When I asked Lowell if I could do a guest blog post, minutes later I wondered just what the heck I was thinking! I do NOT write as well as he does, nor am I the Bible scholar and theologian that he is! But here I am, nonetheless.
Today we Christians celebrate Palm Sunday. The Easter season is one of my very favorite times of year! Spring is here and new life is beginning to peek through the soil. The trees are budding (as evidenced by my allergic sniffles, sneezes and watery eyes) and things just feel so hopeful! And after this last year don’t we need some hope this Easter season? YES WE DO!
Palm Sunday signals the beginning of Holy Week. I once had a coworker at my home church who was the music director. He always called Holy Week his Wholly Weak time. This week took a lot out of him as he tried to make worship a holy and memorable experience through the music. He is gone now, but I will always remember him, especially this time of year.
Once we move past Palm Sunday, we round the corner and move towards Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, followed by Holy Saturday and then Easter! Some may find it odd to hear me say that I love Holy Week more than Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I love Easter! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah! But there is something about the sacrifice and solemness of Holy Week that works on my heart and moves my soul like nothing else.
Maybe it is the willingness of Jesus, maybe it is the disciples disbelief, the betrayal, Pontius Pilate’s interaction with Jesus, the crowd’s bloodthirsty cries as they ask for the release of Barabbas and call for Jesus to be crucified, or the woman who anointed Jesus and His admonishment to the scoffers, telling them “she is anointing me for burial.” Maybe it’s His knowing what had to be done, yet his human responses in his prayer to have this cup removed, and “why hast thou forsaken me?” There is so much more about this week that moves my heart, creates a cry within my soul that only God can soothe.
Over the past year, Lowell and I have been meeting via Zoom with a group of 9 to 15 folks from across the country to read books about Anti-Racism. One of MY greatest discoveries is how very little I know about racism and its long and embedded history in this country, state and city. Another is how many unnamed and unknown inventors and heroes are women and BIPOC. If you do a little research you will discover that many NEVER got credit for their inventions or works, and many of their ideas were credited to the men they worked for/with.
March is International Women’s month. I am grateful to be employed by a company that really values diversity, equity and inclusion. All month long, we have had the opportunity to hear from many women who continue to work toward equality for all. And the month before that was Black History month and again, my employer hosted many wonderful events that allowed us to learn from our black colleagues and authors to understand racism’s history.
Lets go back to that unnamed woman who anointed Jesus. In Mark she is unnamed, but Jesus says she will be remembered for what she has done. This makes me wonder how often women in the Bible are unnamed and unnoticed. It seems they are often unnamed but referred to by their status or relationship. The wife of… the mother of… or a widow, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well. Unnamed, but not unnoticed by Jesus. He sees them, heals them, forgives them.
All this reading, learning, and remembering of unnamed women makes me wonder if there are unnamed women in my life? What about your life?
Take a moment and wonder with me. Where were there unnamed women in your life? Maybe they aren’t unnamed, just unknown to you. The receptionist at the doctor’s office, the nurse, the teacher, the officer, the neighbor, the cashier? The mothers who pass by you in the daycare or school during pick up? The mothers and grand mothers out on the football or soccer field? The woman scientist who made it possible to have cataract surgery? The woman who invented central heating? The woman who created the first closed circuit tv/security system? Who are the unnamed, unknown women in your life? Will you look for them and see them, pray for them and lift them up?
One of the best things to come out of this pandemic for me is that I have learned just how much I did not know… about racism, equality, slavery and much more! That makes me wonder what else I do not know…
Once you know that you don’t know, you are responsible for seeking and learning. I hope you’ll be encouraged to do your own seeking and learning and give thanks for the unnamed women in your life and our history.
What is happening on Palm Sunday? Is it a parade, a protest march, or a funeral procession?
We all love a parade. And that’s about as far Palm Sunday goes for most people. The service begins with the Triumphal Entry and the procession of the palms. Then the liturgy pivots to the Prayer of the Day and the reading of the Passion Gospel. The corner is turned into Holy Week, and the momentary triumph is laid aside.
Except that for many worshippers, the triumph is not laid aside. Instead, we prefer to keep celebrating straight into Easter Sunday. Lots of folks move from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia” with no dark and dismal detours into the depths of the grave. Many of our members ignore Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services (especially when Holy Week coincides with “March Madness” as it does this year).
