As a schoolgirl, I was taught plenty about slavery and segregation in the US; I was taught that both were gross injustices, shameful times in our nation’s past. There was so much emphasis on the civil rights movement in our elementary school curriculum that whenever anyone asked me who my hero was, I always said “Rosa Parks.”
What I don’t remember ever being taught about, though, was lynching—at least not in very much detail. I didn’t learn about it in school, and I certainly didn’t learn about it in church. I was aware that in the Jim Crow South, white mobs sometimes brutalized black men and even killed them by hanging, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of lynching. I didn’t know how common and widespread it was. Nor that women and children were among the victims. Nor that burning and mutilation were almost always involved. Nor that lynchings were considered community-wide entertainments, replete with food vendors, souvenir salesmen, and free passes from school.
James H. Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2013) is both history lesson and sermon—a harrowing look at America’s national crime (as Ida B. Wells called it) and the ways it was (and was not) confronted as well as a brotherly rebuke of the white church’s silence on the issue and a proposal for how to move forward.
The two most representative and emotionally charged symbols of black experience in America, the cross and the lynching tree interpret each other, Cone says. The black community understood this; they embraced the cross of Christ in all its paradox, finding hope and empowerment in knowing that just as death did not determine Christ’s final meaning, so neither would lynching have the final word for them. But this symbolic link doesn’t serve only African Americans; people of all races would do well to ponder it and flesh it out, as it promotes a rich theology of suffering and a helpful base for race relations within the church. And in fact Cone doesn’t see such reflections as optional; he considers them necessary for the sake of the gospel:
The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly two thousand years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society. . . .
Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy. (xiii-xiv, xv)
The Cross and the Lynching Tree integrates four different modes of writing—historical analysis, polemic, literary and visual art exegesis, and theological treatise—woven together into one vibrant, seamless cloth. I will examine each of these below.
A history of lynching
Cone, a black professor of theology, grew up in segregated Arkansas during the 1940s and ’50s. Though he doesn’t mention having ever witnessed a lynching, he shares how as a boy he was gripped by a constant fear that his dad might not come home from work that day.
The term “lynch” means to put to death by mob action without legal sanction. The term is thought to derive from the name Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter and politician who took it upon himself to punish—extralegally—supporters of the British crown during the American Revolution. As America expanded westward away from the courts, lynching was regarded as the only way a community could protect itself from “bad people” and was carried out against accused rustlers, robbers, and wife abusers.
After the Civil War, however, the term came to refer primarily to mob violence and torture directed against blacks. Such race-targeted lynchings were incredibly rare before the Civil War, because killing black slaves would have only resulted in a loss of property and profit. But after the South lost the war and had to give up its slaves, lynching fever gripped the region, as Southerners weren’t ready to grant full human status to African Americans.
Cone describes the horrific ordeal:
Burning the black victim slowly for hours was the chief method of torture. Lynching became a white media spectacle, in which prominent newspapers, like the Atlanta Constitution, announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims. 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 from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold for ten to twenty-five cents to members of the crowd, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like this: “This is the barbeque we had last night.” (9)
Though scholars give or take a decade on each side, Cone defines the lynching era as extending from 1880 to 1940. During these sixty years, more than five thousand African Americans—men, women, and children—were killed in the US by white vigilante mobs, almost always on trumped-up charges. And not just in the South (though that’s where they were most prevalent): lynchings were recorded in every state in the continental US with the exception of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Lynchings began to decline in the twentieth century, but 1940 is not a definitive cap: the 1955 lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, prompted by his alleged flirtation with a white woman, is said to have jump-started the civil rights movement.
For a photojournalistic account of America’s “lynching industry,” see James Allen’s Without Sanctuary, an exhibition turned book and website. Viewer discretion is advised.
A call to repentance and reconciliation
Lynching isn’t just part of secular American history; it’s church history too, Cone points out, because it was overwhelmingly Christians who carried them out and attended them. As they lifted tortured black bodies up onto trees to meet their death, Christians—who worship a crucified Savior—failed to see the irony of their actions.
Cone laments that even those Christians who did not participate directly in any lynchings were silent on the issue, and many remain so even today. Lynching was the most obvious symbolic reenactment of the crucifixion in the twentieth century, and yet pastors, theologians, and other lay Christians have still not acknowledged the connection:
The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha—should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. (130)
The Cross and the Lynching Tree exposes the hypocrisy and willful blindness of most white American Christians, with an aim toward reconciliation.
