James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
During America’s so-called “Lynching Era,” from roughly 1865 to 1955, whites murdered over five thousand Black Americans for mostly fictitious offenses. They faced few legal consequences, and often the law connived with this street justice. Most appallingly, these white assassins almost universally used Christian language and Biblical justifications to support their violence. African Americans, domineered by this behavior, supported themselves, remarkably enough, using this same Christian religion.
Union Theological Seminary professor James H. Cone, one of his school’s first Black faculty, grew up under Jim Crow, knowing the fear lynching offered. This isn’t historical escapism for Cone. Knowing directly the ways faith brought solace, he has written extensively on how religion means something unique to oppressed peoples. With this volume, he turns that attention specifically to violence, and how religion binds terrified individuals together into a people.
Lynching meant something almost identical in America that crucifixion meant in Rome: a political maneuver to silence despised peoples by generating paralyzing fear. African Americans literally had no idea who’d die next, in ways both humiliating and public. No wonder, Cone writes, that African American theology emphasizes the cross in ways white Christianity doesn’t, because Black Christians needed a God who shared their experiences of unjust, bigoted suffering and death.
Despite their usual presentation anymore, lynchings were seldom spontaneous; Emmett Till’s attackers plotted his assassination for four days. Though the perpetrators inevitably claimed some legal justification, we now know, these were usually fictitious. Attackers targeted Blacks who got rich, exercised autonomy, or otherwise didn’t accept race-based etiquette. This “frontier justice” was almost inevitably unjust. For many lynched African Americans, their last living sight involved white crowds surrounding flaming crosses.
|James H. Cone|
It wasn’t that Niebuhr failed to notice. As Cone demonstrates through Niebuhr’s own publications and papers, when challenged to speak out, Niebuhr demurred. Ensconced in an entirely white Northern university, he saw lynching separately from faith. “This suggests why it is so hard for whites and blacks to talk about white supremacy,” Cone writes: “even among progressive intellectuals like Niebuhr, there is too little empathy regarding black suffering in the white community.”
African Americans did understand, however. Cone dedicates one chapter each to the theologians, artists, and women whose participation fueled the anti-lynching and Civil Rights movements. Cone describes how difficult it is to separate lynching and other racial violence from the efforts to redress injustice: Dr. King’s first pulpit, Emmett Till’s lynching, and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move, happened in very quick succession.
Theologians’ interpretation of crucifixion related directly to lynching, a theology of triumph over fear, not even a metaphorical connection. If the God of the universe shared Black Americans’ suffering, if the God of the Oppressed knew violent, politically motivated death, then what had anyone to fear? “Scholars who criticize blacks for their ‘otherworldly’ religion,” Cone writes, “should look a little deeper into the ways blacks resisted the demonic in their midst.”
Artists used Christian metaphors to not only express individual suffering, but bind African Americans together into a resistence movement. Cone cites a panoply of artists, mostly writers, but also musicians, performers, and others, whose use of crucifixion metaphors meant something special to Black audiences. Even nominally agnostic artists like James Baldwin and WEB DuBois embraced religious symbolism. “Faith and doubt were bound together, with each a check against the other.”
Cone dedicates an entire chapter to women whose works steered Black Christian influences in the struggle. As in other traditions, men might “lead” the church, but women propel it. Influential women like Ida B. Wells, the journalist and pamphleteer, or Fannie Lou Hamer, whose speeches were generously salted with lines from psalms and hymns, provided a guiding voice for Black resistance. Their presence was absolute, and their message electrifying.
Cone has written extensively on the influence of resistance and power dynamics in Black theology. This book explicitly marries spiritual beliefs to lived history, a prime example of faith translating into action. Cone’s historical descriptions of real-life lynchings will horrify readers, especially whites, for whom lynching has retreated from memory. But this isn’t about the past. Cone exhorts us, the living, today.