The result of this practice is that Easter becomes an anti-climax following the Palm Sunday parade. After all, what’s the big deal on Easter if we never really have to confront the betrayal and burial, the darkness and death of Jesus’ Passion?
Palm Sunday is a parade. But it’s much more. If you don’t want politics from the pulpit, then skip Holy Week altogether. Perhaps that is why some people do just that. The Triumphal Procession is a political demonstration. It’s a protest march.
Jesus takes the role of the Coming Messiah. As he rides a donkey, he brings to mind several Messianic predictions, and especially the words in Zechariah 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!” the prophet proclaims. “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (NRSV).
The details matter here. Normal pilgrims would come to the Passover festival on foot. When Jesus mounts the donkey for his descent from the Mount of Olives, this signals something big. He’s riding like a victorious king. This particular donkey has never been ridden and is set aside for a sacred purpose.
The pilgrims “prepare the royal highway” by covering it with garments and by waving branches. This is the first-century version of the “red carpet treatment,” as Malina and Rohrbaugh note. The palm branches may have been carried by the marchers from Jericho, eighteen miles distant. Jericho was labelled several times in the Hebrew scriptures and Josephus as the “city of palms” (see IDB 3:646).
In Psalm 92, the palm is a symbol of righteousness. In that psalm, the righteous are “planted in the house of the Lord” and “they flourish in the courts of our God” (verses 12-13). At the end of the protest march, Jesus enters the Temple for a look-see. The next day Jesus will come back to the Temple and seek to reassert the righteousness of that space in an act of civil disobedience and prophetic performance art.
In Isaiah 9 and 19, palm branches are symbols for the corrupt and ineffective rulers of Israel. These rulers shall be cut down without remainder. It may be, therefore, that the palm branches function much more as placards of protest than as royal fans for the coming king.
The waving placards are accompanied by revolutionary slogans. Mark records verses from Psalm 118 in particular, a psalm from the “Hallel” section of the psalter that will be quoted at length during the Passover observance. Psalm 118 is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from battle. Those who have been rescued from their enemies are, in the psalm, making their way to the Temple to offer their sacrifices of thanksgiving.
There was precedent for all this demonstrating. “Two hundred years before,” notes N. T. Wright, “Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple – and the people waved ivy and palm branches as they sang hymns of praise. Judas started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years” (Location 2649). The meaning of the actions during the Palm Sunday protest would have left no doubt as to the significance of the day.
At least some of the protestors would have been prepared for a violent response on the part of the Jerusalem authorities and the Roman garrison. Passover was always a volatile and even explosive time, with its emphasis on liberation from bondage. Messianic demonstrations and protests could have resulted in aggressive and deadly responses, much like those that protestors experienced at the Edmund Pettis Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in 1963.
This was a protest march. In combination with the Temple Incident and the public demonstrations against and debates with the Temple authorities, Jesus offered more than enough provocation to lead us into the Passion week texts in Mark 15.
On Palm Sunday, we have a parade. We have a protest. And finally, it was a funeral procession.
In just a few days, an unnamed woman will come to the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. She will anoint Jesus’ head with expensive perfume. Some will condemn her extravagance. Jesus commends her as performing a good work for him. “She has done what she could,” Jesus notes, “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (Mark 14:8, NRSV).
Two days later Jesus hands his body and blood to the disciples so they can remember him. He is handed over to the authorities to answer for his assaults on the status quo. He is betrayed and denied, tried and tortured, dead and buried. This is not what happens to event planners. This is what happens to revolutionaries. He had seen it coming. His body was prepared. Palm Sunday was as much of a funeral as he would get.
But who’s funeral is it, really? The powers that be are preparing to put Jesus down. But we know that in fact it is those powers whose funeral is being planned. In Colossians 2:15 we read that on the cross Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” The funeral was for the powers, not for the powerless.
Is it a parade, or a protest, or a funeral procession? Yes.
We readers of Mark’s gospel know there’s more to the story. The parade celebrates Jesus’ enthronement as Son of the Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. The protest march declares that the powers sin, death, and the devil do not have the final word in this world. And the funeral procession will have the strangest ending of all. The funeral procession ends with the words, “He has been raised; he is not here!”
The call in Mark’s gospel is always to follow where Jesus leads. How do we live the parade, the protest, and the procession?
