American Christians Should Read “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by Dr. James Cone

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James Cone’s The Cross and The Lynching Tree is far and away one of the single most influential books I have read. It gave form to general ideas that had been floating in my head and grounded my understanding in a rich tradition. Y’all should give it a read if you get the chance.

I’ve been planning to write about this book for a long time now, but I decided to push this one up and publish it now in the spirit of the recent spike in dialogue regarding race relations in the United States.

The Tradition of Black Liberation Theology

To understand The Cross and the Lynching Tree it’s important to first understand the tradition of Black Liberation Theology. Cone is credited as being one of the first people to pen the term Black Liberation Theology (or Black Theology), which finds its home within the larger umbrella of Liberation Theology spearheaded by international figures such as Gustavo Gutierrez, but the roots of this specifically Black American tradition are deep.

I had to let the suffering of black people speak in and through my theology. My theology came out of the black experience of slavery, segregation, and lynchings, and not from white American and European theologies that I studied in graduate school.

Black liberation theology emerged out of the civil rights and black power movements, symbolized in the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

- Dr. Cone at Union Theological Seminary in 2016

All strains of Liberation Theology share a focus on aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition such as Jesus’s suffering, the socio-political context of Israel and the Roman Empire, visions of justice cast by the ancient prophets, and a particular focus on the liberation of Exodus as the central story cast over all the scriptures. In Liberation Theology, God is first and foremost defined by his devotion to the oppressed, “the one who set us free from Egypt”.

However, unlike other strands of Liberation Theology, Black Theology holds particular significance on one contemporary American symbol — the lynching tree. To Black Theology, there is no greater example of “America’s Cross” as the lynching tree.

If you’re interested, I’ve included a helpful video by Democracy Now on the legacy of Dr. James Cone and his influence in shaping Black Liberation Theology, but If you choose not to watch the video, I’ve also included a quote from Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas articulating the broad influence of Dr. Cone on opening the space for other theological traditions such as Womanist Theology.

“I think that his legacy is very hard to really quantify because it will be a very long legacy that will cross generations because Dr. Cone said that he didn’t want disciples.

He didn’t want students that would come and simply imitate his work…

He urged us always to find our own voice. He wanted us to bring our own perspective….

He opened the space for the emergence of new theologies, new theological voices, hence Womanist Theology… There weren’t many places for black women to do work in the early ’70s when I went to Union Seminary. He provided us that opportunity.”

- Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas on Dr. James Cone

Back to the Book

I encountered The Cross and the Lynching Tree during an honors college course called “Global Christianity”. The class introduced me to a wide variety of extremely influential Christian thinkers outside of the White American context, and I was amazed by the depth and diversity of voices I encountered.

I’ve already referenced one of that class’s books, Beads and Strands by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, in an earlier post on Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, but definitely expect to see more posts of these books in days to come.

Now, with the background set up, I’d like to spend the rest of this blog diving into four of the important takeaways I found throughout The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

  • A Deeper Understanding of Lynching
  • The Gospel According to Mary Brown
  • Hope Beyond Tragedy
  • A Message to White Christianity

A Deeper Understanding of Lynching

Much of The Cross and the Lynching Tree is spent connecting the symbols of Christianity with the contemporary ills of Black America, but I don’t want to ignore that this book also did a great deal to teach me the history lynching like I hadn’t encountered it before. This is where I may have learned and grown the most.

It’s hard for a kid to grow up in our country without some degree of familiarity with the extrajudicial killings that terrorized black Americans during the Jim Crowe era, but familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. The depth of brutality and humiliation involved in Jim Crowe lynching is far deeper than many of us often imagine.

Reading this book is when I first heard the stories of mobs burning black men alive and cutting off his body parts as souvenirs for young children and ‘notable people’ in the crowd.

Before this book I assumed that lynchings were so blatantly horrific they must have been done in the shadows. I was wrong. Instead, people took pictures of themselves smiling at the sight of the lynching. Some people even sold postcards. Lynchings were horrifyingly public events.

Cone includes a quote from an AME Bishop speaking on the common euphemism “At the hands of persons unknown” which was used to shield lynch mobs from legal retribution.

Warning: this quote is as graphic as one might expect when dealing with lynching.

