Featured: The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James Cone

January 13, 2012


Page 2 – The Cross and the Lynching Tree Review

This new volume consists of five essays that explore various facets of the relationship between cross and lynching tree, along with an introduction and conclusion.  The first essay explores the cultural experience of lynching, particularly the terror that it struck in the lives of many black Americans of the early twentieth century, and yet that many found hope in the cross of Christ that “God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross” (21-22).  This essay was eye-opening for me as a white Christian who grew up in a racially diverse area well after the height of the lynching era had passed; I was familiar with the historical practice of lynching, but had no idea how widespread it was (over 5000 victims) or how great a fear its shadow cast over black Americans.

In the second essay, Cone takes Reinhold Niebuhr to task as a prominent theologian of the lynching era, who was strikingly reticent on the practice of lynching. Although I understand the extraordinary stature of that Niebuhr has held in American theology and thus why this chapter is a necessary part of Cone’s argument in the book, it was probably the least interesting chapter in the collection for me because I’ve never been attracted to Niebuhrian realism.  In the third chapter, Cone contrasts Niebuhr with Martin Luther King, Jr.  The difference  between the two key figures, he says  is that: “Unlike King, Niebuhr viewed agape love, as revealed in Jesus’ cross, as an unrealizable goal in history – a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve.  He also points out that King lived the meaning of cross throughout his life.  It was not just an abstract concept for him, as it was for Niebuhr.  Cone implies here a pointed question: has the predominant white theology in America no sense of what it means to live the cross of Jesus?

In the book’s fourth chapter, Cone examines the many ways in which black artists – in a variety of media — have drawn parallels over the years between the cross and the lynching tree.  From poets like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes to the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Cone emphasizes that “Artists recognized that no real reconciliation could occur between blacks and whites without telling the painful and redeeming truths about their life together” (113). Cone also points out that black churches had not been as careful as these black artists in distinguishing between the white Christ and the black Christ.  The book’s fifth and final chapter focuses on the theological implications of the unique black womanist perspective on lynching.  Unlike men, who often were able to run away from lynching, moving on to another county or state, black women were able to run away as easily, leaving their children behind.  Cone draws here largely on the work of Ida Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer.  This chapter, Cone notes is an important piece of the “social context of black people’s struggle for justice” (151).

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