For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Posted on: July 17, 2015

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2011, 202 pp.

Cross and Lynching TreeAlthough it was published in 2011 and represents many of the theological arguments Dr. James Cone has been making for more than 40 years, The Cross and the Lynching Tree feels like it was a direct response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has arisen in the last year. As usual, though, James Cone was just a step ahead, leading the way with new ways of thinking theologically about the experience of black people in the United States.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is exactly what its title implies: a theological analysis and comparison of the cross and the lynching tree. As always, Cone draws deeply from both traditional (white European) theological training and African-American theology and faith practice, including music. The cross, he asserts, offers black people courage to stand up to injustice and hope in the face of death. His case is summarized in the first chapter.

Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they (black people) knew they did not deserve it; yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away. … Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history. … The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross–a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows. (22-23)

The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured. (26)

Cone demonstrates that power of the cross in the theology and faith of black people is precisely because it demonstrates that God is allied with them in their struggles and suffering at the hands of white oppressors.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists–the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. … In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place. (31)

The second chapter is a thorough indictment of Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address the issue of lynching in his own day. Niebuhr was among the leading theologians advocating for social and economic justice in the mid-twentieth century, yet he never addressed lynching and rarely spoke about racial issues. At first, I wondered at a book dedicating so much time and space to attacking the weaknesses and failures of a theologian who has been dead for 40 years. Then, as the arguments in the chapter unfolded, I began to be convicted by them myself. Niebuhr’s work on love and justice inspired Cone’s own theology, but Niebuhr himself seemed blind to the death and suffering of black people, as if he just did not see. As Cone combs through all Niebuhr’s work searching for evidence of some recognition of black suffering in the context of the cross, I was left to wonder if anyone would find such evidence anywhere in my preaching and writing. Sideways, in the critique of a long-dead theologian, my white silence was equally indicted.

Cone’s third chapter looks at the theological legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He analyzes King’s speeches and writings for his own theology of the cross and the lynching tree, drawing especially on the impact of the death of Emmett Till. Cone is critical of King’s view of redemptive suffering, but acknowledges that King fought to end suffering, not legitimize it. Cone writes, “We are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know from where we have come and where we must go.” (92)

The fourth chapter examines the cross and the lynching tree in African-American literature, especially poetry. He draws upon the works of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and others to demonstrate the myriad ways in which they drew parallels between murdered black bodies and the crucified body of Christ.

The fifth chapter focuses on black women’s particular pain and suffering, and the responses held by the black church. He tells the stories of Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” analyzing the way they respond to suffering with protest and courage. He writes,

Black faith emerged out of black people’s wrestling with suffering, the struggle to make sense out of their senseless situation, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible. On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while, on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. (124)

The particular challenge, and power, of these black women’s responses not just to survive, but “to survive with one’s dignity intact.” (139)

Cone’s conclusion points to the necessity of connecting the cross to the lynching tree.

Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. (158)

The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering–to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. (161)

We must see body of Christ in the bodies of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and (in today’s news) Sandra Bland, contemporary victims of lynching. If you want to understand the theological reasons why Christians should be involved in #BlackLivesMatter marches, read this book. It is profound, thorough, convincing and convicting.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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