Strange… That the men who constitute these [mobs] can never be identified by… governors or the law officers, but the newspapers know all about them — can advance what they are going to do, how and when it was done,

how the rope broke, how many balls entered the Negro’s body, how loud he prayed, how piteously he begged, what he said, how long he was left hanging,

how many composed the mob, the number that were masked, whether they were prominent citizens or not, how the fire was built that burnt the ‘raper’, how the Negro was tied, how he was thrown into the fire, and the whole transaction;

but still the fiendish work was done by a set of “unknown men”.

- Bishop Henry M. Turner

The Gospel According to Mary Brown

Building off the knowledge of the specific brutality of lynching I was then able to more deeply appreciate the spiritual connections to Christianity. At the core of this book (and the larger traditions of Liberation Theology) is the image of the Recrucified Christ. At the beginning of Chapter 4, Cone quotes a poem by County Cullen articulating this concept.

The South is crucifying Christ again …

… Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,

The sin for which no blamelessness atones;

But lest the sameness of the cross should tire

They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,

And while he burns, good men, and women, too,

Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.

- “Christ Recrucified,” Countee Cullen, 1922

Cullen’s poem is powerful and to the point. Yet, there is no clearer and complete image of the Recrucified Christ in the Black American context as W.E.B. Du Bois’s short story, “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”.

In “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”, Du Bois takes the conventional Jesus story and brings it to his contemporary era — Jim Crowe South. He replaces the Jesus character with Joshua, a young black boy born to a single mother (Mary) share-cropping in the rural South.

By the end of the story, a northern judge mirrors Pontius Pilate and turns a blind eye to the mob of white southern men who lynch the young Joshua. The damning political and religious commentary of “The Gospel According to Mary Brown” leaves no part of White America unscathed and Mary is crushed just as so many black mothers were crushed in Jim Crowe.

After the death of Joshua, Mary cries out to God,

“God, you ain’t fair! — You ain’t fair, God! You didn’t ought to it — if you didn’t want him black, you didn’t have to make him black; if you didn’t want him unhappy, why did you let him think?

And then you let them mock him, and hurt him, and lynch him! Why, why did you do it, God?”

- W.E.B Du Bois, “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”, published in The Crisis

but mirroring the Jesus story, Du Bois chooses to end with hope.

… suddenly a flying sweat-swathed figure rushed to her, crying: “Mary — Mary — he is not dead: He is risen!”

- W.E.B Du Bois, “The Gospel According to Mary Brown”, published in The Crisis

All this begs the question, “If you were to bring the Jesus story to our contemporary America, who would Jesus be, and what would his cross look like?”

Hope Beyond Tragedy

I’ve written before about the concept of a hope that comes after tragedy and my first of these “book review” blog posts was on Telling the Truth by Frederik Buechner (which has invaluably influenced my understanding of the concept), but no source articulates this kind of hope with the depth and seriousness as Dr. Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Central to his understanding of this hope is his vision of the cross understood through the lynching tree. Because of this, his vision pushes against the focus of atonement which White America often sees in the cross.

I grew up saturated in that kind of White Christianity that Cone speaks out against. We understood the cross as a kind of hope that skips over the tragedy. We didn’t fully understand the suffering and oppression of the cross. We didn’t see Jesus’s life as a story of God’s continued love and commitment to the oppressed. Instead, the cross was sanitized and warped into a transaction that happened a long time ago. To us, Jesus came down with the intent of “dying for humanity”, and because of that, all debts were now considered paid if you responded to an altar call and sat in church on Sundays.

I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself.

The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross.

What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.

‘Weep no more, Marta,

Weep no more, Mary,

Jesus rise from de dead,

Happy Morning.’

- Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I’ll end this section with another quote Cone includes from Womanist Theologian M. Shawn Copeland on the tradition of Black American spirituals,

If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, the enslaved Africans sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion.

The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. the enslaved Africans sang because they saw the results of the cross — triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.

- M. Shawn Copeland, ‘Wading Through Many Sorrows: Toward a Theology of Suffering in Womanist Perspective

A Message to White Christianity

One of the most damning parts of this book is Cone’s critique of white “progressive” figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Chapter 2. In many regards, Niebuhr has gone down in history as one of the “good guys”. Hell, Barrack Obama has even called Reinhold Niebuhr his favorite theologian.

