The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I finally had the chance to read a book I’ve had on my list for years now. The Cross and the Lynching Tree is considered by many to be theologian James Cone’s finest book (see: Amazon link). The book rocked me. Cone looks at the nature of the cross in light of America’s history of lynching. As such, this should be mandatory reading for all Christians in America. As Cone notes, “Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.”

I was amazed how it guided me through moments of tears into moments of desiring God to use me in new ways for the benefit of others. This is a theology that I don’t find in many places yet I realize the deficiency this has created in me. We need to listen to voices such as Cone’s, even when (and especially when) they are hard to hear. I was somewhat aware of the history of lynching, but I admit I had barely scratched the surface on seeing the horrors of it. I suspect most (white) readers will have the same experience.

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.

Although white southerners lost the Civil War, they did not lose the cultural war—the struggle to define America as a white nation and blacks as a subordinate race.

Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory. —W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Cone’s unique argument is that the horrors of lynching can actually help us to better understand the cross and vice versa.

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.

The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.

The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered.

If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history.

The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.

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.

I realized that because of this history—and the perspective which comes from it—black theology has much to teach the rest of us.

These questions, demanding God’s explanation for black suffering, sit at the nerve center of black religion in America, from the slave trade to the prison industrial complex of today. Black religion comes out of suffering.

The Christian gospel is God’s message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out.

While the lynching tree symbolized white power and “black death,” the cross symbolized divine power and “black life”—God overcoming the power of sin and death.

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.

After reading this you are left with the haunting question about what response this demands of us. One quote in particular remains with me in this regard:

Before the spectacle of this cross we are called to more than contemplation and adoration. We are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “to take the crucified down from the cross.”

May we commit ourselves to taking the crucified down from the cross.

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Jeremy Jernigan

This is the personal blog of Jeremy Jernigan. Husband to Michelle and father to Gavin, Madsen, Adelyn, Aiden, and Abel. Author of Redeeming Pleasure and Lead Pastor at Abundant Life Church in Portland.

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