11 Theses on C.S. Lewis

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1. The historical C.S. Lewis (“Lewis” hereafter) whoever he may have been, and assuming that he existed in concrete history and actually authored those texts which now bear his name, can only have meaning and should only be known and visaged through his reception in popular consciousness as the evangelico-theologian par excellence, the one residing in the bema seat of pseudo-papacy among those anti-clericalists.

2. To the extent that the category of ‘interesting’ – that border between the aesthetic and the ethical which Silent John biddably pontificated – still maintains in our culture of spineless narcissism, Lewis, anecdotes about Lewis, appeals the Lewis’s trilemma, references to any of Lewis’s works by way of paraphrase, quotation, etc, (Mere Christianity notwithstanding), discussion of the Inklings, appeals to the authority of the Inklings, or to Lewis’s (uncourageous, inconclusive, and impoverished) universalism, or, God-forbid, Lewis’s apologetics must be responded to with a magnanimous and resounding and definitive ‘NO’.

3. Lewis is defined by the Feuerbachian self-projection fetishization impressions of white male evangelical Christians.

4. As a defendant of the capital punishment and advocate of violence, albeit in discriminate circumstances (akin to Thielickian “Boundary Situations,” though his odorous British sanctity would never permit a condescension to such Lutheran Philistinism), and one who emarginated a perceived monolithic and cowardly pacifism by way of an overextended patriotic machismo, Lewis,sub specie aeternitatis, inversely subjugated himself to the deserts of those he would guillotine, though such incurvatus in se miraculously did not supervene upon his literary imagination, as it was compartmentalized and thus immunized from becoming macabre vignettes reflecting his violent self-incurred minority

5. Whatever one makes of the mephitic lionization of Lewis the thinker, his novels, those fables capped with a dimestore Christian patina, those creatures who he disfigures, cutting out their eyes and removing their limbs, in order that they might fit into the Procrustean bed of a garden variety Jesus, those creatures alone are the undoing of the Lewis myth.

6. One needn’t look any further to grasp the pusillanimity and utter banality of Lewis than by observing his critiques of modernist poetry. Indeed, Lewis reveals himself to be J. Alfred Prufrock’s doppelganger who impresses readers with a veneer of the classical studies, as one who’d appeal to the fecund Sappho of Lesbos over Pounds’ mystic Agassiz for no more reason than traditionalist nostalgia.

7. And George Dickel does more than mere Lewis can
To suffer the divine in the minds of man

8. If there is any hope (which Hope bids us to hope against) for salvage in Lewis’s theology it must be “redeemed from fire by fire.” That is to say, Lewis makes the profound methodological and conceptual mistake in secondary theology of conflating questions of the logic of Christian coming to faith with questions of the logic of Christian beliefs. In other words, Lewis’s fervor for answers with apologetic force subsume, overtake, and replace the content of various theological loci which, consequently, leads to an utilitarian and functionalist trivialization of understanding God’s way of relating, a quasi-Manichean assessment of nonhuman creatures, anthropocentric and instrumentalist theological views of human beings proper relations to nonhuman creatures, and anthropocentric moralizing of accounts of Christian beliefs about human beings. This is not desiderata.

9. Lewis, as Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper long ago truly romanced, is a cantaloupe.

10. It is, in fact, the elephant in the living room with all Lewis’s thought that his work was composed from within the pinnacle of ivory tower separatism; in the haughty halls of Oxford this English elite became a reader and writer. The praxis of faith as an act of trust neglected, Lewis was blind to the hermeneutical dialectic of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, thus relegating himself to complacency in the cause of liberation and closing off the sanctifying interiorized monasticism that might let him see Christ in his sister. His is a body of work arising from among the smug, bourgeois class of Britain who with one hand pen grand treatises of piety, aspiring for the universal yet absent the very concretization that saves from provincialism and chauvinism, and, consequently, with the other hand plunder Oliver Twist’s meager portions, take hold Uriah’s wife, and maintain the opacity of power in the oppressors, forcing the imagination’s rue in its coerced monadic state.

11. The dialectic of authority, faith’s adamantine bulwark, the dark penumbra of aestheticism’s languor: where can we find this in Tolkien’s bawdy mistress? His acolytes, splash their brain-colors on canvas, where are the hard blues, the violently obedient reds, pigments untouched by the category of the pleasant. An adulterous generation seeks a sign, a purveyor of apologies, an eloquent lulling word that mitigates the avalanche thundering out of Zion: “You shall!”

