The Cross and the Lynching Tree
Nooses have made an unfortunate return to the news of late, placed as symbols to intimidate and threaten African-Americans in communities from Columbia University to Jena, Lousiana. In this article, which will appear in an upcoming print edition of Trinity News, theologian James Cone explains what the cross means in America – by way of the noose and the lynching tree.
One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy. “Christianity,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is a faith which takes us through tragedy to beyond tragedy, by way of the cross to victory in the cross.” What kind of salvation is that? To understand what the cross means in America, we need to take a good long look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history — “the bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” that “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about, “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ.
The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, usually reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves, and rebels against the Roman state and falsely accused militant blacks who were often called “black beasts” and “monsters in human form” for their audacity to challenge white supremacy in America. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching 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” (Hengel). The crowd’s shout, “Crucify him! (Mark 15:14), anticipated the white mob’s shout, “Lynch him!” Jesus’ agonizing final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) was similar to the Georgia lynching 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.
The cross and the lynching tree need each other: the lynching tree can liberate the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. The crucifixion was a first-century lynching. The cross can redeem the lynching tree, and thereby bestow upon lynched black bodies an eschatological meaning for their ultimate existence. The cross can also redeem white lynchers, and their descendants, too, but not without profound cost, not without the revelation of the wrath and justice of God, which executes divine judgment, with the demand for repentance and reparation, as a presupposition of divine mercy and forgiveness. Most whites want mercy and forgiveness, but not justice and reparations; they want reconciliation without liberation, the resurrection without the cross.
As preachers and theologians, we must demonstrate the truth of our proclamation and theological reflection in the face of the cross and the lynched black victims in America’s past and present. When we encounter the crucified Christ today, he is a humiliated black Christ, a lynched black body. Christ is black not because black theology said it. Christ is made black through God’s loving solidarity with lynched black bodies and divine judgment against the demonic forces of white supremacy. Like a black naked body swinging on a lynching tree, the cross of Christ was “an utterly offensive affair,” “obscene in the original sense of the word,” “subjecting the victim to the utmost indignity.”
— In a penetrating essay, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about “the terrible beauty of the cross.” “Only a tragic and a suffering love can be an adequate symbol of what we believe to be at the heart of reality itself.” The cross prevents God’s love from sinking into sentimentality and romanticism. “Life is too brutal and the cosmic facts are too indifferent to our moral ventures to make faith in any but a suffering God tenable.” The gospel of Jesus is not a beautiful Hollywood story. It is an ugly story, the story of God snatching victory out of defeat, finding life in death, transforming burning black bodies into transcendent windows for seeing the love and beauty of God.
— The church’s most vexing problem today is how to define itself by the gospel of Jesus’ cross as revealed through lynched black bodies in American history. Where is the gospel of Jesus’ cross revealed today? Where are black bodies being lynched today? The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of 18 and 28 are in prisons and jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. One-half of the two million people in prisons are black. That is one million black people behind bars, more than in colleges. Through private prisons, whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America. One can lynch a person without a rope or tree.
The civil rights movement did not end lynching. It struck a mighty blow to the most obvious brutalities, like the lynching of Emmett Till and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. But whenever society treats a people as if they have no rights or dignity or worth, as the government did to blacks during the Katrina storm, they are being lynched covertly. Whenever people are denied jobs, health care, housing, and the basic necessities of life, they are being lynched. There are a lot of ways to lynch a people. Whenever a people cry out to be recognized as human beings and society ignores them, they are being lynched.
— People who have never been lynched by another group usually find it difficult to understand why blacks want whites to remember lynching atrocities. Why bring that up? That was a long time ago! Is it not best forgotten? Absolutely not! The lynching tree is a metaphor for race in America, a symbol of America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the theological meaning of the cross in this land. In this sense, black people are Christ-figures, not because we want to be but because we had no choice about being lynched, just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary. Jesus did not want to die on the cross, and blacks did not want to swing from the lynching tree. But the evil forces of the Roman State and white supremacy in America willed it. Yet God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree upon the divine self and transformed 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 the tragedy — hope for whites, blacks, and all humankind — hope beyond the lynching tree.
James Cone is Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
The material in this article was presented at Harvard Divinity School as the Ingersoll Lecture, October 19, 2006, and is excerpted from the Harvard Divinity Bulletin ,Winter 2007 (Vol. 35, No. 1).
This article appears in the Religion and Violence issue of Trinity News.