Review of James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree

[1] In James Cone’s latest book The Cross and The Lynching Tree, the revered theologian and social critic explores the paradoxical relationship between Jesus’ death on the cross and the atrocious history of the lynchings of blacks by Southern whites, starting in the post-bellum South and leading up to the first decades of the twentieth century. Cone’s book is a memoir on the painful experience of being both a Christian and a black man in America. Cone believes that the experience of being both black and Christian incites a paradox—as a Christian, his faith inspires him to be hopeful about God’s coming salvation and work in his life; as a black man, his life experiences under the evils of segregation and ever-present threat of death lead him to despair. Jesus’ death on the cross represents a similar paradox, as the cross is a place of both the agony of Christ’s crucifixion and the promise of God’s presence amidst that suffering. Martin Luther, in his Heidelberg Disputation, first elucidated the paradox between the presence and hiddenness of God on the cross. In this book, James Cone recognizes this profound paradox of the cross and argues that the cross ought to serve as the paradigmatic symbol through which one can talk about being both black and Christian in America. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone does this systematically and reflectively, simultaneously looking backwards and forwards, offering a resting place for black America to leave its burdens and providing a path for a better, more united America.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree[2] Cone begins The Cross and the Lynching Tree with a historical and theological reflection on the harsh reality of black life in the lynching era (1880-1940). Cone asserts that blacks, primarily (but not only) in the South, faced the ever-present threat of death by lynching. In the first chapter, Cone recounts the history of lynching in the Southern states. This chapter serves well as background information and allows the reader to understand the history of lynching in America beyond the clichés of mainstream history. It also allows the reader to grasp the real existential threat that lynching posed to blacks in America, especially in the Southern states. Cone wrote about “lynching spectacles” in the Southern states. Sometimes, a lynching would be advertised in the local paper and then covered by the local press. Lynching was not done only by Klansmen in the dark of the night; it was a public symbol, seen as “the moral and Christian responsibility of white men to protect the purity of their race by any means necessary” (7). In the South, the whites held the social, political and legal power. For blacks, it was nearly impossible for victims of lynching to get justice because the jury of the white man’s peers included only white men. In the South, whites lynched blacks for such reasons as blacks’ economic success, or even for looking at a white man with pride or looking at a white woman with lust. These were the harsh realities of life for Southern blacks.

[3] However, even in the midst of this suffering, Southern blacks found two fruitful resources for resistance: “the juke joint” on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning. Cone recounts the experience of the “juke joints,” local taverns in which blacks affirmed themselves with blues music and dancing. Cone writes that in the situation of apparent meaninglessness, “blacks found hope in the music itself—a collective self-transcendent meaning in the singing, dancing, loving and laughing” (13). Cone presents the lives of Southern blacks as a dialectic, with the tired despair of powerlessness and suffering on the one hand and the ontological resistance against that suffering by affirming their own cultural identity through music and dance on the other hand. At the juke joint, a black man or woman affirmed his or her own blackness. This form of resistance was an important source for what would become the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Blacks also found hope in the pews of churches on Sunday morning. Cone writes, “The spirituals, gospel songs and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death” (21). One of Cone’s primary arguments in the book is that, because suffering and death were so evident in the daily lives of a black men and women, they identified intimately with the God of the cross. Cone writes, “In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in the suffering on lynching trees just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross” (21-22). This faith in the God of the cross gave black Christians the courage to bear the suffering they were forced to bear, the courage to find meaning and hope in a desperate situation, and finally, the courage to fight against the political and social structures that enslaved them.