In the midst of a world under the shadow of death, we celebrate life as God gives it. There’s nothing bad about doing the Palm Sunday parade up big. Just remember that there is no straight line from Palm Sunday to Easter. The parade passes through the cross, through death, through the very gates of hell, and marches out the other side.
I quote Tim Geddert here. “I think we should keep on calling this the Triumphal Entry because we know about Jesus’ Triumphal Exit, right out of the tomb,” he writes, “and then his even greater Triumphal Re-Entry into our world as the one who conquers violence and death, that greater Triumphal Entry that we will be celebrating on Easter Sunday and then again on Pentecost. And so we can celebrate already. We celebrate not with the crowds who did not get it, but with Jesus who did.”
The parade leads to the protest. They cannot be separated or placed in competition. In the midst of a world in bondage to the powers of division, domination, and destruction, we protest the injustice and embody Resurrection hope for all. That protest might lead us to many more Bloody Sundays. It will certainly get us into all sorts of Good Trouble if we follow the path. Anyone who follows Jesus understands that disrupting power through public protest is a good and holy thing to do.
So, the funeral procession passes through our lives as well. In the midst of a world that is only sure of death and taxes, we announce the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. God is loose in the world, and nothing can remain the same.
In Colossians 2:13-14 we read, “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” That’s the real funeral in our lives.
Is it a parade, a protest, or a funeral procession? Yes, it is. Let us live this way today.
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.
“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.
“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:15). It made little difference to Pilate which Jew was executed, as long as someone died that day. That’s often how powerful systems operate. As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus’ real crime was like that of Barabbas — “walking while Jewish.” In the same way, the system of white male supremacy often seeks a sacrificial victim regardless of the nature of the evidence — as long a some black person dies to reduce white anxiety and restore white hegemony.
Twelve-year-old Alta Braun left her home on Tremont Street in LeMars, Iowa, at about 7:30 on Monday evening, August 20, 1917. She was going to stop at her grandparents’ home and then take in the merry-go-round at the corner of 7th and Main. The Yankee Robinson circus was in town. She took the dime her father, Chris, had given her and headed off for an evening of fun. The events that followed were reported in detail in the pages of the LeMars Sentinel, the local paper of record.
Alta was last seen some time between 9:30 and 10 p.m. She had been to the merry-go-round and the Vienna bakery, where she bought a nickel bag of candy. She headed home, candy in hand, and walked most of the way home with Mrs. Adney. Two blocks from there, in the darkness of the railroad tracks, she was raped and murdered by a person or persons unknown.
The memory of Alta Braun has been preserved by loving family members for over one hundred years. It is through their diligent efforts that this story is posted online and researched for family genealogies. This little girl was the victim of a horrific crime, and I don’t intend to treat her as simply an object lesson.
She was treated as a disposable object by the person or persons who raped and murdered her and left her body in the dark along those tracks in LeMars. They had no thought for her panic-stricken family and the generations of those who remember her and were deprived of her love and her gifts as a person. I do not wish to compound that crime. So, I am grateful to be able to know this story and to name Alta Marie Braun as a victim. It only adds to the tragedy of her story that it became another example of systemic racist practice and policy.
Alta Braun’s body was discovered the next morning by residents who notified the police, the sheriff, and the county coroner. She had by then been reported as missing from home. She had been sexually assaulted and then strangled with her own black underskirt. The August 24 edition of the Sentinel reported that the Yankee Robinson circus was in town “and the sheriff and the police are working on the theory that the crime was committed by one of the employees or one of the tough characters usually in the wake of a circus.”
The paper noted that the evidence was “meager,” but it took only a short time for the crime to be “otherized.” Local anxiety was reduced immediately by assuming and asserting that the murderer was a stranger, an outsider, an “other.” Sheriff Maxwell followed the circus to its next stop in Correctionville, south of Sioux City, to pursue the limited leads.
The otherization became focused on one of the black employees of the circus. “A local man reported on Tuesday evening to Mayor McLain,” reported the Sentinel, “that he had heard a negro at the merry-go-round make an obscene remark to a companion that he would get that girl before he left town.” This sort of remark, whether it was actually said or not, fit the white narrative after the era of enslavement that black men were dangerous beasts who could not control their animal desire to rape and murder white girls and women. In this situation, the remark and its assumptions were simply accepted and never really questioned.