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3 Theses on George Strait

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1. George Strait is the King of Country Music; that is, he is Country’s true, good, and beautiful.
Anyone familiar with George and his legacy will recognize this to be a cliché, truistic, and mundane point — his epithet is King George, after all. And I can only agree. This title which so rightly describes George shows nothing less than the nobility of country music listeners. Flannery O’Connor used to quip when people asked her about Southern writers penchant for writing about freaks that it was because “we are still able to recognize one.” Likewise, country music fans (dare I say believers?) call George King because they are still able to recognize one who has ascended most excellently the heights of his heroic craft. To borrow from Terrence Malick against any remaining cynicism about this claim, I say that “when people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”

2. George Strait’s performance in ‘Pure Country’ stands as the pinnacle of all musicians who have ventured into the role of movie-screen thespian.

Outdoing the likes of Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan, or Will Smith in Wild West just to name a handful, Strait’s art displays an intensity and profundity that retains its essential Country character that is admirable and deserving of votarients from all aesthetics.

3. ‘I Can Still Make Cheyenne’ is the epitome of Country music, illuminating its true form and content, dignified with a profound egalitarianism, haunted by love lost, chastened by the frontier setting of Wyoming and chastened again through its realism as its driven by the circuit bull-rider, and incarnating an instantiation of that which defines the cowboy — namely, freedom.

To unpack this thesis would require monograph upon monograph. Indeed, an ivory tower university of coveted knowledge would do well to create an entire society of Strait scholars rather than superficially exegeting him in any volume less than the breadth of Kirchliche Dogmatik. For now, rather than risk reducing the ever-expanding meaning of the event that this song is, as if cartographically elucidating the omnitude of the Siberian Wilderness with the boundaries of the Dzhugdzhur Mountains passed satisfactorily, I will simply summon you to enter the whirlwind boldly.

A non-Baptist view of Southern Baptists; or, for John Howard Yoder and against Harold Bloom

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Last autumn in an article on the possibility of a Mormon president in the 2012 election, Harold Bloom, thundering out of Zion (see Housman for context), judges the Southern Baptist Convention to be as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam or Mormonism. In the midst of his slew of idiosyncratic declarations of the genealogy and content of American religions Bloom also makes the passing comment that the Southern Baptist Convention is “anti-intellectual and semi-literate.” No response to Bloom’s snobbery is required (his first claim is historically contentious, to say the least, and I have no interest is forming a historical apologetics contra Bloom’s religious historiography), rather, I quote him to evidence one account of a non-Baptist view of Southern Baptists. Bloom postures himself within what John Howard Yoder would call the “maturation” perspective of Southern Baptists. This typology, which is common to mainstream ecumenical Protestantism as well as the American pluralist establishment, sees the SBC, like Catholicism, as a substantial sectarian religious group. The SBC holds power in numbers and cultural self-confidence which permits it to operate independent of, and without recourse to, other churches or political bodies in America. Yoder notes that from this viewing place it is hoped that as theologians and pastors become more refined, and as the laity becomes less naive (or perhaps, for Bloom, more literate), the Southern Baptist identity will naturally wither and their “sect” will become more akin to a “denomination” and soften its boundaries; that is, SBC will acculturate to the “mainstream.”

Such a view, Yoder says, must be rejected not because it is unlikely to happen but because it is condescending and unecumenical, and further it betrays itself to an uncalled-for confidence in the American pluralist establishment.

Another vista, though not the only other, to view the Southern Baptist reality from — and the one Yoder assumes — is the believer’s church stance and it’s attendant Radical Reformation ecclesiology. This stance forces a much more delicate approach that appears more sympathetic that the enlightened view of a Harold Bloom, however, it brings with it a chastening view of history that challenges the unfaithful aspects of the Southern Baptist reality.

The content of the challenge from Yoder’s perspective within the believer’s church comes down to avoiding the abiding temptation of establishment. The central problem, not just for Southern Baptists but for all communions and churches, is the Constantinian temptation. Nevertheless, Southern Baptists have succumbed to Constantinianism. Yoder qualifies this: the SBC is not Constantinian in the strict sense of having a structural bridge between it and the State, but rather in its mood and tone. The result of its fall into establishmentarianism is that it has developed provincialisms that alienate distinctive Christian markers of identity.