[4] In the second and third chapters of The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Cone presents his own dialectic of two theologians of the cross: Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Cone deals with each twentieth century theologian individually, he holds the two thinkers in a careful tension. Both are understood as eminent theologians of their own time. Both used the cross as an important theological symbol in their work and lives. But only one of them was assassinated for his message; only one of them died “on the cross.” Although Cone praises Niebuhr as a creative theologian and one of the most important theologians of our time, he is very critical of Niebuhr’s views on race. Despite the fact that Niebuhr’s corpus includes many works on both the cross as a theological symbol and the problems between races, Niebuhr failed to connect the two symbols in his work. In the second chapter of The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Cone outlines Niebuhr’s “ambivalent” perspective on race, including Niebuhr’s failure to integrate his own Detroit parish in the 1920s, Niebuhr’s call for moderation in the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision to end segregation in public schools in 1954, and Niebuhr’s failure to include the problem of black oppression in his The Irony of American History. Cone writes, “Niebuhr had ‘eyes to see’ black suffering, but I believe he lacked ‘the heart to feel’ it as his own” (41). Cone believes that although Niebuhr employed theological tact while talking about the cross and suffering, he never lived the suffering he so readily espoused. He believes that Niebuhr remained cozy in his office at Union Theological Seminary, where the question of suffering was hypothetical; meanwhile, the pain and suffering of being black in America was occurring only blocks away in the streets of Harlem. Cone compares Niebuhr with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who famously became involved at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Again, of the two theologians—Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr—one died on the cross and one did not. Cone insinuates that Niebuhr did not have the courage to live out his own words about the cross.

[5] I think Cone goes a little too far in his criticism of Niebuhr and other theologians. For instance, he writes, “It is one thing to teach theology (like Niebuhr, Barth, Tillich and most theologians) in the same environs of a classroom and quite another to live one’s theology in a situation that entails the risk of one’s life” (70). Two notes on this comment. First, as noted above, most of Cone’s criticism of Niebuhr concerns what Niebuhr did not say or did not do about race. Niebuhr had his own battles, such as his work in the socialist movement in the early 1930s (as Cone himself notes). And second, both Barth and Tillich stood up to Hitler and Nazism, which was the social and racial issue of their own time, in their own continent. And in doing so, they risked their own livelihoods.1 I believe it is unfair to the legacies of Niebuhr, Barth and Tillich to charge them for not “living out the cross of American racism,” when they provocatively lived out other crosses in their own lives.

[6] In the third chapter Cone outlines the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the impact the cross had on his life. Cone offers a summary of King’s view of the cross interspersed with the major events of King’s life. Cone makes two points concerning the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his experience of the cross. The first point is that King connected his own suffering as a black man with the suffering God of the cross. God’s suffering on the cross is a promise of God’s loving solidarity with those who suffer. Cone writes, “Just as God was with Jesus in his suffering, black Christians believed that God is with us in our suffering too” (88). Cone’s second point about King and his experience of the cross is that the cross gave King the faith required “to bear the cross” by dying for the cause of black liberation. King knew that his leadership in the black freedom movement could cost him his life. As indicated by the frequency of the cross in King’s sermons, he believed that the cross is a reminder of the price of one’s life that comes with being a Christian. In one of his sermons, King stated, “It (the cross) is not something you wear. The cross is something you bear and ultimately you die on” (84). For an added emphasis on his point, Cone concludes his chapter on Martin Luther King, Jr., by referencing thinkers that have connected the martyrdom of King with Christ’s death on the cross. Again, the distinction Cone draws between Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., is clear: although both theologians developed the cross as an imaginative theological symbol, only Martin King lived out the vocation of the cross.

[7] In the fourth chapter “The Recrucified Christ in Black Literary Imagination” Cone details the paintings and narratives that have sprung from the black cultural imagination connecting the experience of black suffering, especially experiences of the lynching tree, with Jesus’ death on the cross. Cone shows that blacks have used art and narrative as a medium to express the pain and make sense of their experience with segregation and the lynching tree. This chapter focuses primarily on the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. Much of Du Bois’ and Hughes’ writings on religion and the black experience present America with the Black Christ and consider how the Black Christ would be received in the segregated America of the early 1900s. One of Du Bois’ stories, “The Gospel of Mary Brown,” replaces the “Jesus of the Gospel of Luke” with the “Jesus of Mary Brown.” Du Bois retells many of the stories from the Gospel of Luke with Christ as a modern day black man named “Joshua.” After teaching a gospel of love and equality, Joshua is tried by a northern judge and is put to death by an angry mob. Similarly, in a poem called “Christ in Alabama,” Langston Hughes connects the beating and lynching of a black man with the experience of Christ’s death. The message of these stories is twofold. First, these stories depict “the Christ of today” as a black man; in doing so, they highlight the radicalism of Christ’s message and Christ’s solidarity with those who suffer. Second, by depicting Christ as a black man, these stories are a denunciation of the message of “the Southern white church,” which throughout its history used the Bible to support its views of racism and segregation. In connecting the suffering of black people with the Black Christ, black literature affirmed and transformed that suffering in order to find meaning in that experience.