That statement, “that he would get that girl before he left town” however, was not the end of the sentence, which concluded by saying “but it is a question whether his remark applied to the victim.” Nonetheless, equipped with this report, Mayor McLain paid for the man to take the train to Cherokee to share this information with the sheriff.
The concerned citizen, still anonymous in the news article at this point, reported that “he had located the negro who made the remark and asked the Cherokee marshal to arrest him.” So, we have the first black suspect. The marshal, however, refused to take action unless the county sheriff made the request. The sheriff could not be found in Cherokee, and no arrest was made. Nor is there any further mention of this first black suspect.
Not everyone was ready to limit the suspects to black circus employees. “The local authorities are working on other clues on the theory which it is stated is supported by Chris Braun, the father of the victim,” the LeMars Sentinel reported on August 28, “that the crime was committed by some one [sic] in Le Mars familiar with the habits of the girl and acquainted with the location of the ground where the dastardly outrage was perpetrated.” Nonetheless, the primary focus of the investigation was on the black circus employees.
By Thursday, the sheriff had tracked down a black man named Edward Nelson, who had been arrested by a Northwestern railroad detective as Nelson washed his clothes in the river near Carroll in southwest Iowa. Now we have a second black suspect. The first report was that he was washing blood off his clothes, but that report was found to be without merit. A sheriff’s deputy retrieved Nelson from Carroll and housed him in the Woodbury County jail in Sioux City, perhaps to avoid any potential for lynching in LeMars.
Edward G. Pearson, the man who first suggested a black suspect, was unable to connect Nelson to the crime, and Nelson was ultimately released—in mid-September! The “Sioux City papers” suggested that Nelson had been brought to LeMars to be met by a lynch mob, but the Sentinel reported that such transportation had not happened. It is unclear if the Sioux City papers were reporting or provoking.
At this point, the anxiety was palpable. “Half a dozen theories and numberless purported clues have been furnished to the county attorney,” the Sentinel reported, “by well meaning [sic] volunteers.” The panic in LeMars was becoming palpable. The county board of supervisors and the city council offered $500 each as rewards for evidence in the crime.
Sheriff Maxwell learned that a black man in north Omaha was in jail under suspicion for what appeared to be a similar crime. Charles Smith had also been an employee of the Yankee Robinson circus but left that job “because he couldn’t get any pay.” Smith was jailed on the charge of raping and murdering Mrs. Claude Nethaway, “wife of a farmer near Florence.” Pearson once again could not identify Smith as “the same negro” (LeMars Sentinel, August 31) who made the supposed remark about “getting that girl.” If that black man ever existed, he was reported to have left the circus at Creston, Iowa, without any indication of future destination or plans.
Smith ceased to be a person of interest in the Braun case. He was not so fortunate in the case of Nellie Nethaway. Claude Nethaway had reported his wife missing on the afternoon of August 26. Her body was discovered with her hands bound and her throat cut. The Omaha Police department was in charge of the case. “OPD almost immediately had a suspect,” Bristow writes. “A black man had been seen in the neighborhood earlier that afternoon. A man matching his description,” Bristow continues,” was soon arrested in Blair [Nebraska], and admitted having hopped a train in Florence.
The evidence against Charles Smith was nearly non-existent. Many of the local authorities were convinced that the scene had been staged to frame someone for the murder and that fake evidence had been planted as part of this project. “The coroner’s jury concluded that Nellie Nethaway was murdered by an unknown person,” Bristow reports, “but recommended that Smith be held for further investigation.” He notes that Smith was charged with murder even though there was no further evidence and the prosecutors expressed public doubts about getting a conviction.
A first trial failed to get a unanimous verdict and leaned toward acquittal. The judge ordered a second trial, and “in February 1918 a second jury voted to convict on essentially the same evidence” (Bristow, page 8). Smith was conveyed to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where he died just four months later, on June 12, 1918. “Newspapers did not report it,” Bristow notes, “and his prison record does not include the cause of death.”
Claude Nethaway was a central figure in the lynching of Will Brown in downtown Omaha less than two years later. Nethaway was, according to historical assessments, likely guilty of the murder of his own wife in 1917. And he was certainly one of Will Brown’s murderers in 1919. He was not punished in either case. That story will be told later this week.
