The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013.
Summary: A reflection on the parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, the perplexing reality that this has been missed within the white community, and how an understanding of this connection and the meaning of the cross has offered hope for the long struggle of the African-American community.
James H. Cone makes an observation in this book that “hit me between the eyes.” He puzzles why White Christians in America have failed to see the connection between Jesus, who was “hung on a tree” and the thousands of blacks, usually innocent of any crime who were lynched, all across the United States, often accompanied by the cutting of body parts as souvenirs, riddling with bullets, violent abuse, or burning–all done as a spectacle often attended by a town (Colson Whitehead offers a vivid description of all of this in a scene in The Underground Railroad).
I discovered that I was not alone to being blind to this obvious parallel. Cone discusses the life and work of Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential figure on presidents as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, with his theory of moral realism. He is one of my heroes, going back to college days when I wrote papers on him in a philosophy of history course where I was first introduced to his thought. Cone observes Niebuhr’s silence about this connection when lynching was a reality, and that unlike Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian, he never actively advocated against the injustices epitomized by the lynching tree.
Cone explores the use of lynching as a form of social control in the post-Reconstruction South, and other places determined never to let blacks think they were equal to whites. He explores the theology of the cross, and the identification with Christ in the civil rights struggle, of bearing a cross, reflected in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who came to a point of accepting that he would likely die, but that death could be redemptive for his people. The cross had a power that was liberating–from fear, from the loss of dignity. It offered hope–a resurrection, a crown.
Cone moves from Black spirituals to the literary works of James Weldon Johnson (who wrote the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the “Black national anthem”) to W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. He speaks of the Black Christs, both men and women, who shared the fate of Christ, who was also lynched. And he writes movingly of the work of Black women who walked the way of Christ, as did Fanny Lou Hamer in voter registration or Rosa Parks.
Most chilling in this book are Cone’s references to “Strange Fruit,” a poem by Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen) brought to public attention by the jazz singer Billie Holliday:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the trees and blood at the root,
Black body swing in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The juxtaposition of fruit, trees, Southern breezes and poplars with blood, black bodies, and hanging vividly underscore the horror of lynching, and how it had become a commonplace at one time in our country.
Cone raises a question I’ve heard many whites raise, “but wasn’t that a past that is best forgotten?” He responds by asking what has happened to the hate, the indifference, and denial that made lynching possible? These have not disappeared (truth that the years since this book was written has borne out). He contends that only the remembering and retelling of the story of these injustices and honoring those who stood against them can bring healing.
The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window of that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice. Just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary, so black people had no choice about being lynched. The evil forces of the Roman state and of white supremacy in America willed it. Yet God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is a hope “beyond tragedy.”
This is a powerful book because of its profound reflections on the cross and how we’ve made our black citizens bear it, and the profound spirituality that has emerged from it. The question is will we see what we’ve been blind to, or in suppressing the truth, become blinder yet, leaving the door open to new terrors. I long that our nation will see and hear and confront our national sin. I wonder if we will, but this book challenges me to always live in hope–even if what is standing in front of me is a cross–or a lynching tree.