The Crucifixion of Omaha
CW: This post has references to rape, murder, torture, and lynching, and an image of the lynching of Will Brown.
“Be sure as you develop your way of telling this story,” Richard Swanson urges, “that you do not attempt to housebreak the crucifixion. The animal is wild and will not be tamed, much less housebroken. This would be the surest road to falsification you could find,” he warns. “Attempt to tell the truth.” (Swanson, pages 219-220).
But, Professor Swanson, in many of our congregations this is “Rally Sunday,” the beginning of a new program year in the life of the congregation. Those who are going to come back from their summer hiatus (made interminable by Covid-19) are probably back by now. This is a time of fresh starts and hopeful smiles. Now is not the time to lay the cross on the backs of skittish parishioners who might easily flit right back out the doors!
Housebreaking the Crucifixion is precisely what we seek to do in our church architecture, in our Christian jewelry, in our contemporary Christian music, and in our triumphalist American theology. The cross is described as wondrous, beautiful, powerful, and even attractive. If we are stunned into silence by such descriptions, then the cross of Jesus has become mere ornamentation.
“Death by torture is a horrible thing. That is clear,” writes Richard Swanson. “What gets obscured in most treatments is that Jesus is only one of millions of people who have died in the hands of torturers, in excruciating pain. This was surely true in the ancient world, where the Romans developed crucifixion as a way of reminding the colonials who was in charge, and who was not” (pages 216-217).
As James Cone reminds us so powerfully in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, we white Americans in the twenty-first century dare not tread upon the territory of the cross without seeing its intimate connection to our own past and present systems of ritual torture for political hegemony. If you want to re-connect with the horror of the Crucifixion, Cone’s work is a good place to land.
I refer you to an article in the Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Nebraska History. “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot.” The article, by Orville D. Menard, contains descriptions and images of gleeful white inhumanity and the horrific torture and lynching of a black man named William Brown.
The article is not for the faint of heart. But we white readers should not avoid the article. As Emerson notes, we wish to be settled. But if there is to be any hope for us who are white in this culture, we must seek out things that unsettle us—things like Menard’s article.
On September 25, 1919, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loeback were walking home in downtown Omaha after watching a late movie. A man threatened them with a gun. They reported that the man took Hoffman’s watch, money, and billfold as well as a ring from Agnes. The assailant dragged Agnes into a ravine and raped her. According to Hoffman and Loeback the man then escaped into the night.
On the twenty-sixth, the Omaha Bee identified the criminal as a “black beast.” Two hours later a neighbor described one William Brown as a “suspicious negro.” A group of civilians connected to Agnes captured Brown at gunpoint.
Hoffman and Loeback identified him as their assailant, although Agnes later expressed some uncertainty about her accusation. By that time, a crowd had gathered around the house. Reports suggest that about 1500 people had come to the house. Twice they got a rope about Brown’s neck, but police succeeded in transporting him to the Douglas County Courthouse jail.
Witnesses described Brown as physically incapable of such assaults due to crippling physical conditions. Nonetheless, by the afternoon of the twenty-eighth, a mob had formed with the purpose of taking Brown out of the jail to be lynched. The mob grew to somewhere between four and five thousand people.
Late in the afternoon they attacked the courthouse building. The police chief, a city commissioner and the mayor tried to defuse the situation and were met with violence. Both the courthouse and a police car were burned.
By this time, the crowd had grown to somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people. Ultimately the authorities handed Brown over to the lynch mob in order to save their own lives.
Carol Anderson reminds us of the larger context for this atrocity. “During the Red Summer of 1919 there were, in fact, seventy-eight lynchings,” she wrote in White Rage, including a man burned at the stake in Omaha, Nebraska (page 54). That man was Will Brown.
Brown was beaten and shot to death. His body was dragged behind a stolen police car to 17th and Dodge streets. His remains were burned there and then dragged further down the street. Brown’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the local Potter’s Field until they were reinterred in a marked grave provided by a donor almost a hundred years later.