The first provincialism is the development of what Yoder describes as a “theologically illegitimate neo-sacramentalism.” This happened when Southern Baptists began to focus on the issue of the mode of Baptism rather than the baptized person’s accountability. Southern Baptists’ allowance for lower ages in baptism has subsequently dissolved the ability to distinguish between their form of baptism and infant baptism. The original issue behind rejecting infant baptism was that the person being baptized had reached an age where he or she could be accountable to the “standards and discipline of the Christian community and to costly obedience to Christ as Lord.” Southern Baptists have lost this meaning and focused instead on tertiary issues such as the mode of baptism.

Secondly, they have adopted a view of conversion that meshes with the individualism of American secular anthropology to the neglect of the corporate character of the community of faith according to the Bible. This adoption has led to an emphasis and concern with the psychological mechanisms of conversion and the life of faith over against attention to visible expressions of faith. Yoder rightly points out that in the New Testament conversion is profoundly personal, but not individual, and certainly not concerned with the happenings taking place in each personality.

The third provincialism, is the ecclesiological move from asserting the priority of the local congregation to holding to its exclusivity. Southern Baptists, Yoder says, have adopted an uncritical schematization that has led to this move. The exclusivity of the local church isolates the local congregation, taking away boards or conventions to aid in decision-making processes. This position fosters an unecumenical (anti-ecumenical?) disposition that does little work positively towards Christian unity.

The fourth provincialism is the SBC silence towards social ethics. Yoder indicts the SBC for hiding behind the dualism of church and state or personal piety and cultural practice. The problem is that the only link between the church as a social organism and social ethics is by means of the individual heart of the believer. Social ethics are seemingly non-existent and there is no presence of a peoplehood of the church living in society with radical non-conformed demands. Further, Yoder reprimands this distortion as an essentially Lutheran paradigm for social ethics, and not a view from the believer’s church.

The fifth provincialism Yoder labels as a more pernicious one. Here he points out the acceptance of the nationalism of the modern culture within the SBC. This cause Southern Baptists to see the “separation of Church and State” as an internal division of labor within a perceived Christendom. Biblically and in Radical Reformation origins and ecclesiology, the “separation” was from not only the State but also the cultural nationalism. It entailed looking beyond, and a readiness to pass judgment upon, one’s own nation and race. Once this vision is lost theologically, Yoder says, “the loose structures of the Free Churches make it especially easy to fall prey to this kind of apostasy.”

The sixth provincialism is what Yoder calls the “quasi-creedalism” adopted during the Fundamentalist controversy. Modernity forced upon Southern Baptists a mental rigidity and doctrinal traditionalism disloyal to the convictions of the Free Church. The unquestionable creeds adopted in the twentieth century — the five fundamentals, antievolution, millennialism — “had all the drawbacks of the historic creeds and none of their nobility.” This “quasi-creedalism” has evolved in such a way that it functions now as a sort of tribute that must be paid to ensure citizenship.

These provincialisms all stem from Constantinianism, for Yoder. Rather than seek remedy in assimilating to the mainstream and appeasing the American pluralist establishment, Yoder argues to let Baptists be Baptist. What he means is:

(1) Let them renew their commitment to their Radical Reformation ecclesiology and heritage.

(2) Let them pioneer in renewing the meaning of this heritage in the face of the establishment temptation — which will include reflecting on the above-listed provincialisms.

(3) Let them enter into interchurch conversations with all their distinctive convictions as far as their convictions will permit allowing them to reprimand sister communions who have allowed their witnesses to be dulled.

(4) Let them be open to other traditions in such a way that can be distinguished from accommodations to “mainstream” Protestantism.

For Yoder, movement in this direction allows for great ecumenical possibilities that can reach far beyond Southern Baptists themselves. Not only can Southern Baptists then receive their Free Church heritage more faithfully but they can witness to the wider Christian world their particular theological convictions. In nuce and against the pomposity of Harold Bloom, Yoder’s perspective offers a challenge to Southern Baptists from someone standing by their side to live more fully and faithfully as the church that resists the Constantinian temptation while maintaining its distinct identity seperate from the quarantined neo-liberal American pluralism.

– Quotes from Yoder’s article “A Non-Baptist View of Southern Baptists”

Niebuhr’s genealogy of power — the business man as priest

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“The two most obvious types of power are the military and the economic, though in primitive society the power of the priest, partly because he dispenses supernatural benefits and partly because he dispenses supernatural beliefs and partly because he establishes public order by methods less arduous than those of the soldier, vies with that of the soldier and landlord. The chief difference between the agrarian civilisations, which lasted from the rise of ancient Babylon and Egypt to the fall of European feudalism, and the commercial and industrial civilisations of today is that in the former military power is primary, and in the latter it has become secondary, to economic power. In agrarian civilisations the soldier becomes the landlord. In more primitive periods he may claim the land by his own military prowess. In later periods a grateful sovereign bestowed land upon the soldiers who defended his realm and consolidated his dominion. The soldier thus gained the economic security and the social prestige which could be exploited in further martial service to his sovereign. The business man and industrial overlord are gradually usurping the position of eminence and privilege once held by the soldier and the priest.”