Here’s a quote from a New York Times article when Obama was still a senator. Obama doesn’t refer to Niebuhr as his ‘favorite’ in this article, but you get a sense of his excitement.

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?” Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” So I asked, “What do you take away from him?”

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

- “Obama, Gospel and Verse”, Opinion Piece by David Brooks, The New York Times

To give you some background, Niebuhr was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., and in many regards, Niebuhr preached a similar social gospel focused on God’s vision to help the underserved. MLK even wrote letters back and forth with Niebuhr while King was completing his doctoral thesis. At one point during the civil rights movement, Niebuhr supported the “Delta Ministry” which fought for poor black and white farmers in Mississippi, and on occasion, Niebuhr even wrote about the suffering of black Americans in the North.

But to Dr. Cone,

Neibuhr had “eyes to see” black suffering, but I believed he lacked the “heart to feel” it as his own.

- Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

During Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights, Cone says that Niebuhr took the console of southern moderates over MLK. Niebuhr wanted gradual change. In one instance, MLK asked Niebuhr to sign a petition “appealing Eisenhower to protect children involved in integrating”. Niebuhr declined, believing such pressure would “do more harm than good”.

Niebuhr was by no means a person who prominent the racial oppression of black Americans, but according to Cone,

He seemed only marginally concerned about justice for black people…

- Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Niebuhr was cerebral and detached in his commentary.

The fact that it is not very appealing to the victims of a current injustice does not make it any less the course of wisdom in overcoming historic injustices.

- Reinhold Neibuhr

If we can defend Niebuhr anywhere, it’s worth noting that he’s known for his “Christian Realism” which sought to push back against the “Moral Optimism” which saw progress as inevitable. He was a pessimist in all things, not just race. MLK, however, rebutted such calls for ‘gradualism’.

It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Niebuhr may be the particular theologian in question, but Cone is striking a deeper question, “How can arguably ‘good’ Christians be so blind to the connection between the cross and the lynching tree?” The spirit of that question reminds me of a famous MLK quote on white moderates,

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice;

who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…

- Martin Luther King Junior, in a letter from Birmingham jail

Niebuhr, however, is not the only white theologian that Cone talks about in this book. Cone makes it clear,

It has always been difficult for white people to empathize fully with the experience of black people. But it has never been impossible.

- Dr. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Where Niebuhr and other “progressives” could not see or feel, Cone shows us German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer is now famous as a theologian and priest who resisted Nazi rule back in Germany, but he found his depth and fire for Christian religion after spending time engaged with the black community in Harlem while attending Union Seminary.

… Bonhoeffer, during his year of study at Union, showed an existential interest in blacks, befriending a black student names Franklin Fisher, attending an teaching Bible study and Sunday School, and even preaching at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Bonhoeffer also read widely in African American history and literature, including Walter White’s Rope and Faggot on the history of lynching, read about the burning of Raymond Gunn in Maryville, Missouri, in the Literary Digest, “the first lynching in 1931,” and expressed outrage over the “infamous Scottsboro trial.”

He also wrote about the “Negro Church”, the “black Christ” and “white Christ” in the writings of the poet Countee Cullen, read Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, and regarded the “spirituals” as the “most influential contribution made by the negro to American Christianity.”

Some of Bonhoeffer’s white friends wondered whether he was becoming too involved in the ‘Negro community’.

- Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

When I think of Bonhoeffer I’m drawn to another quote from Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas in the earlier video.

“God’s story was the black story. Again, the black story was God’s story. And if you’re gonna be Christian in American you need to know the black story, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to know God’s story.”

- Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Still, Cone ends his critique of Niebuhr with a bit of nuance and insight,

Just as Martin Luther King Jr. learned much from Reinhold Niebuhr, Niebuhr could have deepened his understanding of the cross by being a student of King and the black freedom movement he led.

King could have opened Niebuhr’s eyes to see the lynching tree as Jesus’ cross in America.

White theologians do not normally turn to the black experience to learn about theology. But if the lynching tree is America’s cross and if the cross is the heart of the Christian gospel,

perhaps Martin Luther King Jr., who endeavored to “take up his cross, and follow [Jesus]” as did no other theologian in American history, has something to teach America about Jesus’ cross.

- Dr. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Originally published at http://cameroncatanzano.com on July 9, 2020.

Recent college grad with a love for writing and diving headfirst into new and exciting subjects.

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