A grand jury handed down a number of indictments in the Brown case, but no one was prosecuted in the end. One of those indicted was Claude Nethaway, a local farmer and realtor from the Florence area of Omaha. Nethaway was charged with conspiracy to murder and unlawful assembly. He was reported to have urged the mob to lynch Brown and to have claimed that he fired some of the shots into Brown’s body (Bristow, 2020).
Nethaway spent a few months in the Douglas County jail pending a trial. “But that was all the time Claude Nethaway would ever serve,” writes David Bristow. “Despite a dozen witnesses testifying against him, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Unable to secure convictions,” Bristow notes, “the county attorney eventually cleared the dockets of cases related to the Will Brown lynching” (Bristow, 2020).
The December, 1919, issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, commented on the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 as one of two such riots. This article suggested that Loeback worked as a white prostitute in one of the local houses catering to black men. The article asserts that Loeback and Brown knew one another and that at the time of the alleged assault Loeback was wearing a diamond ring given to her by Brown. The article proposed that the “rape” accusation was concocted by Loeback in order to punish Brown for an earlier quarrel between them.
In the midst of that article was the photo of this horror, published with the caption, “The Crucifixion at Omaha.” It is fortunate that the quality of the photo is poor. Otherwise, we would be able to see Brown’s guts hanging out of his belly, the result of the dozens of bullets that literally shredded his body.
The report from the Equal Justice Initiative on lynching describes the photo as “among the most inhumane images of lynching in America that survive today.” The caption frames the image in such a way that I can only see it now as a crucifixion.
“The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” wrote James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (pages 103-4) “or more precisely what white Christians did to blacks and what Romans did to Jesus—was reflected” in this photo. “If the American empire has any similarities with that of Rome,” Cone continues, “can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of blacks on the lynching tree?”
In fact, we white Christians have spent four centuries avoiding and rejecting just such a vision. “Can American Christians see the reality of Jesus’ cross,” Cone repeats, “without seeing it as a lynching tree?” This American Christian cannot.
“But it ought to be kept clear when performing a scene like this one that the cross in this scene is not nicely housebroken like those in our church buildings and jewelry boxes, “Richard Swanson writes of our Markan text, “neither is it tightly wedged into a sadistic theological scheme like the cross is in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.”
“The cross in this scene from Mark is simply an obscenity,” Swanson observes, “an absurdity, an instrument of torture that Rome used to remind its subject people of the cost involved in resisting the Empire” (page 214). The lynching tree (or pole, in Brown’s case), was an instrument of torture that White America used to remind Black people of the cost involved in resisting White Supremacy.
We begin our meditations this week by remembering that crucifixion is not merely a metaphor. The further we get from real crosses (and real lynching trees), the more housebroken the cross becomes. In order to experience some of the real power of this text, it is necessary to grapple with the horrific violence which stands behind it.
Once again, perhaps our preaching should begin with a Content Warning. If we make our meditations on cross-bearing so palatable that there is no potential for offense or upset, we should wonder if we are preaching from the foot of the Cross at all. I’m not advocating for the use of graphic images and physiological descriptions.
But I am suggesting that our folks must see the cross as more than jewelry.
References and Resources
Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011.
Dahl, Nils Alstrup. “The Crucified Messiah and the Endangered Promises.” Word and World 3/3 (1983). Pages 251-262. https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/3-3_OT-NT/3-3_Dahl.pdf.
Edwards, W. D., Gabel, W. J., and Hosmer, F.E. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” JAMA 255 (1986): 1455-63.
Ifill, Sherrilyn. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century (Tenth-Anniversary Edition). Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2007 (2018).
Lawson, Michael L. “Omaha, a City in Ferment: Summer of 1919,” Nebraska History 58 (1977): 395- 417. URL of article: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1977Omaha.pdf.
Menard, Orville D. “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot,” Nebraska History 91 (2010): 152-165. URL:https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH2010Lynching.pdf
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.; The Pilgrim Press, 2005.