– Reinhold Niebuhr. Moral Man and Immoral Society.

Michelle Alexander against colorblindness

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“Although colorblind approaches to addressing the problems of poor people of color often seem pragmatic in the short run, in the long run they are counterproductive. Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem. Saying that colorblindness is the problem may alarm some in the civil rights community, especially the pollsters and political consultants who have become increasingly influential in civil rights advocacy. For decades, civil rights leaders have been saying things like “we all want a colorblind society, we just disagree how to get there” in defense of race-conscious programs like affirmative action or racial data collection.

… Far from being a worthy goal, however, colorblindness has proved catastrophic for African Americans. It is not an overstatement to say the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post-civil rights era if the nation had not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness.

… The deeply flawed nature of colorblindness, as a governing principle, is evidenced by the fact that the public consensus supporting mass incarceration is officially colorblind. It purports to see black and brown men not as black and brown, but simply as men–raceless men–who have failed miserably to play by the rules the rest of us follow quite naturally. The fact that so many black and brown men are rounded up for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by whites is unseen. Our collective colorblindness prevents us from seeing this basic fact.

… Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream–a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”

– Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010. Pages 240, 241, 244.

William Stringfellow and the FBI

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“I have mentioned earlier that I became persuaded to write while engaged in writing An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. That was no conclusion abstractly reached. It was mainly occasioned by the actual political situation in which An Ethic was written. On the very day that Daniel Berrigan, S.J., then a political fugitive because of his opposition to the war in Southeast Asia and his resistance to the war regime, was seized at the home of Anthony Towne and myself on Block Island by the federal police, I was typing the manuscript of that book. Subsequent to Berrigan’s capture, Towne and I were subjected to harassment, official defamation, and surveillance by the authorities, including a remarkable incident in which a government agent, once again intruding upon my work on An Ethic, sought to interrogate me about theology and politics. He began the interview this way: “Dr. Stringfellow, you’re a theologian.” (I thought his introit faintly sarcastic.) “Doesn’t the Bible say you must obey the Emperor?” His query startled me, I admit, not so much for its thrust as for the evidence it gave of how minutely the ruling powers scrutinize citizens. I could not concede the simplistic premise about the Bible that his question assumed, and I rebuked him about this, taking perhaps forty-five minutes to do so. During the discourse, he wilted visibly, and, when I paused momentarily, he abruptly excused himself and departed. This was some dissapointment to me, for I had only just begun to respond to the multifarious implications of the issue he had raised. The episode contributed to my conviction to write this book.”

– A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow. Edited by Bill Wylie Kellerman. Eerdmans, 1994.

Mark Twain on narrative

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“Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary. With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.

With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative. That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks, cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes a lot of time in reflections.”

– The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Volume 1. University of California Press, 2010.

67 years ago…the liberation of Auschwitz

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The

Sixty-seven years ago, to this day, the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated. Today marks its commemoration, and many countries around the world will recognize and remember it. Rowan Williams has a short video on this memorial day for the UK and exhorts watchers to speak on behalf of the stranger. In passing he mentions an important figure for the Confessing Church, Pastor Martin Niemöller. I thought it would be good to share Pastor Niemöller’s well-known poem.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though not a prisoner at Auschwitz, has a statement that is marked at the ruins of St. Nicholas’ Church in Hamburg, Germany.

 

The statement reads:

No man in the whole world can change the truth.
One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it.
The truth is in all places.

