Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2011).
The next time somebody responds to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “All lives matter,” you might want to suggest that they read black liberation theologian James Cone’s magisterial reflection on the abominable history of lynching in America.
The year is 1918 when a young black man named Haynes Turner is lynched for no greater reason than the fact that he is a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. When his wife Mary protests at his impending execution (and which wife would not?!), the sheriff overseeing the proceedings directs the mob to lynch her too.
Mary is subsequently stripped naked, hung upside down, doused in gasoline, and set on fire. As she writhes in agony, one of the mob steps forward, the flash of a knife’s blade illumined by the glow of the fire. He plunges the knife into Mary’s pregnant belly, yanking out the unborn baby from the sacred womb and stomping the child to death in the cold earth.
An unspeakable series of blasphemies committed by a mob of good “Christian” men.
The only thing more inexplicably wicked than the story of Mary Turner is the fact that her murder is part of a far greater story of close to five thousand lynchings of black people carried out across America in the postbellum period. And as with Mary, virtually all these cases of mind-numbing, soul-destroying, unspeakably infuriating, cold-blooded murder were carried out by nominal followers of Jesus Christ.
Beginning with his 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone has led the way in reflecting theologically on the black experience in America. The Cross and the Lynching Tree was his final work (Cone passed on April 28, 2018) and it may also be his greatest work.
It seems almost blasphemous to describe The Cross and the Lynching Tree as a beautiful book given the unfathomable atrocities it chronicles in its pages. But there is an undeniable beauty in Cone’s prose as he provides an ennobling re-narration of the heinous suffering of a people set against the cruciform strains of grace, hope, and redemption.
One theme that emerges early on is that white people were consistently silent on the abomination of lynching. Consider, for example, the highly regarded Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. While Niebuhr was renowned for speaking with uncompromising force and decisive insight on ethical issues — he famously said that theology begins with the prophet Amos — he nonetheless never denounced the scourge of lynching.
Needless to say, Niebuhr also never linked lynching with the cross. Instead, that link was explored by artists of the black community, from the stories and poetry of W.E.B. Dubois and Langston Hughes to the songs of Billie Holiday. Here, Cone observes, one finds a prophetic theology emerging organically from the suffering of a community: “It was a kind of ‘commonsense’ theology—a theology of the grassroots, for which one needed no seminary or university degree in religion.” (118)
Cone also interacts with the extraordinary journalist Ida B. Wells who regularly risked her own life to speak out against the atrocity of lynching. In one incisive passage, Wells observes that the true evil of lynching is not the spontaneity of the mob but rather “the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.” (127)
Wells also offered the following withering assessment of the great evangelist Dwight Moody’s segregated evangelistic crusades: “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” (132)
While Cone argues eloquently for the transformative power of nonviolent responses to injustice, he decisively rejects popular theories of atonement and their consequent tendency to normalize states of injustice as vehicles of grace. The Cross and the Lynching Tree offers not a theory of atonement but rather God’s act of atonement as a hermeneutical key to the unjust suffering of people and ultimately, the transformation of the world:
“God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified body of Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in their midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.” (158, emphasis in original)
Thanks to Orbis for a review copy of this book.