“The Cross and the Lynching Tree”

“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” June 10, 2020

James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is probably the most haunting and best-constructed spiritual book I’ve read this year. Cone argues that the lynching of black people is a blatant reenactment of the Crucifixion in our country; that white Christians’ refusal to look at lynching and racism in these terms has damaged our ability to recognize Christ and cling to His Cross; and that the theology developed in black communities and black liberation movements can illuminate the Cross for all Christians. It’s a short book and I’d rather suggest you go read it than try to give a full review (you can buy it new at Bookshop or used on Biblio); his thoughts are better than mine. Still, a few notes:

We’re always telling ourselves that theology needs to emerge from liturgy and the communal life of the Church. This book is one of the best examples of that–and one of the most vivid. It’s full of the life of Cone’s communities: not only the spirituals and gospel songs, but the juke joints, the black newspapers, the preachers and the protesters. Cone traces the theology of the Cross, the understanding of suffering in the life of the oppressed, through song and poetry as well as history and sermons.

He grapples with criticism of a theology in which the Cross is central, especially criticisms from black feminist/womanist theologians. But he can’t or won’t let go of the Cross. It remains his touchstone, his key to the Scriptures and to black life in this country. The horror of the Cross proves the power of the Lord. God looked at the worst that can be done to you, endured it, and defeated it. Your victory is assured because He went to the very depths, because He didn’t pretend that the world was better than it is. To keep the Cross at the center of your heart is to proclaim that even this was defeated and thrown down. The violence, oppression, humiliation, degradation which was intended to destroy Jesus, He transforms into the very means by which all the oppressed will be raised up and the powerful cast down.

And to keep the Crucified at the center of your heart is to remember that no humiliation you suffer can blot out the image of God you bear. I always think of Thomas a Kempis’s Reflections on the Passion of Christ, in which he reworks the Song of Songs as a hymn to Christ crucified. If the Crucifixion can’t destroy the beauty of the Lord then nothing anybody does to you can destroy His beauty that you bear. This inalienable beauty is a promise that you were made for liberation from sin and oppression, from death and sorrow, into restoration and resurrection.

There’s a raw, generous and thrilling passage where Cone finds the traces of this beauty in the juke joints’ proclamations of black manhood–and yet adds that it’s not these songs but the Cross that calls people out into the streets to protest, the Cross that gives strength to work for freedom.

There’s one aspect of the Cross that I think about a lot but which doesn’t turn up here, for very obvious reasons. Cone doesn’t talk much about the willing acceptance of suffering in order to imitate Christ. I think that’s an undercurrent in the passages where he describes people’s decisions to risk their lives for black liberation, but the book is primarily about claiming one’s personhood in the face of suffering imposed against your will.

And the book is completely rooted in black communities, so there’s no real exploration of what it might look like for a white reader to embrace this vision of the lynching as the modern or American Crucifixion. That’s not Cone’s job; still, the chapter about Reinhold Niebuhr hints that simply proclaiming this thesis in mostly-white settings would radically shift white Christians’ understanding of our duties to God and neighbor. That seems right to me and I think it would be hard to read this book as a white American and not come away with a changed or renewed determination to seek out one’s unfulfilled responsibilities. What does it look like to become not a gawker at the Cross but a disciple? We know what happened to the penitent thief, because Jesus told us, but what happened to the centurion who exclaimed, “Truly, this was the son of God”?

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