‘Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection’

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We in our plaid dresses and orlon sweaters and velveteen shoes and they in their suit coats with the vestigial collars turned up and the lapels closed might have been marooned survivors of some lost pleasure craft. We and they alone might have escaped the destruction of some sleek train, some flying shuttle of business or commerce. Lucille and I might have been two of a numerous family, off to visit grandmother in Lapwai. And they might have been touring legislators or members of a dance band. Then our being there on a bitter morning in ruined and unsuitable clothes, wordlessly looking at the water, would be entirely understandable. As it was, I thought of telling them that our grandfather still lay in a train that had slid to the lake floor long before we were born. Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to continue across the bridge. The passengers would arrive, sounder than they departed, accustomed to the depths, serene about their restoration to the light, disembarking at the station in Fingerbone with a calm that quieted the astonishment of friends. Say that this resurrection was general enough to include my grandmother, and Helen, my mother. Say that Helen lifted our hair from our napes with her cold hands and gave us strawberries from her purse. Say that my grandmother pecked our brows with her whiskery lips, and then all of them went down the road to our house, my grandfather youngish and high-pocketed, just outside their conversation, like a difficult memory, or a ghost. Then Lucille and I could run off to the woods, leaving them to talk of old times, and make sandwiches for lunch and show each other snapshots.”

Housekeeping

[the picture of the bridge comes from the bridge on Washington Street over the Brazos in Waco where the horrors inflicted on Jesse Washington occurred; it is also the site of the second Waco lynching]

The Bible’s View of The Lynching Tree: The Story of Jesse Washington

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In the early years of the last century, on the first Monday of every month, a group of old men, Wacoans, sat on iron benches under a tree and discussed the Bible. On all sides they were hemmed in by a loud crush of horse traders and vegetable hawkers, moving about in a city square that would in a few days accommodate thousands of transfixed souls. The tree hanging over these men, out of respect to the group’s weighty subjects, became known as “the Tree of Knowledge”. A small box containing a Bible was lodged permanently in a hollowed-out space of the tree, and it was referred to as the discussion demanded. This spot might have been the Jerusalem of Waco, but the city itself was commonly referred to as the “Athens of Texas.”

It was home not only to Baylor, but also to two black colleges. In addition, Waco was the second largest producer of cotton in Texas and, situated at the intersection of seven major railroad lines, considered itself the largest market for cotton in the entire country. So when the old men on the benches looked past each other they would have seen a city full of advancement and commerce. Their eyes would have admired the Alico Building’s prominence on the skyline, the first skyscraper ever built in Texas. 

On Monday, May 8, 1916, at sundown, hours after these men would have gone to their separate homes comforted by good company, Lucy Fryer, 53, was found dead in a pool of blood inside the doorway of her seed barn, about thirty steps from her house. A neighbor, one Cris Simon, was the first to supply the police with any direction. He had seen a black farm laborer, seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, heading in from the fields and toward the seed house only a few minutes before Lucy’s two children found their mother’s body.

Jesse Washington was large and strong, but illiterate and perhaps retarded. The reports afterward are not clear as to whether Washington was actually retarded, but one of the most significant indications, according to the investigator Elisabeth Freeman, was that he made no effort to escape after supposedly killing Lucy Fryer. He was found planting cotton, right where he should have been. He was frightened when arrested, but soon “curled up in the automobile and went fast to sleep.” Although his guilt remains in question and, without any other suspect, the evidence seems to weigh against him, his behavior after being detained is at the least highly abnormal. 

Initial reports from the press precluded any possibility of a fair trial. Newspapers wrongly reported that Lucy Fryer had been assaulted (raped). They drummed up hatred for Jesse Washington among their white readers using language like: “That Mrs. Fryar [sic] had made desperate resistance against the brute who assaulted her and then completed his fiendish crime by killing her, was unmistakable.” This from the Times Herald was in tune with the two other major Waco newspapers in portraying Washington as a brutish rapist, a detail which, far from being harmless but unsubstantiated, contributed significantly to the riotous fervor surrounding Jesse Washington’s murder trial.

There is evidence that points to Washington’s guilt, but nothing conclusive. His guilt, however, is not relevant to this story, so suffice it to say that he may very well have killed Lucy Fryer, and he may well have been mentally unstable. He did in fact sign a confession admitting guilt, but he was illiterate and the language of the document, we can imagine, is quite unlike the language he would have used. But that is irrelevant; his trial and its aftermath are the only thing at the heart of this story.

Prosecutors tried to rush through his sentencing so that public opinion would not have time to foment and issue in a violent lynching, an experience not unfamiliar to an area notorious for mob violence. Jesse was indicted on May 11 and his trial was set for the following Monday morning, May 15, 1916, one week after Lucy Fryer’s murder. 

Six inexperienced lawyers were chosen to represent him on that Monday. Not one of them spoke to their client before the trial. As Bernstein points out about the nature of these speedy trials, “the practice of lynching was to be ended by hustling defendants through fast-paced trials and straight on to eternity in record time — in effect, converting illegal lynchings into legal ones.” 