If there is a fiend in the story, it is Claude Nethaway. He was likely an abusive husband. He was a blatant, public, and vocal white supremacist. His second wife divorced him and escaped his violence. Yet, as Bristow writes, “he was known in the press as an ‘eccentric Florence real estate man’ and received a pleasant obituary at the time of his death” (Bristow, Page 12). Nethaway was never in danger of lynching. Not only did he put an innocent black man in prison (and took the life of Charles Smith in that way), but he was central to the “Crucifixion at Omaha.” And this life history merited “a pleasant obituary.”
The only publicly recognized danger was otherized and colored black because blaming and killing the other made the locals feel safe and superior. Two men escaped that system and one was caught in the web of white supremacy. Being black was itself a crime then and now. We should hear the vibrations of the New Jim Crow, the otherizing of danger and crime in our time on an historic scale.
I tell this story, however, for its deeper connections. It is the story of people regarded as disposable. Alta Marie Braun was used and discarded, as was Charles Smith—and Nellie Nethaway. Edward Nelson and his anonymous colleague walked the edge of the lynching cliff but escaped when reason overcame race for at least a moment. But each and all of these people are united in their instrumentality, their objectification as bodies to be consumed and then cast away like the husk and cob of an ear of corn. Alta, Charles, and Nellie are unseparated and equal in their untimely, unjust, and unnecessary murders.
These three, and millions like them, are united in their social status—pawns in the games of the white, male power structure. It is sheer speculation on my part, but I think Smith was caught up in the machinations of the Dennison political machine in Omaha. Claude Nethaway was either already connected to that corrupt, racist regime or he was made beholden to it when he was passed over as the prime suspect in Nellie’s murder. Later he made good on that debt as he led the lynching of Will Brown. Two black men died to save his life and give him the chance for “a pleasant obituary.”
Little Alta was likely a victim of local violence rather than that of some outside, “black beast.” Reporting at the time speculated on such a likelihood. Again, I speculate, but the actions of the local LeMars authorities look and sound like so many similar attempts to shield a white man from accountability by offloading the crime onto a convenient black man. That was almost always the fact in cases of rape. Edward Nelson came within a hairsbreadth of being disposed of through the workings of the local white supremacy system. And he would have been used up and discarded, it seems, if some local media outlets were to be believed.
Unseparate and equal in life, in class, in status—and in death. It was and is the reflexive strategy of the supremacy system of whiteness to pit poor whites against blacks in order to protect the system and its privileged participants. It took no effort at all to shift the gaze of law enforcement from possible white suspects to handy black victims. The perpetrators disposed of the victims. The system disposed of the black surrogates.
After all, in the minds of the system, any Black man would do.
“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.” — James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, page 31.
Joe Coe, known in official documents as “George Smith,” lived on between North 11th and North 12th Streets in Omaha, Nebraska. He worked as a railroad porter and as a waiter at the Murray Hotel. Coe was married and the father of one or two children (newspaper reports vary on the details of his life).
On September 17, 1891, a dance for African Americans took place near Courtland Beach, in what is now Carter Lake, Iowa. A girl named Dot Gannley (or Dollie Gunn) accused George Smith (Joe Coe) of assaulting her. He fled the scene before he could be captured and lynched on the spot, but he was arrested the next morning in Omaha. Following this arrest, Coe was released from custody.
Two weeks later, Coe was accused of raping Lizzie Yates, a five-year-old white girl. Coe had both a legitimate alibi and witnesses to support his testimony. Nonetheless, he was arrested, jailed in the Douglas County Courthouse and held on $2,000 bail. While he was in jail, the Omaha Bee alleged that the little girl had died from injuries suffered during the assault.
That report was false and was based, at best, on rumors in the local white community. The Bee also reported that the maximum penalty for the alleged crime was a twenty-year prison sentence. White Omaha residents were enraged by the prospect of this “light” sentence and demanded the immediate execution of Coe.
