Book review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Anvil journal of theology and mission

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013 reprinted edition)

by Jonny Baker, CMS

On 3 June 2020 Chance the Rapper tweeted “Jesus was lynched”. This tweet was liked 63,000 times. He then proceeded to follow it up with some quotes from an article entitled “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”, which is the title of James Cone’s book from 2011. The article was by Steve Holloway and was a review of the book prompted by Cone’s death. I don’t think Chance the Rapper had read James Cone’s book but I suspect that it was the highest profile comment in pop culture about it. I hope the book got some new readers as a result. Of course, the comments were polarised and ridiculous. One accused him of blasphemy, saying Jesus wasn’t lynched he was crucified – which was kind of missing the point! The reason I mention this as a way into a review is that I think my own education about racism and injustice has been in some significant part through black music – soul, reggae, hip hop, Afrobeat to name a few genres. Artists feel the culture and somehow find ways to articulate something of the pain, grief and mood of the times and where appropriate call forth a different vision, a different possibility. In this regard art and prophecy are close friends. The most helpful response for me personally after George Floyd’s death, aside from Al Sharpton’s magnificent eulogy, was actually Gilles Petersen’s selection of music and comments and guests on BBC Radio 6 Music in the two weeks after. I found it a lot more helpful than what I heard in churches – in fact it struck me how few hymns or contemporary songs there are that really spoke into that moment in any concrete or grounded way.

Chapter four of James Cone’s book is about literary artists and the connections they made between the crucifixion and the lynching tree. For me it was the most moving chapter of the book and I followed it up by finding some of the pieces online which also led to finding illustrations of the black Christ identifying with the suffering of those lynched. What is particularly striking about that chapter is that it comes in the wake of a discussion about the absence of the connection between the cross and the lynching tree in the theologies of the best white theologians of the day and the pulpits in white churches. Cone devotes a chapter to Niebuhr and goes to great lengths to reflect on this absence in Niebuhr’s work because he was probably America’s most influential theologian, commented on social issues and Cone was very influenced by him, following in his footsteps at Union Theological Seminary in New York. As Cone says, it is extraordinary that this connection was not made. He contrasts that with a moving chapter on Martin Luther King who makes those connections and whose life was one shaped by the way of the cross. I don’t know why I say that is a moving chapter because every chapter I mention I will say is moving! A case in point is the chapter on black women’s experience of suffering, their part in activism and black womanist theological perspectives. I was reminded by that of Billie Holliday’s rendition of Strange Fruit, which I listened to several times as a result of the book (Nina Simone’s is powerful too).

The book opened my eyes to how prevalent lynching was. I knew about it but the scale and horror of the experience was really brought home to me by Cone’s book. Between 1880 to 1940 white Christians lynched 5,000 black men and women. These lynchings drew huge crowds and families came out to watch. Photos of the event were turned into postcards that you could buy. Cone references an exhibition that shocked America by touring these postcards – I found some of the images online. It is so hard to believe and fathom the reality of that black experience in America and that white Christians did it – I found it important for me to look at it and try and see it as best I could without averting my gaze.

James Cone is brutally honest about his own struggle – white supremacy tears faith to pieces, he says. If God loves black people, why do they suffer? And yet the heart of the gospel is struggle for freedom and liberation from oppression. The cross is an empowering sign for those who suffer because of God’s loving solidarity with them. It’s also where the powers and principalities are overcome. And it has to be related to our social reality rather than abstracted. So Cone is right to say that Jesus was a lynchee and make that connection. And he says that every time a white mob lynched a black person they lynched Jesus all over again. “The lynching tree is the cross in America.” At the same time he laments that many white theologians’ theology of atonement (which they are very defended about) fails to name or recognise white supremacy as America’s great sin. It is in danger of being sentimental abstract false piety.

In the conclusion he quotes from James Baldwin who says he is proud of the spiritual force and beauty of black people in America. Why? Because “it demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck.” I was in pieces at that point.

I love liberation theologies but it was actually as a result of twitter that I read it. It wasn’t Chance’s tweet but Bishop Emma Ineson saying she was going to read it. At that point I was so upset about George Floyd’s murder and wondering what on earth I could or should do, that I ordered the book and thought I’ll at least read that and try and get a bit better educated. It really has done that in a powerful way.

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