James Cone (2013, reprint). The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis Books.
The cross and the lynching tree are two of the most emotionally charged symbols in the Black community in America. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone observes the theological and biblical implication of the cross and the Passion narrative from a perspective of an African American and connects his observation with the lynching tree and the black struggle. He then explores the symbolic connections of the cross and the lynching tree and criticizes the American church and theologians for being ignorant of the obvious parallels. Cone criticizes the American church and theologians of the past for its failure to recognize and address white supremacy. By comparing and examining these two symbols, Cone advocates for empathy for the African American struggle for justice and argues for the identification of suffering as the core message of the cross.
For Cone, the cross represents Jesus’s painful sacrifice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and hate. The cross represents God’s justice and power in that death is not the final destination. It represents the “foolishness” of the gospel that ultimate victory is found in defeat and suffering. In the Roman Empire, the cross was an intimidating symbol of authority and power. It was the absolute worst kind of execution method devised for the purpose of torture and humiliation. Crucifixion was a public spectacle that was used to shame the criminal and make a statement for the observers. On the cross, Jesus endured this suffering and humiliation. Through the cross, Cone argues, God identifies with the poor and the persecuted. “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured” (26).
Cone educates us greatly on the history of lynching and the struggle against white supremacy in America. He goes in great detail specifying the horrible atrocities of how nearly five thousand black men and women were lynched during the period of 1880 to 1940. During this era, lynching was more than a method of execution. Lynching was used to simply remind the black community of their powerlessness. It was used to intimidate and humiliate the African Americans. It was a symbol for dehumanizing the blacks and the culture of white supremacy. During this period, African Americans had to live under the daily threat of death, fear, and shame. They had to keep their heads down and walk in humility or face the threat of lynching. Lynching represents a dark history in America where fellow brothers and sisters were humiliated and killed just because of the color of their skin.
Cone criticizes the American church and theologians for failing to see the obvious connections between the cross to the lynching tree. Cone provides a valid argument in describing the connections. He starts by showing how Jesus was a victim of mob hysteria and makes a comparison with the mob mentality of the white Americans, thirsting for blood in the name of God in defense of segregation and white supremacy. “Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment” (31). As Cone argues, the crucifixion from Roman history can be easily substituted for lynching in the United States. Cone reasons that the failure of American theologian to recognize these strikingly similar parallels of the lynching tree with the Cross reflects a defect in the conscience of the white Christians.
Cone wants America to recognize the lynching tree as a reminder the reality of the suffering of the cross. Cone wants America to understand the African American struggle for justice in the face of slavery, segregation, and racism. He wants America to see Jesus’s solidarity with the poor. Cone’s theology is that God came to identify himself with the poor and the suffering. For the blacks, the promise that their suffering will be over was not enough. They wanted God to identify with their suffering and liberate them from their miserable state in the present world. Cone argues that white supremacy is still pervasive and the church needs to recognize this. He shows how the lynching of African American continues today with the modern criminal justice system. Labeling it as the “new Jim Crow,” he argues that the war against drugs has placed nearly one third of black youth behind bars and remarks how nearly half the people in prison are black. Cone does not want America to forget about the atrocities it has caused through lynching. Cone wants America to remember much like how the Germans remember their Nazi concentration camps. By remembering this act of horror, Cone argues, America will be reminded of its capacity of hate and injustice. America must confront its sin of hate and indifference through lynching or else racism and injustice will define America.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do you agree with James Cone’s argument that the lynching tree reflects the cross and the crucifixion?
- Cone argues that since the lynching tree is so strikingly similar to the Cross it should have a prominent place in American image of Jesus’ death. However, the lynching tree has no place in American theology. Why do you think this is the case?
- Imagine being an African American during the nineteenth century. The whole world hates you and is against you. The neighborhood, the church, the cops, the politicians, the courts, and the institutions that are supposed to protect you and represent justice incriminate you. How would you feel? Do you now understand the great injustice the African Americans had to suffer and endure?
- Why do you think the church and the Christians during this time were so blinded to the sufferings of the African Americans and permitted such atrocities to continue for 400 years? How come they did not do anything to fight for justice?
- Think about innocent people who are suffering because of injustice in today’s world. Are we being ignorant and turning a blind eye to those who are suffering in the midst of our greed and injustice?
- By observing and understanding the lynching tree, we can see the cross from a different perspective of how God had revealed himself through the black struggle in the midst of suffering, persecution, and injustice.
- African American theology can be better understood by observing the lynching tree.
- African Americans suffered much in the history of America, and the church has failed them. The church must recognize its failures and work towards reconciliation and justice.
Jeff Yoo, April 2013© 2017 CYS