A Review of
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
I have long had a deep respect for the work of James Cone. I don’t always agree with him, but even when I don’t I find his work compelling and engaging. Although I am sympathetic to his emphasis on liberation theology, I don’t agree with the way in which he leaves the door open for the use of violent means in pursuit of liberation. Similarly, I’ve never been able to accept his embrace of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, as “advocating different methods that corrected and complemented each other, as they worked for the same goal – the liberation of black people from white supremacy.” Despite my disagreements with other parts of his work, I am convinced that in his newest book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he is spot on.
This new book juxtaposes these two powerful images, and offers readers the following challenge:
The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (xv).
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is thus a pointed case study that reminds us of the overwhelming whiteness of Western Christian theology – as has been explored in depth in recent works like J. Kameron Carter’s Race and Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination. Cone is clear that the cross and the lynching tree are not equivalents – theologically or historically speaking; these two shared images, he emphasizes are essential to racial reconciliation in America, particularly racial reconciliation within the church. “Neither Blacks nor whites can be understood fully,” he says, “without reference to the other because of their common religious heritage as well as their joint relationship to the lynching experience” (165).
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