Vivian Strong and her younger sister Carol spent the long, hot summer of 1969 playing in their North Omaha neighborhood. On Tuesday, June 24th, Vivian and several other teenagers gathered in a vacant apartment in the Logan Fontanelle Housing Projects in the Near North Side neighborhood. They played music and danced.
Someone called the Omaha police, asserting that the teens had committed a robbery. Carol had just come to the apartment as the police were arriving and sounded the alarm. The teens fled the apartment, and the police pursued them.
Officer James Loder shot Vivian Strong in the back of the head as she and the other teens ran away. Police reports stated that the officers had been called to investigate a burglary. However, no theft had occurred. It was not quite fifty years since the lynching of Will Brown. Little had changed.
Loder was charged in the shooting but was later found not guilty at trial. He was reinstated by the city to the police force and was employed as an Omaha police officer until 1971.
The shooting ignited three days of protests and riots in the north Omaha neighborhoods. The effects of those protests and riots are still evident in the north Omaha community today. The shooting of Vivian Strong left her family damaged emotionally for a lifetime.
Courtney Allen-Gentry was seven at the time of the shooting. She shared her recollection, trauma, and advice in a recent column in the Omaha World Herald. Fifty-one years after this crime and its aftermath, she wrote these words:
“For those with white privilege, use your power to protect our lives and defend black and brown people from the tyranny of white hate and brutality. Look inside yourself and bring light to all those spaces where the shame and guilt of white oppression live. Bring them out into the light, give them plenty of love and compassion. Then use that same compassion to change the hearts and minds of your white tribe by calling out racism. Educate them gently. Be easy.”
I hope that naming Vivian Strong here goes a step or two in the direction to which Allen-Gentry points. I am struck by the sheer “disposability” of Vivian Strong’s life that day forty-plus years ago. This is the import of the assertion that “Black Lives Matter.” That assertion has not been regarded as true for four hundred years on this continent.
It remains in question today. The path from Vivian Strong’s body in north Omaha to Breonna Taylor’s body in Louisville is littered with the bodies of other black women whose lives didn’t matter much.
That disposability was a feature of life for enslaved persons in the Roman Empire and in the Transatlantic enslavement system. It was a feature of life after Reconstruction and throughout the era of Jim Crow. It is a feature of life for black, indigenous, brown, and Asian American persons in our own time. Perhaps our conversation will help to name that reality as we name those who have been regarded as so disposable.
“There were also women, looking on from a distance,” Mark writes. And Mark says their names — “among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and Joses, and Salome.” Many commentators slip past this notice with a sentence or two. But we must not imitate that error.
Women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world, and yet Mark bothers to name these women as precisely that — those who bear witness to the tragedy of the cross regardless of any risk to themselves. “Mark inverts the stereotype of women,” Larry Hurtado proposes, “making these women the only ones courageous enough to follow Jesus to the cross and the only ones in the passion account who do not either deny Jesus or ridicule him” (page 270).
They were not newcomers to the mission. These women, Mark notes, followed Jesus (were disciples — followers — just like the men) when he was in Galilee. And they “served” him in that mission. The NRSV translation fails us here by suggesting that they “provided” for him. Peter’s mother-in-law was healed and “served” him. Perhaps she was at the cross as well. The Son of Man comes not to “be served” but to “serve,” we read in Mark 10.
The women imitate the Son of Man and follow his path all the way to the cross. It’s no wonder Mark names them. They are the disciples who have followed Jesus from beginning to end. They are just a few among the many women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. They did not flee him, betray him, abandon him or hand him over. They stayed and witnessed.
“Black women’s faith empowered them to transform America,” James Cone writes, “not just for black people but for all Americans, including white men. They redeemed America through nonviolent suffering,” Cone continues, “which they, along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, identified with Jesus’ invitation: ‘If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34). Like Martin Luther King Jr.,” Cone concludes, “black women throughout African American history not only preached the cross but bore it, and sometimes died on it” (page 148).
And there was this foreigner — the centurion in charge of the execution squad. Probably four soldiers carried out the crucifixion, one of perhaps dozens that took place over the course of that Passover Week. “In truth,” the centurion said as he observed Jesus’ last mortal breath, “this human being was the son of god…” From the text, we can see the grammatical emphasis on “this” particular human. Beyond that, the words are a riddle inside a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.
In the original text, there were no punctuation marks. Was this a declaration? Was it a question? Nor can we read the “tone” of the comment, any more than we can read emotional tone in a tweet or a text. Too bad the New Testament doesn’t come with emoticons built in!
For some interpreters, this comment is a statement of faith. For others, it is a genuine question. For still others, it is a statement of derision. Mark offers no conclusive helps for our benefit. The words hang in the air, ambiguous and unfinished.
“The Roman centurion becomes the first sane human being in Mark’s gospel to call Jesus God’s son, and mean it,” N. T. Wright asserts. By “sane,” Wright means “not demon-possessed.” I’m not sure I care for the unexamined prejudice toward the mentally ill here, but on we go. “Yes, says Mark to his possibly Roman audience; and if him,” Wright imagines Mark asking, “why not more?” (Location 3787). So for Bishop Wright, this is a statement of Gentile faith.
For Larry Hurtado, “this statement would have meant something like, ‘This man behaves like a divine hero, likening Jesus to the ideals of popular Hellenistic tradition…” (page 268). But for Mark, Hurtado suggests, there is much more happening. “Mark guides his readers to interpret the statement as an ironic confession of the true significance of Jesus. The statement is ironic,” he notes, “because this Gentile who participated in the execution of Jesus is the only human character in Mark who uses the title Son of God” (ibid).
Hurtado concludes that the centurion both utters an ironic proclamation of Jesus’ true identity and previews the preaching of the good news to Gentiles who respond sincerely with such a confession. Mark’s gospel does not have the unambiguous triumph of the other gospel accounts. That is one of the reasons I like Mark so much. It seems a lot more like my life than, say, John does. While I’m choosing John’s Easter account for my Resurrection reflections in 2021, I am compelled to hold that triumphal testimony in tension with Mark’s more measured report.
Some women and a foreigner — the complete list of witnesses to the Cross in Mark’s account. I think of Cone’s remembrance of the song “Strange Fruit,” recorded and made famous by Billie Holiday. The lyrics for the song were written by a white, Jewish school teacher from New York named Abel Meeropol — pen-named Lewis Allen. Meeropol had witnessed a photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion Indiana. The verses of his poetry bear witness to the horror of that or any lynching and could easily be transferred to the horrors of crucifixion.
“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,/ For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, /For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, /Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
While John’s account has the symphonic quality of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Mark’s account sounds much more like the bluesy jazz piece that became Lady Day’s signature song.
Holiday sang the song wherever she performed. When she sang it, whites often left the venue in anger and disgust. It was banned from radio stations and clubs. Holiday was arrested for fomenting public disturbances with her performances. A current movie dramatizes the events of this time and this song.
A “foreigner” and a woman were bearing witness. The story they told was disturbing and destabilizing for the powerful, the privileged, and the propertied. The ruling authorities of this world were disrupted and responded with violence. But that violence was not the final testimony.
References and Resources
Cone, James, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.