Lynchings Were Part of Christian Rituals



By Michal Ortner

Jamelle Bouie, the chief political correspondent for “Slate,” wrote an intriguing piece on the connection between racism in the Jim Crow South and religious ritualism. According to the author, “lynching was the way they would mend the fence and affirm their freedom from the moral contamination, represented by blacks and black men in particular.”

“These lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, ‘celebratory acts of racial control and domination.’ They were rituals. And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy,” writes Bouie.

“Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort,” wrote Amy Louise Wood in ‘Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America,’ 1890–1940. “It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance.”

Bouie shared yet another quote from UNC–Chapel Hill Professor Emeritus Donald G. Mathews, who wrote in the Journal of Southern Religion about sacred order, which mean white supremacy and holiness, which translates into white virtue.

“Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness,” Mathews wrote.

Bouie explained that lynching, as a means of staving off any kind of mixing of races, was thought to be their duty and consecrated by God.

“It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity,” attested NAACP leader Walter White in 1929, “No person who is familiar with the Bible-beating, acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire in the South, and who has seen the orgies of emotion created by them, can doubt for a moment that dangerous passions are released which contribute to emotional instability and play a part in lynching.”

We can’t deny that lynching—in all of its grotesque brutality—was an act of religious significance justified by the Christianity of the day. It was also political: an act of terror and social control, and the province of private citizens, public officials, and powerful lawmakers,” Bouie determined from his research.

According to Bouie, it all comes back to superiority and the intrinsic belief that a Creator has called one group of people to be superior to all of the others. Fallen humans have twisted religion to use it for their own agendas and to harm others.