The Sunday before the trial hoards of people starting streaming into Waco from outlying cities on the railroad lines. People came from every town within twenty miles to come see Washington’s trial. On the morning of the trial, according to the Times Herald, as many as twenty-five hundred people crowded into Judge Monroe’s courtroom, “churning around the chamber for an hour, flooding the balconies and standing two persons high wherever a railing or a bench permitted.”

The trial started at 10 a.m. Were the old men under the tree speculating or were they fighting for a view of Jesse Washington? The prosecution presented their evidence and the crowd boiled. Washington’s defense declinded to make a final argument. Four minutes after the jury retired they came back and at 11:22 foreman W.B. Brazelton read the verdict: “We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder as charged in the indictment and assess his penalty at death.”

All of a sudden, as the court officers were preparing to take Washington away, a young farmer in the back cried, “Get the nigger!” A man standing by the judge said, “They are coming after him”, and then the thousands of bodies started rushing in unison to get their hands on Washington. The sheriffs had already silently exited the courtroom to avoid a confrontation with the wave of people. The mob tackled a terrified Washington and carried him by the collar down the back stairs and out into alley, tearing off his clothes as they went. Once outside they strapped a chain around his neck and proceeded to drag him down Washington street. One of the most chilling descriptions came from an observing reporter, who said that Washington “became the plaything of the mob.” As they dragged him down Washington street, which now holds Waco’s shame in its name, the young black boy cried out, “Haven’t I one friend in this crowd?” He didn’t. The crowd had already begun slashing him with their knives and “he was covered in blood long before the square was reached.” Every man had his turn at the plaything, with shovels, bricks, clubs, and anything that could inflict pain. 

The chainholders turned on Second Street to take Jesse to City Hall to burn him alive, in the direction of the iron benches and the tree of knowledge. At City Hall they threw the chain wrapped around Washinton’s throat over a tree limb and pulled on it to hoist him up and dangle him before the crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 that packed into the city square. Washington grasped at the chain around his neck; the men closest grabbed his arms and cut off his fingers so that he would stop. The Times Herald: “Fingers, ears, pieces of clothing, toes and other parts of the negro’s body were cut off by members of the mob that had crowded the scene as if by magic.” At least one onlooker testified later that the mob swept in to “unsex” Jesse Washington. Stories abound from later years in which residents proudly show off parts of Jesse’s body to the young like souvenirs, saving them in attics or in jars of formaldehyde.

The hanging and the knifing were not enough for the incensed mob though. A box of kindling was placed under the tree, just below Washington’s feet, and set on fire. The man holding the chain dipped Washington’s body, “half alive and half dead”, in and out of the blazing box for the enjoyment of the packed crowd. The mayor watched from the window of his office in City Hall.  Coal oil was poured over Washington’s body to intensify the fire and as it overwhelmed his red body “shouts of delight went up from thousands of throats.” Astonishingly, Washington was still not dead at this point; he was very strong.

As you will see in the pictures below, after two hours nothing was left of Washington’s body but a skull, torso, and stumps of his former limbs. Everything else was either smoldering on the ground or tucked greedily away in coat pockets or hats. After these several hours, reported the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, “the worst happened.” To avoid needless rephrasing, I will quote Bernstein:

“About mid-afternoon, a horseman came along, lassoed what was left of Washington’s body and began to drag it around the square and then through the streets of town while waving his hat in the air. Somewhere along the way the skull bounced loose from the rest of the body and was placed on the doorstep of a prostitute on “Two Street,”, where it was picked up by a group of small boys who extracted the teeth and sold them for five dollars each. The rest of the body, now tied behind a car, was dragged all the way back to Robinson (Washington’s home town), and hung from a telephone pole in front of a blacksmith’s shop for everyone to see. Toward the end of the day, Constable Les Stegall went out and picked up the sack and brought it back to town, where the little that was left of Jesse Washington was buried in the local potter’s field.”

It is hard to add anything to the unutterably gruesome details of this lynching. I can’t help but wonder whether the crowd, by accident or intent, draped the chain over this tree of knowledge. I wonder whether that Bible in that hollowed out place was inches from his body, what it would mean if it was. I wonder what those old men said about God that morning if they met before the trial. Or if they could still look each other in the face next week when they started in on Scripture. Whatever tree Jesse Washington died on, there is a kind terrible irony that inches or feet away that Bible was hidden, watching while thousands huddled together with their backs turned away from it.