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The Cross and the Lynching Tree The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
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“In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“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.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, “building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“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.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“For [Martin Luther] King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others—the only way to heal broken humanity.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of a pure regard for truth,” wrote French philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil. “Christ likes for us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt. How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. It keeps faith from being sure of itself. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,”[3] an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. 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.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“People reject the cross because it contradicts historical values and expectations—just as Peter challenged Jesus for saying, “The Son of Man must suffer”: “Far be it from You; this shall not happen to You.” But Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:21; Mk 8:31, 33). “In the course of a few moments,” Peter went from being “the mouthpiece of God” to a “tool” of Satan, because he could not connect vicarious suffering with God’s revelation. Suffering and death were not supposed to happen to the Messiah. He was expected to triumph over evil and not be defeated by it. How could God’s revelation be found connected with the “the worst of deaths,” the “vilest death,” “a criminal’s death on the tree of shame”?[15] Like the lynching tree in America, the cross in the time of Jesus was the most “barbaric form of execution of the utmost cruelty,” the absolute opposite of human value systems. It turned reason upside down. In his sermon-lecture “The Transvaluation of Values” in Beyond Tragedy, Niebuhr turns to Paul to express what it meant to see the world from a transcendent, divine point of view.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“While white mob violence against African Americans was an obsession in the South, it was not limited to that region. White supremacy was and is an American reality. Whites lynched blacks in nearly every state, including New York, Minnesota, and California. Wherever blacks were present in significant numbers, the threat of being lynched was always real. Blacks had to “watch their step,” no matter where they were in America. A black man could be walking down the road, minding his business, and his life could suddenly change by meeting a white man or a group of white men or boys who on a whim decided to have some fun with a Negro; and this could happen in Mississippi or New York, Arkansas, or Illinois. By the 1890s, lynching fever gripped the South, spreading like cholera, as white communities made blacks their primary target, and torture their focus. 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.”[17]”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree. 'Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock....Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame.' The crowd's shout 'Crucify him!' (Mk 15:14) anticipated the white mob's shout 'Lynch him!' Jesus' agonizing final cry of abandonment from the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mk 15:34), was similar to the lynched victim Sam Hose's awful scream as he drew his last breath, 'Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus.' In each case it was a cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The word of God is upon me, [and] it’s like fire shut up in my bones. And I just have to tell it.” What King had to tell was the truth about war, racism, and poverty. “It may hurt me,” he said. “But when I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. . . . It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”[38]”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“takes a whole lot of empathic effort to step into those of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“King refused to lose hope or to relinquish the belief that “all reality hinges on moral foundations.” He focused his hope on Jesus’ cross and resurrection. “Christ came to show us the way. Men love darkness rather than the light, and they crucified Him, there on Good Friday on the Cross it was still dark, but then Easter came, and Easter is the eternal reminder of the fact that the truth-crushed earth will rise again.” No matter what disappointments he faced, King still preached hope with the passion of a prophet: “I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up on life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all.”[49]”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“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. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“For Mrs. Bradley, the voice she heard was the voice of the resurrected Jesus. It spoke of hope that, although white racists could take her son’s life, they could not deprive his life and death of an ultimate meaning. As in the resurrection of the Crucified One, God could transmute defeat into triumph, ugliness into beauty, despair into hope, the cross into the resurrection.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population—slavery, segregation, and lynching—then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“While Niebuhr agreed, he did not want to throw out “the white man as white man,” and asked “whether there is not a leaven in the other classes that would correspond to the light of truth in the despised minority.” Baldwin replied that “I don’t mean to say the white people are villains or devils or anything like that,” but what “I do mean to say is this: that the bulk of the white . . . Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know. . . . I don’t suppose that . . . all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The lynching tree is the most potent symbol of the trouble nobody knows that blacks have seen but do not talk about because the pain of remembering—visions of black bodies dangling from southern trees, surrounded by jeering white mobs—is almost too excruciating to recall. In that era, the lynching tree joined the cross as the most emotionally charged symbols in the African American community—symbols that represented both death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope. Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time “an unquenchable ontological thirst”[1] for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“When Niebuhr thought a little more deeply about Darrow’s empathy with black suffering, however, he said, “I suppose it is difficult to escape bitterness when you have eyes to see and heart to feel what others are too blind and too callous to notice.”[29]”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“Just as Martin Luther King Jr. learned much from Reinhold Niebuhr, Niebuhr could have deepened his understanding of the cross by being a student of King and the black freedom movement he led. King could have opened Niebuhr’s eyes to see the lynching tree as Jesus’ cross in America. White theologians do not normally turn to the black experience to learn about theology. But if the lynching tree is America’s cross and if the cross is the heart of the Christian gospel, perhaps Martin Luther King Jr., who endeavored to “take up his cross, and follow [Jesus]” (Mark 8:34) as did no other theologian in American history, has something to teach America about Jesus’ cross.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“They shouted, danced, clapped their hands and stomped their feet as they bore witness to the power of Jesus’ cross which had given them an identity far more meaningful than the harm that white supremacy could do them.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“When a mob in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1918 failed to find Sidney Johnson, accused of murdering his boss, Hampton Smith, they decided to lynch another black man, Haynes Turner, who was known to dislike Smith. Turner’s wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, protested vehemently and vowed to seek justice for her husband’s lynching. The sheriff, in turn, arrested her and then gave her up to the mob. In the presence of a crowd that included women and children, Mary Turner was “stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.”[2]”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“When he sent a manuscript of The Irony of American History to his historian friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Schlesinger called Niebuhr’s attention to the glaring omission of the Negro: One irony deserving comment somewhere perhaps is the relationship between our democratic and equalitarian pretensions and our treatment of the Negro. This remains, John Quincy Adams called it in 1820, “the great and foul stain upon the North American Union”; and I think you might consider mentioning it.[46] But Niebuhr did not mention it, finding it apparently not a substantial concern. This was a serious failure by an American religious leader often called this nation’s greatest theologian. How could anyone be a great theologian and not engage America’s greatest moral issue? Unfortunately, white theologians, then and since, have typically ignored the problem of race, or written and spoken about it without urgency, not regarding it as critical for theology or ethics.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“Transvaluation of values,” a term derived from Nietzsche (who derided Christianity’s embrace of the weak), is the heart of Niebuhr’s perspective on the cross.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“If human power in history—among races, nations, and other collectives as well as individuals—is self-interested power, then “the revelation of divine goodness in history” must be weak and not strong.”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,”[3] an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. 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”
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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