The Cross and the Lynching Tree

By James Cone (2011)


In The Cross and the Lynching Tree James Cone argues that the white church—especially the Evangelical white church—has failed to make the connection between the Roman cross and the lynching tree of the American South. This is a “defect in the conscience of white Christians and…why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination” (32). The cross and the lynching tree were the most barbaric forms of execution and cruelty” in their day; both images were used to “strike terror” in the subject community and keep people passive and in their place.

Between 1880 and 1940 nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched in “Christian America.”   Cone maintains that the North won the Civil War, but the South maintained a strong hold on the culture wars that were defining black men and women as less than whites: “unfit for governing and therefore incapable of political and social equality.” Three examples of this culture war are the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866, the failed efforts to pass anti-lynching laws in the Senate, and Dwight Moody’s segregated revivals. Cone argues that Christianity in America suffers from a fractured social imagination because we have to reconcile a Jesus that suffers for us and with us on the cross and a Jesus that allowed lynchings.

The challenge of the contemporary church is to wrestle with these contradictions and their consequences today. He uses four historical examples to shape a way forward: (1) Reinhold Niebuhr’s failure to address race despite his proximity to the largest collection of blacks in America in 1920’s Harlem, (2) Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement that came on the heels of the “lynching era,” (3) W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and the black artist’s movement to de-colonize Christ, and (4) Ida B. Wells and the Womanist movement—recovering the black woman’s voice in our theological imagination. For Cone, understanding these important figures and influential movements is a step toward confronting and overcoming the tragedy of “the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy” (166).

Cone concludes with a cautious hope: that the “beauty [blacks and whites as brothers and sisters] is more enduring than our brutality” (166). To find this beauty we have to confront our racist history (through repentance and restoration), find again the voice of the victims, recover the message of justice and liberation in the good news of the gospel, and stop sanitizing or over-spiritualizing a Savior crucified on a Roman cross.

One of my favorite quotes

“One has to be a little mad, kind of crazy, to find salvation in the cross, victory in defeat, and life in death. This is why the meaning of the cross is intensely debated today, especially by secular and religious intellectuals who reject the absurd idea that a shameful, despicable death could “reveal” anything.” (25)

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