The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone (Orbis) $28

As soon as I read the title of this book it was instantly obvious to me. Human beings have an uncanny ability to miss what is right in front of their eyes. Particular narratives frame reality and admit or reject certain truths based on those narratives which run, like software, in the background, unexamined. But when our imaginations are opened to a truth, it is impossible to go back; impossible to not see it.

Such is the case with The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the latest volume from renown black liberation theologian and Union Theological Seminary professor, James H. Cone.

In this brief and engaging read, Cone highlights the problem of an anemic theological and social imagination on the part of some of our best thinkers. Cone begins, in the introduction, with these words,

The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is universal symbol of 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 (xiii).

In the first of five chapters, Cone draws our attention to the black experience in America and in particular, the experience of lynching. He then turns to perhaps the most famous theologian of Christian social justice in the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, and shows how Neibuhr, in spite of his teaching on the issues of race and social justice not only failed to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree but failed to move his own congregation toward integration and justice. The chapter concludes with a story of Cone’s personal interaction with Neibuhr, by letter, when he came to teach at Union where Neibuhr had spent so many years.

Chapter three deals with Martin Luther King, Jr and his teaching about the cross. While it does deal with the way black preachers like King, and others, address the cross in the face of so much racial violence one gets the impression that even he did not fully grasp the parallelism. It isn’t until chapter 4, “The Recrucified Christ in Black Literary Imagination,” that the tragic irony that is the cross and the lynching tree becomes clear. It is, after all, the poets that help us see this connection. Billy Holiday’s lament, “Strange Fruit,” is more disturbing than any theologian’s reflection and Langston Hughes, “Christ in Alabama,” is perhaps the most provocative expression of all.

Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!

Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

God is His father:
White Master above
Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
Nigger Christ
On the cross of the South.

With a final chapter dedicated to the role of black women, Cone elevates our awareness of the real scandal of the cross with which we must still struggle.

“The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst” (160, emphasis in original).

The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians and forces us to face the ongoing scourge of white supremacy and the contradiction inherent in the history and current practice of Christianity.

As I read this book I could not help but think of other expressions of lynching that happen today in our criminal justice system, U.S. government sanctioned torture of prisoners of war or the literal lynching of gays and lesbians in countries like Jamaica and Uganda.


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