the cross and the lynching tree
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree are separated by nearly two thousand years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.
Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.” – James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
James Hal Cone was born black in white-dominated southern Arkansas in 1938, and grew up there during the thick of the segregation era. Like his parents, pastors, and friends, he lived directly under a state-sponsored reign of racial violence, going to church and coming of age in a time when Judge Lynch was actively terrorizing African Americans. He would wait nervously for his father to come home every night, knowing that death was a real possibility. At the age of 16 Cone experienced a call to ministry, and began serving as a pastor for several local congregations that following year.
While attending graduate school in Chicago, Cone realized that none of the lauded European thinkers he was reading in his coursework had anything to say to the disparate social conditions being experienced by blacks in America. While he appreciated their contributions to the theological canon, their inapplicability to his current context dogged him. “What,” he remembers wondering, “could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as non-being?”
From these questions he turned to the examples of the scriptures, the black church, and his three greatest ethical and theological influencers – the fiery preacher-turned-social-prophet James Baldwin, Baptist Reverend Martin King, and Malcolm X, the black Muslim leader who famously de-converted from Christianity, declaring it “a white man’s religion.” From attempting to synthesize the best of their moral teachings, Cone has developed a thoroughly Christian religious framework called black liberation theology, which seeks to primarily identify God with the oppressed, in solidarity with black dignity and power against the dehumanization of racism and white supremacy.
Cone has spent his life in the academy and the church singing the stories of the marginalized, and his comprehensive systematic theology pointedly makes the claim that the God of the Bible is a special guardian for all those who are oppressed throughout the world – what one Salvadorian liberation theologian and martyr called “the crucified peoples of history.” Cone currently serves as Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
In Cone’s latest work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he draws explicit parallels between Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and the deaths of thousands of black women, men, and children who were brutally murdered under a regime of carefully-calculated acts of terror and mob violence. His argument is devastatingly simple: if you are an American Christian who wants to come to a better understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion, you must look at the lynching tree; if you would like to gain a better emotional, sociological, or theological understanding of what first century crucifixions were like in Roman Palestine, there is no better example to look towards than the well-documented firestorm of lynchings that inflamed this country for nearly a century.
As Cone observes:
“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. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. 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.”
Strikingly, the meaning of these two painful symbols is nearly identical; both the cross and the lynching tree remain intimately similar icons. Why then, one is left to wonder, has the rather glaring connection between the cross and the lynching tree been so powerfully obscured by American society? On issues of complicity in racism including lynching and segregation, the Western church’s communal consciousness seems to have experienced a sudden and collective amnesia. Or maybe it is not so sudden – according to Cone’s research, throughout nearly a century of celebrated protracted lynchings, one cannot find a single sermon or theological treatise given by any white Christian leader, evangelist, layperson, or theologian who made the explicit and obvious connection between the cross and the lynching tree.
What have could possibly accounted for this?
As civil rights leader and journalist Ida B. Wells commented as she documented lynchings across the country, “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.” Some seventy years later, Martin King would prophesy something similar when he said “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”
There are few current trends more indicative of “dry-as-dust religion” than the way the meaning of the cross has been spirited away at the hands of white Christians, even as it is sanitized and actively and purposefully divested from our culture’s most potent mirror image of it. It is hard to consider this trend anything other than the working out of our society’s idolatrous racialist framework, which continues to hold the church in cultural captivity.
For as Cone carefully recounts in his latest work, the cross of Jesus meant something entirely different for whites than it did for blacks. While white Christians on their way home from church looked at broken black bodies and saw nothing but hollow entertainment, black Christians could in the victims of lynching see their long-suffering, crucified God. While white Christians looked at the cross and chose to willfully abstract this symbol into detached spiritual dimensions, black Christians saw solidarity, a source of impossible support.
Cone reminds us how, through their direct experiences with the lynching tree, black Christians could ultimately find hope in the cross, even in the face of an immanent system that could put the body to death, but could not kill the spirit. This is the liberative power of the gospel, which we can no longer afford to obscure; these stories must be centered, catechized.
These killings are not all that far behind us. The twisted memories of the lynching era still inhabit our shared atmosphere. To paraphrase the words of the great writer James Baldwin, we are trapped in history and history is trapped in us. In the United States at least, American Christians gather to worship not only at the foot of the cross, but also in the shadow of the lynching tree. Therefore, followers of the crucified God cannot possibly find any meaning in the cross unless we are willing to see Jesus’ death in light of lynching, by looking squarely at the sour, strange fruit in our midst.