twin illusions of white women's innocence and white men's gallantry, whites' fury suggested that she had committed more than lese majeste and sacrilege. In her blasphemy, the outspoken African-American journalist had profanely challenged one of the most cherished expressions of that "religious feeling [which] is the individual's awareness of the group," if Durkheim's insight is to be conceded at even an elementary level.117 Sexuality, gender, and power were essential to the white individual's awareness of community as expressed in the practices and beliefs of a sacralized segregation; mentally fusing these three with the moral certainty that attributed innocence to some, assigned guilt to others and then demanded vivid punishment in a dramatic act was a religious process.

African-American writers have understood this. Trudier Harris is clear on this point in her book, Exorcising Blackness,118 which she begins by suggesting that lynching is a "Peculiarly American Ritual" and that it is very much like the scapegoating mechanism of ancient ritual that Sir James Frazer had discussed in The Golden Bough. Referring to the transfer of guilt from the community to the "scapegoat" in Frazer's understanding of ancient sacrificial rites, she deftly links it with the "cleansing" process explained by Gordon Allport in The Nature of Prejudice through which groups project "their basest fears and desires onto other groups" and elevate themselves above those thus despised.119 Reluctant to concede that lynching had the cosmic implications suggested in this essay, Harris nonetheless analyzes the ways in which African-American writers have engaged whites' obsession with black sexuality and the terrible consequences of that obsession for African Americans. Indeed, she argues that Richard Wright used "the lynching and burning ritual, and historical and social connotations surrounding it, to shape the basis of his aesthetic vision of the world."120 From the history of white violence, Wright displays the ritualistic care with which white executioners focus their torture and punishment on the black victim's sexuality which they carve out of him according to rubrics they seem instinctively to know. Each movement seems to call attention to the power of white men to punish blacks, the cutting and the burning seem to purify the crowd participating in this ghastly cleansing ritual and the trophies taken from the body afterwards appear to be sacred relics taken to remind their beholders of action that is quite unlike the ordinary actions of common life. The task which black male writers assumed, Harris believes, was to "exorcise fear from racial memory;"121 but their function here is to remind us that if they focused primarily on the ways in which whites castrated blacks to remind African Americans of who the enemy was, they also understood that the violence against them was ritualized; it reflected whites' conception of the universe. What most whites did not understand was that, as Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, "the loveliest lynchee was our Lord."122

That insight identified victims of lynching with the same Christ whose death within a sacrificial understanding of the atonement seemed to prevent empathy with the victims of community violence. Certainly Haygood and Northen had not been able to understand the victimage of black men. The attitudes and self-righteousness behind the dominant myth of atonement had somehow to be changed; the Christ had to be understood as suffering with the victims of white violence, and the myth of the black-beast-rapist that incorporated the myth of the immaculate protection of white womanhood had to be exposed. Such alchemy was not easy; but by 1905 there were some changes. Then, a strange and compelling little book appeared, written by the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Newport News, Virginia, Edwin Talliaferro Wellford. In The Lynching of Jesus,123 Wellford did not confront either ancient or modern myth directly; he merely told a familiar story with a reshaded emphasis. His first chapter suggested his purpose. In "The Slaughter of the Innocents" he pointed out that lynching could not be justified by appeal to the myth of immaculate protection; he excoriated mob law as the lynching of both the victim and the law. He thought that the "savage spirit of barbarity" aroused with every lynching constituted a "Reign of Terror" and he pleaded for a "full exposure of the crime" and those who committed it. Then he made an abrupt but sophisticated transition to an even greater barbarity. "The lynching of Jesus excels in brutality and in the slaughter of the innocent, all succeeding offences," he observed to a white Christian audience. "So long as the twentieth century looks on with unstirred sympathy and passes by the mobbing of Jesus with unconcern and apathy, so long will similar deeds be repeated, in any land with impunity. If the public conscience does not resent the greatest it will not take cognizance of the less."124

By saying such a thing, Wellford was not diminishing the scandal of lynching black men; he was doing the exact opposite. He was subtly attempting to change the focus of his white Christian readers' attention when they thought of lynching. He wanted them to make a connection between what Christ's executioners did to Him, and what white people did to the black men they murdered. Whereas Robert Lewis Dabney had written fiercely of "God in his punitive providence having punished Christ "legally and righteous for the guilt of sin imputed to him,"125 Wellford now changed the tone and the structure of crucifixion. He was trying to shift responsibility from the black victim of white violence to the white perpetrators themselves; lynching was to be seen not as the [understandable] illegal punishment of guilty black men, but as the modern recapitulation of deicide. In engaging one of the principal doctrines of Christianity deriving from "Jesus Christ and Him crucified," he was thinking of the atonement in a new light. Rather than emphasize the presumed Divine justice involved in Christ's sacrifice, he emphasized its profound injustice; he also seemed to be trying to transfer empathy for the murdered Christ to modern lynch victims by exposing the way in which Jesus had been "lynched". He understood that somehow the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement had allowed white Christians to ignore both the meaning of the crucifixion and the lynching of black men. Wellford did not attack the theology, but instead emphasized the illegality of each step in the process that led to crucifixion.