[8] In the fifth chapter, “O Mary, Don’t You Weep” Cone turns to the womanist tradition to explore black women’s experience of the cross and the lynching tree. He begins this chapter by noting the various ways black women suffered in the South, in contrast to the suffering of black men. Because Southern whites felt intimidated by black men more than they did by black women, most of the lynching victims were black men. However, as Cone aptly notes, whenever a black man was killed, black women suffered not only because they lost a husband, son or brother, they also suffered because they did not have the economic means to support their families in the racist, patriarchal South. Also, because black women were responsible for raising the children, they could not escape segregation of the South as easily as black men. Cone then turns his attention to the courageous early civil rights’ leader Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Wells was a former slave and journalist. She wrote and spoke against the evils of white supremacy. Much of her work focused on disclaiming “the rape myth,” the white supremacists’ lie that black men raped white women, a claim that was often used as a justification for the lynching of black men. Cone writes, “No one was more militant than Ida B. Wells” (127). As someone who spoke out against white supremacy and white Christianity’s silence on lynching and mob violence, Wells received death threats and often risked her life to speak in public. But Wells’ faith in Christ sustained her and allowed her to fight for justice. Cone also highlights the jazz singer Billie Holliday in this chapter. Holliday’s famous song “Strange Fruit” is a somber protest song about the lynching of black men and women in the South. Time magazine called it “the best song of the century” (134). The song “forced white listeners to wrestle with the violent truth of white supremacy” (136). Because of the song’s subject matter, it was banned in the South and “Lady Day’s” record label refused to record it. Cone affirms that the song is a powerful reminder of the truth that America wants to forget. Next, Cone details the history of black women in the civil rights movement. He argues that black women served as the backbone of the civil rights movement, noting the common phrase “If Rosa Parks had not sat down, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have stood up.” Cone writes that “black women’s faith empowered them to transform America, not just for black people but for all Americans, including white men” (148).

[9] For those readers who are not familiar with Cone’s work, some of his statements about “white Christianity” might seem shocking and unfair. For the most part, Cone’s generalizations about “black Christianity” are overwhelmingly positive, while his generalizations about “white Christianity” are overwhelmingly negative. Throughout his esteemed career, he has been seen as a radical theologian who lifts up black experience by denigrating white experience. This has led some to dismiss his work. Some even believe that his work is racist. But to understand Cone this way is to miss his point entirely. As a black theologian, Cone addresses his work to the black experience. As a liberation theologian, Cone believes that God is found precisely where God is needed the most. Cone’s theology has always been located at the intersection of his experience as both a black and a liberation theologian. Cone may also be called a theologian of the cross after reflecting on the themes of black liberation theology in the context of Jesus’ death on the cross in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone’s conviction is that the cross “is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power” (156). In the context of Cone’s corpus, this book represents a reconciliation of “white Christianity” and “black Christianity.”

[10] In the introduction of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone spells out his motivation for writing the book. He writes:

To give voice to black victims, to let them and their families and communities speak to us…I wrestle with questions about black dignity in a world of white supremacy because I believe that the cultural and religious resources in the black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy and also deal more effectively with what is called the war on terror (xviii-xix).

Cone writes about black suffering for the victims of white supremacy with the hope of the liberation of all peoples. In connecting the cross and the lynching tree, Cone makes the statement that death and despair do not have the last word. The meaning of Good Friday manifests itself on Easter Sunday. In the conclusion, Cone writes, “No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality” (166).

[11] The meaning of the cross in black (and white) experience is to neither easily forget the past nor easily move on to the future. The cross offers us a place for openness and community, a place where we can look back and mourn the past together, as Christ mourns with us on the cross. But the cross is also a symbol of hope. The cross of Christ is sometimes hard to look at, not because of its darkness, but because of its light. This important book about the struggle to be both black and Christian in America is a call for hope and love as blacks and whites move forward dealing with the horror of the lynching tree.

1. See James C. Livingston, et al., Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006). For Barth’s work against Nazism, see p. 99-100. For Tillich’s work against Nazism, see p. 140-141.

Benjamin Taylor

Benjamin Taylor is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He has studied and worked closely with Vítor Westhelle for the past four years.