James H. Cone, (Marynoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 202 pages including notes and an index.
The late James Cone (1938-2018) tackled a tough topic, linking together the most powerful symbol for Christians, the cross, and the most shameful symbol of white supremacy, the lynching tree. The shame of the latter has been with me since the fourth or fifth grade. We had just moved back to North Carolina and in our state history book, there was a photo of lynching in Moore County that occurred in the late 19th Century. The main thing I remember was all the people, many young, were smiling around a dangling lifeless body. It was as if they were having a party. I was born in Moore County. I quickly did the math and realized that some of my great-grandparents (several of whom were still alive) could have been in that photo. I was horrified and didn’t want anyone to know that I’d come from that county. Of course, lynching wasn’t limited to Moore County. There were more lynchings (and ex-judicial killings) in other counties within the state and even more in other Southern states. Lynching wasn’t even limited to the South. Lynchings occurred all over the country. While some victims were white; in the West, Chinese and Mexican were thrown into the mix. But most of the victims were African American. Lynching was a way to keep the race terrified and, having been freed from slavery, under the control of their former white masters.
Cone set out to ask, “Can the cross redeem the lynching tree?” and “Can the lynching tree liberate the cross and make it real in American history?” (161) There is a danger to our theology when we spiritualize the cross. There is a danger to our humanity when we ignore the lynching tree and deny the sin of white supremacy and the horrible treatment that African-Americans have experienced since first being brought in chains to American shores in 1619.
Cone begins his study with a detailed look at the cross. As a religious symbol, the cross is a paradox. Like the lynching tree, the Romans used the cross to terrify and keep at bay those who might threaten the Empire. Death on the cross was horrible. Yet, the church adopted this horrific symbol, claiming that God’s power is greater than the worse evil humans can inflict on others. For the human mind, as the Apostle Paul points out, the cross is a contradiction. But God can redeem this symbol and today the cross instead of being the horrific symbol of the empire’s power, is a sign of freedom and hope. As Cone explores as the beginning of his book, the cross is a common theme in both Black and White churches, but because of the experience of the two races, the cross is experienced differently. In White Churches, its more about the other world. That’s true in Black Churches, too, but there the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope for a people who have been oppressed.
Cone explores the theology of the cross of Reinhold Niebuhr. Perhaps the greatest American theologian of the 20th Century, Niebuhr had a lot to say about the cross. (Cone suggests Reinhold Niebuhr may be the greatest American theologian ever, but I would argue that point. However, Niebuhr was a major theologian and a scholar in the public realm during the 20th Century.) Much of Niebuhr’s early writings (1920s-1940s) was done at a time when lynching was at its height. And while Niebuhr spoke out against white supremacy, Cone finds it strange that he never linked together the cross and the lynching tree. The second theologian Cone explores is Martin Luther King. While King, coming from the African-American tradition, focuses on the cross, also avoids linking it with the lynching tree. However, the poets and musicians from the Black tradition, do make the link as Cone explains:
They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to the stories of the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as a central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (118)
Cone’s fourth chapter focuses on the women’s voice from the Black community. While some women were lynched (warning: there are horrific details of lynchings in this book), most victims of lynching were men. Women spoke out for the men who, in the face of the lynching tree remained quiet and tried not to be seen. However, the lynching tree, like the cross is stripped of its gender and made an experience of all who encountered it, whether as a victim or as a witness. Perhaps the best-known woman’s voice to raise the issue of lynching was Billie Holiday. In 1939, she began singing the song “Strange Fruit.” No publisher wanted to record this song, so she sang it in nightclubs. No one could doubt the meaning of the lyrics: “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.”
This book may be difficult for white middle-class Christians to read, but we can’t deny that these things happened. If we want to get into the experience of how others understand their faith, we must listen to their voices. We must acknowledge their pain. In this book, Cone forces us to see the horrible treatment of a race and how it contradicts the Christian message. We need to lift up the lynching tree, in confession, realizing the sin it represents and live in the hope of a God who has the power to free us from such a past and shape us into a new people who might live in sister and brotherhood with those of a different hue.
This is the second book I’ve read by Cone. In the late 1980s, while in seminary, I read A Black Theology of Liberation. As a seminarian, I also studied under Ronald Stone, whose writings and conversations helped Cone shape his interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s views of the cross. While the subject matter is often difficult, Cone is an engaging writer. In a time when American seems to be coming apart at the seams, this book should be read by those of us in the majority culture so that we can “walk a mile” in the shoes of those who are of a different color and whose experience as an American is different that ours.