The Cross & the Lynching Tree

If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy. Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman 1903

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My mentor and friend MaryKate Morse believe, “the first step towards being a redemptive presence in our communities is to truly enter into the lived experience and the actual perspective of our African American brothers and sisters.”[1] I took her at her word as I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone.[2] I had to read it slowly. I wanted to look away and close the book, but could not. I would not. I wanted to enter in as fully as could. I experienced a number of intense emotions as I made my way through – grief, anger, shock, disbelief, and hope. I witnessed humanity’s capacity for evil, as well as the power of the incarnational Jesus. Jesus transforms suffering and injustice by turning the cross, a symbol of death, violence, and defeat, into “a sign of liberation and new life.”[3]

During ancient times a cross was an instrument of torture and death; criminals would be nailed to a cross to hang until they died an excruciating and protracted death. A cross was a public witness to the power and violence of the empire and a spectacle for ridicule and scorn. A signpost along the road to strike terror in the subjugated community. During the lynching era (1880 – 1940), five thousand African American’s hung from a tree and died humiliating and excruciating deaths.[4] They were sometimes left to swing in the tree as a visible witness to the power and violence of the American empire and a public spectacle for ridicule and scorn. Prominent newspapers announced to all readers the place, date, and time of expected hanging and/or burning of black victims. Humanity’s capacity for evil and violence were on full display. Writes, Crone:

Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims – burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs … postcards were made and sold to members of the crowd who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like: “This is the barbeque we had last night.”[5]

Cone highlights pivotal parallels to journey alongside him into theology, history, culture, and Christian hope. He compares two trees, two empires, two theologians, and two responses erecting signposts for our faith. Cone draws direct parallels between the two trees and two empires. He insightfully argues the lynching tree was used as a form of white supremacy establishing social power and control within the US Empire in the same way the cross functioned during the Roman Empire.

Cone then compares and contrasts two prominent and contemporary theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. By contrasting Niebuhr and MLK Jr., Cone invites us to revisit and rethink the theology of the cross. Cone says, “The church’s most vexing problem today is how to define itself by the gospel of Jesus’ cross.”[6] Cone is unflinching in his rebuke of Niebuhr’s own distance from the actual suffering of the African American in American life. He could never link the cross of Calvary to the lynching tree.[7] Cone asserts that Niebuhr viewed Jesus’ love as an unrealizable goal – “a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve…..the cross was an absolute transcendent standard…and the most we can realize is ‘proximate justice’” sacrificing the very justice and love that Jesus brings.[8] Within our white Evangelical churches today, there is a strong propensity to be as Niebuhr was – fearful to stir the waters of power, privilege, and supremacy. We are fearful of upending the status quo legitimized by rules and procedures taken to be normative and beyond criticism. This often sends us scurrying to the comforts and safety of our churches and trading “proximity” for “proximate power.”

MLK, Jr., on the other hand, would not settle for what seemed practically possible – but, called for an idealistic pursuit of freedom and hope. Cone engages in an extensive explication of MLK Jr.’s view of suffering and the transformative path of hope. “No matter what disappointments he faced, King still preached hope with the passion of a prophet…”[9] King believed in the possibility of the impossible, without succumbing to the politics of “respectability” and the world’s value system of power. King put flesh and bones on the concept of hope. For him, hope was not a theoretical concept but a practical idea that dealt with the reality of his world. The cross became a witness to the hope that came from underneath and behind defeat and failure. A hope that Jesus understood the pain, the oppression, the marginalization because he too experienced it. The cross gave voice and meaning to death and violence by empowering hope for those suffering. It gave the capacity to face the presence of evil and injustice with a faith that displayed God’s power to go into those dark places and bring resurrection.

Cone makes a compelling case to consider a new kind of ‘lynching’ taking place in our society by asking us to consider the criminal justice system. He quotes, “where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. Nearly one-half of the more than two million people in prisons are black…..”[10] I also believe the US immigration policy and the detention of migrants at the border are examples of modern-day lynching’s as the power and violence of the US empire are on display. Like the cross and the lynching tree, family separations, women and children held in cages, are signposts along the road to strike terror in the subjugated community.

So, what now?

What is my invitation?

What is ours to do?

First, I need to name and confess my indifference to matters of race. Until I can name my complicity in my reality, I don’t think I can find much hope. I also need to pick up the forgotten practice of lament. Lament acknowledges the sin that has distorted relationships with God, our neighbors, and creation. Lament invites me to discern how I can recalibrate my relating in light of the gospel.[11]

Second, Cone challenged my theology of the cross and the Gospel. And as Dr. MaryKate Morse reminded me, I must truly enter into the lived experience and the actual perspective of our African American brothers and sisters and be willing to engage. I must be willing to walk with others different than me. This is and will be hard and messy. I will do it imperfectly. But I will listen. I will learn. I will change. To increase my awareness, I am obligated reading books from diverse authors, engaging with Black and Womanist theologians, critiques of different theologies, and watching films with different cultural lenses.[12] Ideally of course, this would be done in real, authentic relationships with diverse friends. Cone’s greatest critique of Niebuhr was his lack of authentic relationships with Black theologians, activists, and pastors. I must become friends with those not like me. I want to walk in other people’s shoes so that my dull heart might awaken, my blind eyes open, and my heavy ears lighten.

Third, I must not be silent. I was compelled by Rabbi Prinz’s statement, “we see that hatred and bigotry are not the most urgent problems, but the most urgent problem is the silence of good people who stand by and do nothing.”[13] I have been given voice and privilege. May I leverage it for the Gospel and go into the darkest places of society and be an ambassador of hope. May I be silent no more. Will you join me?

My prayer for all of us: God who knows the depth of death, violence, and injustice,  forgive our too-eager rush to joy and easy believism. Awaken the dull hearts, lighten the heavy ears, open the closed eyes. Give us resolute honesty and courage to resist the easy assumptions of our culture that refuses to call evil for what it is and craves easy and comfortable well-being.

[1] https://www.missioalliance.org/tears-cannot-stop-call-response/

[2] James Hal Cone (1938–2018) was an American theologian, best known for his advocacy of black theology and black liberation theology. His message was that Black Power, defined as black people asserting the humanity that white supremacy denied, was the gospel in America. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed, advocating the same thing as Black Power. He argued that white American churches preached a gospel based on white supremacy, antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.

[3] Cone, James H, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017, 156.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid, 9.

[6] Ibid, 163.

[7] Ibid, 38.

[8] Ibid, 33.

[9] Ibid, 90.

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://dominiquegilliard.com/2017/12/15/reclaiming-the-power-of-lament/

[12] Cone has been critiqued by Womanist theologians who argued he further fosters the humiliation of those most subjugated, especially women of color, rather than to empower and embolden. Cone listened, responded, and agreed with the critique. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25002353?read-now=1&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contentshttps://womenintheology.org/2013/05/28/reconsidering-cone-gendering-blackness/

[13] Ibid, 55.

Becky is a Spiritual Director as well as the founder and curator of Cascade Ministries. Becky and her husband David, a radiation oncologist and entrepreneur living in beautiful Greenville, SC. They are parents to three emerging adults, scattered around the country and Bibi (grandma) to one. She received a Master of Divinity with a concentration in spiritual formation. and Doctor of Ministry in Leadership and Spiritual Formation. She is passionate about people and their relationship with God and others. You can find Becky on Facebook under Becky Grisell and Cascade Ministries, IG at @becky_grisell, and blogging on Medium and The Misfit Theology Club.

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