Now, I’ve read works of black liberation theology before and was thoroughly put off by some of them because of their angry, bitter tone and what I perceived to be reverse racism—that is, an attitude of black supremacy and hatred toward whites. There was a lack of desire to forgive and to allow for healing.
However, in this book Cone approaches white readers with a loving attitude of reconciliation. Although an underlying (and justified) anger certainly exists, it does not distance; it engages. The only exception—and this is my only criticism of the book—is that I think Cone went overboard on the lambasting in chapter 2, which is an extended rebuke of the famous American theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to make lynching a prominent focus, or even a part, of his theology, and to engage in meaningful dialogue with African Americans.
But other than that, the book moves us forward even as it takes us back; it confronts a sin and begs a turning from it, with a hand of peace extended:
We are bound together in America by faith and tragedy. All the hatred we have expressed toward one another cannot destroy the profound mutual love and solidarity that flow deeply between us—a love that empowered blacks to open their arms to receive the many whites who were also empowered by the same love to risk their lives in the black struggle for freedom. No two people in America have had more violent and loving encounters than black and white people. We were made brothers and sisters by the blood of the lynching tree, the blood of sexual union, and the blood of the cross of Jesus. No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together, no one can tear apart. (165-66)
The answer, Cone says, isn’t to forgive and forget, but to forgive and remember. That’s the only way we can give voice to the victims, to “the crucified peoples of history” (Ignacio Ellacuría).
A survey of the lynching tree as cross in the arts
The link between the crucifixion of Christ and the lynching of blacks has been most clearly articulated by black artists—poets, short story writers, painters, printmakers, musicians—who through their art proclaimed their humanity and resisted the evils of lynching. This is the focus of chapter 4 and for me the highlight of the book.
I was most arrested by the imagery from the blues song “Strange Fruit,” famously performed by Billie Holiday but written by a white Jewish schoolteacher from New York City, Abel Meeropol, who was horrified by a photo he saw of a double lynching. It’s considered one of the most influential protest songs ever written.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Below is a video recording of Billie Holiday’s historic 1939 performance, but I also encourage you to listen to Nina Simone’s 1965 rendition. It’s a chilling song. Literally chilling.
It implicitly challenges Christians to consider how they can possibly reconcile the “strange fruit” they hung on southern trees with the “strange fruit” Romans hung on the cross at Golgotha.
In addition to highlighting some spirituals and hymns that liken the black experience to Christ’s Passion, Cone also quotes from and exposits (at least in part) the following anti-lynching poems, just a sampling of the many that have been written:
- “A Festival in Christendom” by Walter Everette Hawkins (1920)
- “The Lynching” by Claude McKay (1922)
- “Christ Recrucified” by Countee Cullen (1922)
- “The Black Christ” by Countee Cullen (1929)
- “Christ in Alabama” by Langston Hughes (1932)
- “Burnt Offering” by James Andrews (1939)
- “The Bitter River” by Langston Hughes (1942)
- “Lynchsong” by Lorraine Hansberry (1951)
- “Night, Death, Mississippi” by Robert Hayden (1962)
- “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1991)
He also covers some of the protest art that came out of the two anti-lynching exhibitions of 1935—one sponsored by the NAACP, the other by the Communist Party. He describes four works in particular that liken the black struggle to Christ’s on his way to Golgotha. For example, the charcoal drawing I Passed Along This Way by E. Simms Campbell shows a Christ figure carrying a cross up a hill alongside a black man being pulled with a rope around his neck.
The Crisis, a monthly magazine put out by the NAACP, consistently published anti-lynching art under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, keeping the issue before the public’s attention.
A theology of the cross
In reflecting on the twin symbols of cross and lynching tree, Cone wrestles with the meaning of suffering, death, and resurrection—Christ’s, and our own. Is suffering redemptive in and of itself? Can the lynching tree reveal God? What is the spiritual power of the cross? How do we find victory in defeat? How does a life live on?
He also tackles the question of identity.
He doesn’t provide definitive answers to these questions; instead he relishes their mystery and points to how the answers have been embodied in the lived experience of African Americans.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree was a series of revelations for me. Where history and theology textbooks fall short, this book delivers, and I am grateful for the education I received from it. I found the book informative, challenging, edifying, and inspirational. It invites a prayerful response, of confession, petition, and reformation. And it sparked in me a renewed interest in African American music and literature.
Cone urges Christians to gaze upon the lynching tree, much as we gaze upon the cross, to ponder its terror but also its hope, and then to act. He explains his intent in the introduction:
I do not write this book as the last word about the cross and the lynching tree. I write it in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us. The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice. (xix)
Ably accomplished, I’d say.
Read an adapted excerpt from the book here.