Leading the reader by the hand through proof texts step by step along the maze through which Jewish and Roman authorities went as they short-circuited the judicial system and avoided due process, the author strips away all pretence to justice. And he insists at last that all participants–Sanhedrin, chief priests, Pontius Pilate and the mob–know that the young rabbi was innocent. "Law," writes Wellford, "was never so debauched, nor `man's inhumanity to man' so apparent."126 What had murdered the Christ? Hatred, calmuny, secrecy, conspiracy, the "insatiate passion of a misguided multitude!" "Innocence," Wellborn observes, "has often been victimized by personal interest, political pull, sordid bribery, or frenzied passion." But he insists, the Nazarene will judge in His time all those who have oppressed, all those who have murdered, for he knows "the merit of right, and has felt the oppression of wrong." The Presbyterian clergyman then ends by linking the reader with the Christ and the Christ, in turn, with victims of injustice; there is no doubt that lynching is the instrument of oppression.127

"Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness."

Wellford's pamphlet is scarcely the first robin before a spring of either racial justice or theological mutation. But his homiletic insight that Jesus, too, was lynched–when understood within the conservative ethos of Southern white religion–suggests that a few people at least were beginning to see things which such pious and decent men as Atticus Haygood and William Northen could not see. The mythic sustenance of scapegoating available in traditional theology was being challenged. But an even more important challenge to myth took place within a generation, and that was the challenge from white Southern women to the myth of immaculate protection. Jacquelyn Hall has explained how in the 1920s white women from within the Wesleyan tradition together with African-American women began to work for racial justice as uneasy allies in coalition with men of the Commission on Inter-racial Cooperation (CIC). Disciplined by the scheming arrogance of men who controlled the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, these white women were part of a vanguard who were expanding the claims of religion beyond the confines of manmade walls with the help of the new discipline of sociology and the urgency of a new social gospel. Under the leadership of Jessie Daniel Ames who got them to create the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), these women attacked the myth of immaculate protection by word and action. By joining the antilynching movement already begun by Ida Wells (the Anti-Lynching Crusaders), the National Association for the Protection of Colored People, and the CIC, the white women of ASWPL insisted that they were threatened not by black rapists but white lynchers. Their action impressed indelibly upon the public mind the meaning of their words. At the local level they worked with and sometimes against law enforcement officers to prevent lynchings; if they still feared assault by black men, they nonetheless acted in such a way as to put their faith in law instead of extemporaneous community violence.128 In belying myths based on innocent and helpless white women, activists had not stopped lynching; but they had begun to participate in disenchanting the South's most sacred myths.

Subversion of the myths that justified lynching suggests how the power of belief and the aura with which white power was sacralized in the New South could permit even horrendous acts to be thought legitimate. The purpose of this essay has not been to say that white Christians justified the torture and murder of black men because of their consent to a certain doctrine. Those who believed the dogma of penal substitutionary atonement were nauseated by the ghastly rituals enacted in public lynchings. Morever, there were many different kinds of lynchings in the South, as Fitzhugh Brundage has pointed out.129 Some murders were committed in secret by a few men bent on revenge; some were a combination of sport and cruelty; some were designed to remove barriers to whites' freedom of action. There were other kinds as well. The lynchings assumed here are generic with the justifying myth of immaculate protection behind them and with the implication of just punishment for the violation of innocence. The primary focus has been to suggest a connection between the South's most dramatic act of brutality and the pervasive drama of salvation preached from pulpits throughout the region. The connection had to exist because there is so much scattered evidence of it; but it is evidence that has not been engaged by historians even though W. J. Cash in the free association of his haunted mind had made it when he referred to "primitive frenzy" and the "blood sacrifice." That the religion of those who lynched black men through public acts of ritualized punishment exalted an engine of torture as a symbol of their faith suggested this line of inquiry. To suggest that the nexus is at a point where religion and conceptions of justice meet is merely to begin.

Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness. Holiness demands purity and purity was sustained in the segregated South by avoidance, margins, distances, aloofness, strict classification and racial contempt. To be sure, economic benefits flowed from whites' attempts to control black people but these were hidden even from white people themselves by fabricating sexualized myths of otherness about African Americans. Essential to these myths by the late 1880s was the image of the white woman whose innocence justified whatever violence white men might find "necessary" for her protection against the "black-beast-rapist." When myth brought violence, the deadly rituals that stripped the black victim of his sexuality were grisly evidence of a transfer to the black body of all the violence, guilt, and shame of the white community; the transfer re-enacted ancient scapegoating rituals. That the formal religion of Southerners should have been symbolized by "sacrifice" is not surprising. The cross had come to symbolize a salvation effected by Christ's paying just satisfaction for the sins of humanity: focus was on the justice of punishment. Even God had had to pay the price for human sin! His Justice required it. That African Americans could see lynching as a sacrificial act in which they identified with the victim meant that existentially at least they understood an alternative view to the orthodox (white) emphasis on penal sacrifice. A few whites could begin to see that Christ, too, had been lynched and to challenge both theology (implicitly) and white conceptions of justice (explicitly). A few white women could try to subvert the myth of immaculate protection because they understood its power to dominate themselves as well as black people. Because the myth of God's just vengeance permitted whites' obsession with punishment to rule their relations with blacks there was no restriction within the myth to the racism that clouded their vision. E. T. Wellford, however, had sensed that atonement demanded empathy with sacrificial victims so that there might be no more "victims"; but his insight remained hidden from most Southern whites. They could not see, as black Christians did, that in a sacrifice celebrated in such dramatic and public fashion, the Christ had become black.

Notes to Parts I, II, and III

© 1998-2000 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

contents main page masthead advertisers e-mail