James Klagge's Reviews > The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
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Feb 26, 12

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, african-american, religion-theology, essays
Read from February 06 to 24, 2012

A necessary book for whites to read. It presents the striking analogy between Jesus' crucifixion and blacks' lynching. In fact (in most translations--e.g., New Jerusalem Bible) Acts 10:39 reads that "they killed [Jesus] by hanging him on a tree." But none of the great theologians of the 20th Century ever so much as noted the comparison. And apparently the white Christian mobs viciously and publically lynched blacks or watched and cheered without ever noticing the irony that they were playing the role of the mob that called for and brought about Jesus' crucifixion. Not only was none of this noted during the decades of lynching, but white awareness of that era, to the extent that it ever existed, has rapidly turned to total amnesia. The theological moral to draw is that understanding of the cross comes from identification with the despised and outcast. "The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians" (p. 161).
A memorable passage (p. 124): "Like Jesus who prayed to his Father to 'let this cup pass from me,' blacks also prayed to God to take away the bitter cups of slavery, segregation, and lynching. Just as Jesus cried from the cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' many lynched victims made similar outbursts of despair to God before they took their last breath, hoping for divine intervention that did not come. New Testament scholar William Barclay called Jesus' cry of abandonment 'the most staggering sentence in the gospel record.' Black cultural critic Stanley Crouch called it 'perhaps the greatest blues line of all time'."
James Cone has been a great theological commentator for over 40 years, and this book is as good as any of his work.
Addendum: I just checked the "Cotton Patch" version of Luke-Acts by Clarence Jordan (1912-1969). Sure enough, he makes the connection (10:39): "they lynched him, stringing him up on a tree." So the "great theologians" didn't make the connection, but a white one did. Jordan was the founder, in 1942, of the (in)famous interracial Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. His renderings of the New Testament (done in the late 1960's) were meant to show its relevance to the world of the deep south of his time. Here is what Jordan had to say in the Preface to his "translation" of Paul's Epistles: "there just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for 'crucifixion.' Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term 'crucifixion' of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as 'lynching,' well aware that this is not technically correct. Jesus was officially tried and legally condemned, elements generally lacking in a lynching. But having observed the operation of Southern 'justice,' and at times having been its victim, I can testify that more people have been lynched 'by judicial action' than by unofficial ropes. Pilate at least had the courage and the honesty to publicly wash his hands and disavow all legal responsibility. 'See to it yourselves,' he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree."
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