“White women and girls played a central role as accusers and thus instigators of lynchings,” notes the Equal Justice Initiative report on lynching in America. In the lynchings committed in reaction to rape accusations, white adolescent girls accounted for more than half of the accusers. Even when rape accusations were disproved or directly contradicted, the white women and girls responsible for the claims “suffered neither social stigma nor criminal prosecution” for their role in instigating the murders of innocent black men and boys. Socializing girls in such an amoral framework communicated a devaluation of black life and inflicted psychological damage on them.” [Lynching in America, page 71]
A lynch mob of somewhere between one thousand and five thousand men approached and surrounded the Douglas County jail. The mob demanded that the jailers would turn over Coe to them, but the guards refused. The county sheriff spoke to the crowd and insisted that it was his duty to protect the prisoner. The crowd took the sheriff into custody and held him prisoner at the Omaha High School.
A local judge and the state governor addressed the crowd and ordered them to disperse. The crowd refused. The dozen or so city police officers were both outnumbered and unwilling to intervene. By this time the crowd may have numbered up to ten thousand. The Omaha fire department tried to disperse the crowd with fire hoses, but the mob cut the hoses.
The crowd screamed racist epithets. They rammed the courthouse doors with iron streetcar rails and broke out the windows. Members of the mob invaded the building and discovered Coe locked in a steel cage. They sent out urgent demands for equipment, and other members of the mob brought crowbars, chisels and sledgehammers. It took two hours for the attackers to batter their way into the cage. Coe protested his innocence to the crowd, but his words were ignored.
The mob beat Coe, and dragged him through the streets with a rope around his neck. They tried to hang him from a telegraph pole but were not successful. They then hanged him from the streetcar cable in front of a local opera house at about 17th and Harney Streets. Members of the lynch mob delivered speeches of self-congratulation while Coe’s corpse hung overhead. Some members of the mob collected pieces of the rope used to hang Coe as souvenirs to be sold afterward.
As Coe’s body swung from the cable, several local newspapers noted that the report of Lizzie Yates’ death had been in error. Seven white men, including the local police captain, who were arrested for coordinating the lynching were never prosecuted.
The coroner’s report produced by an inquest jury indicated that Coe had suffered sixteen bodily wounds and three broken vertebrae. Despite the severe physical injuries inflicted, the coroner concluded that Mr. Coe had died of “fright.” The coroner testified, “[T]he heart was so contracted, and the blood was in such a condition that the doctor was satisfied that the man was literally scared to death.” County Attorney Mahoney said he would have to modify the charges against the lynchers. The grand jury decided not to prosecute.
Omaha mayor Richard C. Cushing called the lynching “the most deplorable thing that has ever happened in the history of the country.” As an adult, Lizzie Yates admitted that she had not been attacked by Mr. Coe.
In 1895, the Nebraska State Legislature voted to condemn the lynching of George Smith. The resolution stated, “Whereas, on the 10th day of October 1891, one George Smith, a man who had never been given a trial in any court, and a man now generally regarded as innocent of the crime charge; and, Whereas no sincere effort has ever been made to the constituted authorities to punish the murderers of said Smith; therefore, Resolved, that this house strongly condemn the cowardly course of the people of Omaha who participated in the work of that fiendish mob, and also denounce as cowardly in the extreme the conduct of the Douglas officials, whose duty was to have meted out justice to the murderers, and the governor is hereby requested to offer a suitable reward for the capture and conviction of the murderers of said George Smith.”
When men in power compromise, the powerless suffer and die. After enduring a night of interrogation, torture, ridicule, abuse, betrayal and abandonment, Jesus is handed over to Pilate. While the Jerusalem authorities seek evidence for the crime of blasphemy, Pilate has no interest in such “superstitions.” Pilate maintains Roman domination and superiority. Only a perceived threat to that political status quo could move Pilate to bother with this otherwise low-level, intra-Jewish kerfuffle.
False testimony was used to support charges against the accused — both in the case of Joe Coe and that of Jesus. The powerless man was sacrificed and slaughtered in order to keep the peace between the powerful — both in the case of Joe Coe and that of Jesus. Both are silent in the presence of their accusers, and soon both will be hanging dead from a pole, surrounded by jeering crowds titillated by the bloody spectacle.
“The lynching tree — so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha — should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death,” James Cone writes, “But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, page 30).
The lynching tree is absent from our white Christian reflections because we are the perpetrators of the crime, not the victim. If we are to identify with anyone in the Passion account of Mark at this point, it is with those who condemned and executed Jesus in order to maintain and strengthen the status quo of political power.
