James H. Cone is a theologian best known for his work in Black liberation theology. I’ve read a bit about his work, but I’d never read anything he’d written until reading this short examination of how the cross of Christianity is linked to the lynching tree. Cone begins with a description of life in the time of frequent lynchings and explains how the church and the arts provided a means of comfort, joy, and hope to people whose lives were filled with fear. He goes on to reflect on the work of various writers, theologians, and artists and how they responded to the violence around them. And so the book serves as a commentary not just on racist murders but on people’s responses to those killings.
He is at times critical, as in his chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, a liberal theologian who influenced much of 20th century thought around theology and ethics, including Cone’s. Although Cone acknowledges Niebuhr’s insights and influence, he makes it clear that Niebuhr’s theology fell seriously short when it came to attacking racism. This chapter contains some important criticisms that could apply to both the church and political movements today. Niebuhr cared about racial justice, but he approached it with caution.
Even when the white church wasn’t directly involved in lynching (and it frequently was), the white church was too often silent. And this is no small failure. Cone writes, “There was no way a community could support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing in word and deed the one who was lynched by Rome.” It’s a strange thing to say, and indicative of my own blind spots, but it hadn’t occurred to me to think of the crucifixion as a lynching, although of course it was. And Cone explains how black theologians and writers have been making that link for generations. It’s not just that Jesus suffered, it’s that he was unjustly killed. He was hung from a tree. Cone writes:
It is one thing to think about the cross as a theological concept or as a magical talisman of salvation and quite another to connect Calvary with the lynching tree in the American experience. To speak of the Black Christ in a land lighted by the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan challenged the imagination of black artists. Do Bois led the way, inspiring other artists and writers to speak movingly about the cross, lynching, and burning black bodies.
Cone considers the writings of Martin Luther King and WEB Du Bois, Billie Holliday’s singing of “Strange Fruit,” and the activism of women like Ida B. Wells. I was especially fascinated with his discussion of Wells, who was brave and outspoken in her criticism of the white church. Cone also draws in the work of womanist theologians, black women who have brought different understandings of the cross into the conversation.
This is a short book, under 200 pages, if you don’t count the extensive notes, but there’s a lot of material here. I appreciated that Cone brought in so many different voices, including those outside the church. I’ve read a lot of theology, but most of it was written by white people (usually men), and this was a good change. It’s also not too heady or complex for those who don’t want to get into all the different atonement theories. It was published in 2012, so it doesn’t bring into the discussion the highly publicized police shootings of the past few years, but Cone does mention the problems in the critical justice system, citing Michelle Alexander’s phrase “the new Jim Crow” and noting that “one can lynch a person without a rope or a tree.” It’s a hard thing to think about, but important, especially for those of us who have been shielded from this history.