SAE and the lynching tree

March 12, 2015

NOTE: The 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26-27, 2015. To learn more go here.

Fifty years ago, a multi-racial group of brave Civil Rights activists marched through Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., for equal voting rights for African Americans. As many know, the march was met with much violence and opposition from white supremacists. Despite the opposition, the Selma to Montgomery marches were successful. Selma was one of the many historic events that led to voting rights for African Americans.


One of the most inspiring things to me about the Selma marches is that a multi-racial group of young college and university students participated. These young people left the comfort of their university and college campuses and stood toe-to-toe with death and racist Jim Crow laws as they journeyed hand-in-hand with other freedom marchers through Selma toward Montgomery. The heroic actions of those university and college students stand radically at odds with the recent confirmed reports about an Oklahoma University white fraternity.

Multiple viral YouTube videos show members of the Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting racist remarks about African-Americans. The videos show a young white male proudly smiling as he leads several members in this chant: “You can hang them from a tree but they’ll never sign with me; there will never be a ni**** in SAE.” As this young man and several others joked and repeatedly sang these lyrics, they invoked several offensive racist images from this country’s troubled racist past. The young men used the kind of racist rhetoric that continues to affect this country’s tumultuous present on the race issue. Below, I mention these two images and I point to the hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The lynching tree 

First, the young man and his fraternity brothers cheerfully referenced the practice of lynching. Some commentators have estimated that nearly 5,000 blacks were lynched (hanged from a tree) at the hands of white supremacists before the days of the Civil Rights Movement. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, black liberation theologian James H. Cone describes in detail the horrors of lynching in this country. Although I disagree with virtually every theological conclusion that Cone makes about the death of Jesus, his thesis regarding the connection African-Americans made between Jesus’ horrific death on a cross and the death of many African-Americans on the lynching tree is quite compelling. Cone’s vivid description and detailed documentation of the function of the lynching tree in white supremacist America should make both whites and blacks pause before invoking the horrific image of the lynching tree in one’s rhetoric.

Some credit Charles Lynch and William Lynch as the creators of the word “lynch.” Others say lynch comes from the phrase “Lynch Law,” which referred to punishment without trial. Lynching was not limited to the South, but it was a powerful symbol of white supremacy in the South. It was, in fact, an entertaining spectacle for many whites. There is evidence of white citizens commemorating black lynchings on postcards. Lynchings were painful reminders to blacks in this country of their legalized inferiority to whites in a society in which laws affirmed, supported, and justified violent actions against blacks to keep them in their so-called “place” in a racist and white supremacist culture. After a victim was hanged and died, the white racists would then burn the body with gasoline and light it on fire in a public spectacle. The body would then hang on the tree for days until it deteriorated. This horrific act inspired African-American songstress, Billie Holiday, to write her famous anthem against lynching titled “Strange Fruit,” in which she sang:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

These lyrics articulated the painful reality of what African-Americans faced every day in a racist country dominated by white supremacy; namely, the reality that they could likely lose their lives by means of the lynching tree because they were black and viewed as inferior human beings.

Ironically, on May 25, 1911, a black woman named Laura Nelson and her son were lynched by white supremacists in Okemah, Okla. The fact that the state of Oklahoma has a stained history of lynching blacks simply because they were black makes the racist remarks of the SAE fraternity at Oklahoma University even more sickening.

The n-word

Second, the young man leading the racist SAE chant identified blacks as ni****s. White supremacists used that word as a derogatory term to demoralize and to ostracize black people and to keep them in their “place” in a world that valued whiteness and undermined blackness. Unfortunately, far too many blacks use the word today as a term of endearment in spite of its racist origins. The young man leading the racist SAE chant both echoed and celebrated the racist rhetoric of white supremacy when he conflated the concepts of lynching tree and ni**** into a chant to accentuate blacks cannot join his white fraternity. This young man’s chant suggests that he believes that blacks are worthy of being lynched on a tree because he thinks they are inferior, but unworthy of joining his white fraternity because he thinks they are inferior. White supremacists likely uttered the words, “Let’s lynch those ni****s” far too often before the Civil Rights movement.

The solution

The solution to racism is still, and always will be, the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I write these words, this country is still recovering from Ferguson and the Eric Garner case. There is another racial uproar in Wisconsin due to the recent police shooting of a young black man. Unfortunately, neither unbelievers nor some Christians know how to respond to America’s current racial tensions. Some unbelievers respond with anger and hate. Too many evangelical Christians continue to be either clueless about the race issue or respond with the sin of silence. Although understandable, anger that leads to hate is absolutely wrong. Furthermore, those evangelicals who continue to believe and say foolishly that racial reconciliation is not a gospel issue are as useless on the race issue as those evangelicals who never speak about gospel-centered racial reconciliation until it’s politically convenient for them to do so or until certain high profile white evangelicals or certain white celebrity pastors give them permission do so. Silent evangelicals and evangelicals who do not see racial reconciliation as a gospel imperative hinder the cause of gospel-centered racial reconciliation.

The solution to racial tension is still, and will always be the gospel of a bloody, crucified, resurrected and glorified Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died and resurrected from the dead to unify all things and all people to God and to one another (Eph. 1:4–3:8). In fact, Paul states that the unification of all things and all people in Christ is the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 1:9-10), and he boldly preached to the Gentiles the good news of this mystery as the inexpressible riches of Christ (Eph. 3:3-8). Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue. To see this defended, read my book One New Man and watch my YouTube sermon (preached at Redeemer Church in Jackson, Miss.), related to the book, A New Man in Christ.

This racist Oklahoma University member of SAE who uttered the egregious and racist words about blacks needs to understand that God can forgive his sins if he repents and believes and follows Jesus Christ by faith. And this racist young man can be recreated and transformed into a new race in Christ along with fellow black Christians and other Christians from many different tongues, tribes, people, and nations if he repents and gives his life to Jesus Christ by faith (Rom. 3:21-30; Eph. 2:11-22; Rev. 5:9). This racist young man can be liberated from the tyranny and slavery of racism if he is transformed by the liberating power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:1-23). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes—to the Jew first and to the Greek (Rom. 1:16). This is even true of a racist fraternity member if he believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, because Jesus died to end the hostility between Jews and Gentiles and to reconcile them into one new man (Eph. 2:11-22).

May God in his grace save this young man by the power of the gospel. I pray that black Christians would not respond to his racism with racism, but with the unifying power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. May all of my brothers and sisters in Christ from every tongue, tribe, people and nation join with me in fervently praying for this young man’s salvation so that he can personally taste, see, and experience the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. May this racist young man trust in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and be delivered from his slavery to racism so that he would stop invoking the image of the lynching tree and instead proclaim the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This post was originally published here.

Jarvis J. Williams

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Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24