Jesus was silent in the face of Pilate’s questioning. This is a vibration brought forward from the vision of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. As a mirror image, we are silent in the face of Jesus’ questioning. Why do we say nothing as the violence against people of color continues in small ways and large? Perhaps we are living out the continuing psychological trauma identified by the EJI report on lynching. We cannot make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree because we fear the truth will destroy us who are the perpetrators.
Was Pilate conducting an investigation? Of course not. He was simply constructing a narrative to underwrite the decision he had already taken. Jesus had no interest in cooperating with such a farce. If he had spoken fully (as is narrated in other gospel accounts) he would have suffered more abuse. “The oppressor demands silence both of the victims of the oppression and of the passive beneficiaries,” writes Sherrilyn Ifill in On the Courthouse Lawn. “Only one story may be told — the one constructed by the oppressor. Counternarratives threaten the power of the oppressor” (page 133).
As Jesus stood silent before his accusers and executioners, so we who have been complicity are required to speak in order to bring healing to our souls and our communities.
The Sunday of the Passion creates all sorts of liturgical and homiletical headaches for worship leaders and preachers, at least in our American Lutheran tradition. The service begins with the Triumphal Entry and the procession of the palms. Then the liturgy turns to the Prayer of the Day and the reading of the Passion Gospel. The corner is turned into Holy Week, and the momentary triumph is laid aside.
Except that for many worshippers, the triumph is not laid aside. Instead, the preference is to keep on celebrating right into Easter Sunday. Lots of folks prefer to move from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia” with no dark and dismal detours into the depths of the grave. That preference is ratified by the worship practice of many of our members who ignore Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services (especially when Holy Week coincides with “March Madness” as it does this year).
The result of this practice is that Easter becomes an anti-climax following the Palm Sunday parade. After all, what’s the big deal on Easter if we never really have to deal with betrayal and burial, with darkness and death?
So, during Holy Week I will share a meditation each day on a section of Mark’s Passion account in chapter 15. I will pair that with an account of the lynching of a Black person in our recent American history. In such a time as this, I cannot think of one execution without reflecting on the others. But today, we begin with the Passion Sunday Protest in Mark 11:1-11.
If you don’t want politics from the pulpit, then you had better skip Holy Week altogether. Perhaps that is why some people do just that. The Triumphal Procession cannot be described as anything other than a political demonstration. In that demonstration, Jesus takes the role of the Coming Messiah. As he rides a donkey, he brings to mind several Messianic predictions, and especially the words in Zechariah 9:9.
“Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for such occasions as Passover,” Larry Hurtado writes, “customarily entered the city on foot, and Jesus’ entrance mounted on the donkey signals a special dignity for him” (page 179). Mark’s “emphasis is on the fact that no human being has as yet sat upon and ridden the animal,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Jesus, then, is seated on and rides a ‘sacred’ animal, untamed and alien to the world of human use, consecrated to the special, extraordinary task of bearing ‘he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to the very central place consecrated to that Lord” (page 248).
The pilgrims “prepare the royal highway” by covering it with garments and by waving branches. This is the first-century version of the “red carpet treatment,” as Malina and Rohrbaugh note. The palm branches may have been carried by the marchers from Jericho, eighteen miles distant. Jericho was labeled several times in the Hebrew scriptures and Josephus as the “city of palms” (see IDB 3:646). In the psalms, the palm is a symbol of righteousness (Ps. 92). In that psalm, the righteous are “planted in the house of the Lord” and “they flourish in the courts of our God” (verses 12-13). At the end of the parade, Jesus enters the Temple for a look-see. The next day Jesus will come to the Temple and seek to reassert the righteousness of that space.
“Two hundred years before,” notes N. T. Wright, “Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple – and the people waved ivy and palm branches as they sang hymns of praise. Judas started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years” (Location 2649). The meaning of the actions during the Palm Sunday protest would have left no doubt in the minds of the protestors as to the significance of the day.
In Isaiah 9 and 19, palm branches are symbols for the corrupt and ineffective rulers of Israel. These rulers shall be cut down without remainder, the prophet declares. It may be, therefore, that the palm branches function much more as placards of protest than as royal fans for the coming king.
The waving placards are accompanied by revolutionary slogans. Mark records verses from Psalm 118 in particular, a psalm from the “Hallel” section of the psalter that will be quoted at length during the upcoming Passover observance. Psalm 118 is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from battle. Those who have been rescued from their enemies are, in the psalm, making their way to the Temple to offer their sacrifices of thanksgiving.
