Large crowd looking at the burned body of Jesse Washington, 18 year-old African-American, lynched in Waco, Texas, May 15, 1916. (Library of Congress)

Growing up on the King James Bible, there are certain passages that are forever embedded in my mind. One of these came vividly to mind after reading a powerful essay by Bill Moyers on the recent horrific burning of a Jordanian pilot by ISIS. The verse is from Matthew 7:5:

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Like the jot and the tittel (Matthew 5:18), this is a phrase that not only resonates in the rhetoric of this classic text but serves as a reminder of our all-too-human capacity to selectively forget disagreeable parts of our own past. The issue is not about the barbaric and savage public display of a young Jordanian man burnt alive. This is a despicable act, like the beheadings, perpetrated in order to get a reaction. It is no more a unique “religious” act than the post auto de fe burnings of the Inquisition in Spain, unless you believe that it is only religion that motivates one human being to torture and cause pain on another. I think it does not do injustice to the verse to say that casting a beam out of one’s own eye is important even for casting out the beam in another’s eye.

The beam in the other is the burning of the pilot. The beam in our own eye is microcosmed in the testicle cutting, lynching and burning alive of a young black man named Jesse Washington in 1916 in Waco Texas. This is the photo above. As Bill Moyers writes,

Here is the photograph. Take a good look at Jesse Washington’s stiffened body tied to the tree. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time. Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground, and cut off his testicles. A bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington — alive — was raised and lowered over the flames. Again and again and again. City officials and police stood by, approvingly. According to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. There were taunts, cheers and laughter. Reporters described hearing “shouts of delight.”

When the flames died away, Washington’s body was torn apart and the pieces were sold as souvenirs. The party was over.

Forget the fact that this was almost a century ago. Remember that lynchings of black men, especially in the south, were widespread in the first two decades of the last century. Waco Texas in 1916 was not the Stone Age (which was probably more peaceful), not the hordes of Genghis Khan, not the Crusaders slaughtering Muslims, Jews and fellow “Easter” Christians to liberate Jerusalem from their “infidel” target, not the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of over four centuries ago, not even the needless murder of Chief Big Foot and his tribe at Wounded Knee. This was the United States of America more than half a century after the end of a bloody civil war that made slavery an ethical dead end. This was a nation about to go to war to preserve liberty and freedom in Europe. And, yes, this was a country where hypocrisy was rampant when it came to race relations.

Young Jesse, who was guilty from the start merely for being a black man, suffered no less than the unfortunate Jordanian. But young Jesse was not hung up by a ruthless band of hoodlums dragging their religion into the sewer but by the god-fearing citizens of white privilege. In both cases there was local public support for a heinous crime, cheering for the unimaginable pain a fellow human being was going through. It is this tendency to bypass a sense of common humanity, to reduce another individual to a mere animal, to relish sadistically in an Oxbow Incident in real life that is the beam in our own past. For those who think America is a “Christian” nation, imagine what Jesus would have said as young Jesse screamed in agony with the flames destroying his body. And if you think Jesus would have led the cheers, or that the Prophet Muhammad would have lit the fire that burnt Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh to a crisp, then the beam in your own has blinded you entirely to what these religions have to offer at their best.

Note: If there is anyone out there who think that the brutal murder of the Jordanian is acceptable within Islam, please read this article.