“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” This question from the prophet Amos is fitting frame for considering the seminal work of theologian James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The question presumes that two people have chosen to meet because of common interest or benefit, thus, they walk together. But a further question still remains: How long and how far? Cone asks this question of American Christianity in the face of a history of racism and white supremacy, and Cone’s readers may ask the same question of him as they engage his work.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is the most significant theological perspective on lynching—which includes not just hanging, but also “burning, beating, dragging, and shooting—as well as torture, mutilation, and especially castration.” Based on impressive research, Cone argues that the lynching tree is a viable reality/symbol for reflection on the cross of Christ. According to Cone, understandings of the cross and lynching tree can mutually inform one another and explain how events of trauma and injustice can still inspire hope for the African American community.
The Way of Suffering
Cone’s book begins by advocating for confronting white supremacy, which is evident even in the church. He claims that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree could “help us to see Jesus in America in a new light.” He first engages lynching in the United States from a historical perspective, which was used a means of reminding blacks “of their inferiority and powerlessness.” Cone then considers the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, seeing a potentially useful theological perspective. Cone applauds Niebuhr’s focus upon matters of “self-interest and power” in human relationships, but faults Niebuhr for not addressing lynching as an obvious example of sinful human abuse.
Cone moves on to discuss how Martin Luther King Jr. saw the cross and the resurrection of Christ as inspiration for his ministry, though ”it did not erase the pain of suffering or its challenge of faith.” Cone then explores the tension between Christian truth claims and the reality of the black experience as expressed in the black literary imagination and also the ministries of women like Ida B. Wells who, at the risk of their own lives, fought against lynching.
Cone concludes with a message of hope: “God took the evil of the cross and lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope ‘beyond tragedy.’”
Some shared signposts emerge as we walk along together with Cone.
With great insight and passion, Cone draws pivotal parallels between the meaning and function of the cross and the lynching tree on a horizontal, human plane. The commonalities he highlights between the horrors of lynching and Roman crucifixion are appropriate, as both were extremely terrible and painful ways to die that were compounded by the additional pain of humiliation. Lynching was the “quintessential symbol of black oppression in America” while the cross was a symbol of Roman dominance, particularly reserved for insurrectionists. As horrific as the means of death were, the executors desired to communicate a message to those who witnessed the execution. As Cone observes: “In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community.”