This is a “little text, big context” interpretive moment. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals,” the psalmist writes in verse 8. This wisdom counsel continues in verse 9: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” The psalmist continues by noting that the nations (Gentiles!) had surrounded the psalmist on every side. The issue was in doubt for a while, but the LORD triumphed in the end.
The next stanza is even more to the point. “There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous,” the psalmist sings in verse 15. This language can take us back to the triumph over God’s enemies at the Reed Sea in Exodus. Then we get to language that Mark’s readers would know so very well. “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” the psalmist declares in verse seventeen. “The Lord has punished me severely,” the psalmist notes in verse 18, “but he did not give me over to death.” Mark’s audience cannot help but connect this to the Resurrection to come.
Now the worshippers in the psalm come to the gate of the city. “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” they shout in verse 19, “that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” Those who keep watch over the gate answer this challenge with a joyful reply. “This is the gate of the Lord,” they respond, “the righteous shall enter through it.” I can clearly imagine the Palm Sunday protestors singing this entire psalm as they come to the gates of Jerusalem and enter the Holy City.
For Christians, the payoff in this psalm is still to come. “I thank you that you have answered me,” the psalmist writes in verse 21, “and have become my salvation.” Before we slip past this prayer of gratitude, we must note how it ends. The word for “salvation” here is the same root as the name “Jesus” (Yeshua). The marchers would not have missed the connection.
Now we land on verses that must have occupied early Christians in meditation and study for lifetimes – verses 22 and 23. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The text is quoted in the gospels, in Acts, the Paul, and in the Pastorals. It is an interpretive key for Christians in understanding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension to glory. And it shows up first in the Palm Sunday protest.
Finally, we come to the “loud hosannas” of Palm Sunday – the part that most people like the best. Hempel notes in IDB 4:648 that this is the Vulgate transliteration of the Hebrew for “Save us, we beseech you,” in verse 25. Hempel notes that this verse was sung by the priests in the Temple at the Feast of Booths. As they sang, the worshippers waved myrtle, willow, and palm branches.
“The sentence that follows means, literally, ‘Blessed is the one who comes’,” observes N. T. Wright, “but in Hebrew and Aramaic that’s the way you say ‘welcome’. In the middle of the chant they have inserted the dangerous prayer: Welcome to the kingdom of our father David! This is what the scene is all about,” Wright concludes, “as Mark’s readers have known for some while, and as we saw in the shout of blind Bartimaeus in 10.47–48” (Location 2657).
Hempel suggests that the protestors greeted Jesus as the “Son of David,” that is, the Messiah. This would lead us to believe that a number of the protestors recognized Jesus’ triumphal entry as a messianic protest and proclamation. Hurtado thinks “it is unlikely that Jesus’ entrance was recognized as the appearance of the Messiah by any more than a few disciples at best” (page 180). I’m uncertain of the basis for this conclusion given the behaviors described here. It seems to me to be a fairly broad-based action, even if it has a number of competing agendas behind it.
In conversations with a number of experts on political protests, Brian Resnick has identified four elements that contribute to effective protests. Those elements are:
Make the message as salient as possible.
Unite overlapping protest concerns under one banner.
Pivot from talk to action.
Protests can’t just be reactive. They need to be proactive.
As we look at the Palm Sunday parade, let’s examine it as a political protest. It’s clear from the rhetoric that the crowd expected some sort of political action on Jesus’ part. Their expectations would be disappointed, and therefore they abandoned Jesus by the end of the week. But on Palm Sunday, protest salience was high.
We don’t know the specific concerns represented by the marches, but Jesus spoke to the hopes of revolutionaries and reformers alike. All those parties were represented, after all, in his company of disciples. We will see the pivot from talk to action in the Temple Incident, as reported by Mark. Jesus may have been reacting to innovations in Temple mercantile practice, but he was certainly bringing about a confrontation with the authorities on his time schedule and not theirs.
Therefore, even if the Palm Sunday protest was not effective as a political tactic (not surprising since that was not Jesus’ final goal), it certainly had the marks of such a protest. Those present would have experienced it as such, I believe. In combination with the Temple Incident and the public demonstrations against and debates with the Temple authorities, Jesus would have offered more than enough provocation to lead us into the Passion week texts in Mark 15.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.