The Cross and the Lynching Tree image

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

"They put him to death by hanging him on a tree," said Peter as he preached the gospel to Gentiles for the first time. The exact same summary could be made of the deaths of the five thousand black people lynched in America between 1880 and 1940, points out James Cone in his searing and brilliant The Cross and the Lynching Tree, yet white Christians seem not to have noticed. An innocent victim being scapegoated for the crime of another; a mob baying for blood; an accused person stripped, shamed, humiliated, spat upon, physically disfigured, killed, and left to hang there as a warning to others; a public execution as a statement of the supremacy of a powerful group over a powerless one; a tree. "The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection."

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It pulls no punches (and nor should we) in describing the horrors of lynching, any more than the horrors of crucifixion. It is unrelenting in its development of the comparison between the two, and in pressing the point to expose the hypocrisy of white Christians. It is also a flawed book; in places it defaults to mushy liberalism, appearing to dismiss virtually all Christian reflection on the atonement as unnecessary rational theorising, and presenting salvation as “broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness.” But this should not be used an excuse to dismiss it. For the most part it is a deeply powerful, moving and challenging book, one that has made me see the cross in a new light and fuelled my worship of, and joy in, Jesus Christ.

For me, much of its power comes through Cone’s engagement with black poetry on the subject. Black Christians, unsurprisingly, have seen the cross in the lynching tree, and the lynching tree in the cross, in ways that white Christians haven’t. Interspersed with Cone’s commentary and the book’s controlling metaphor, these poems and songs have the capacity to illuminate the cross in stirring (if unsettling) ways, whether or not that is what they were originally written to do. Some of them are spirituals, which draw an added poignancy when we consider the backdrop of lynching:

Nobody knows the trouble I see
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I see
Glory Hallelujah!

Or, more obviously:

Poor little Jesus boy, made him be born in a manger.
World treated him so mean,
Treats me mean too ...

Dey whipped Him up an’ dey whipped Him down,
Dey whipped dat man all ovah town.
Look-a how they done muh Lawd.

I was there when they nailed him to the cross,
Oh! How it makes me sadder, sadder,
When I think how they nailed him to the cross.

I was there when they took him down ...
Oh! How it makes my spirit tremble,
When I recalls how they took him down.

But others make the point far more explicitly, and with immense poetic power. This is “Christ Recrucified” by Countee Cullen (1922):

The South is crucifying Christ again
By all the laws of ancient rote and rule:
The ribald cries of ‘Save Yourself’ and ‘Fool’
Din in his ears, the thorns grope for his brain,
And where they bite, swift springing rivers stain
His gaudy, purple robe of ridicule
With sullen red; and acid wine to cool
His thirst is thrust at him, with lurking pain.
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue,
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women too,
Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.

Or consider “A Festival in Christendom” (1920) by Walter Everette Hawkins:

The bound him fast and strung him high,
They cut him down lest he should die
Before their energy was spent
In torturing to their heart’s content.
They tore his flesh and broke his bones,
And laughed in triumph at his groans;
They chopped his fingers, clipped his ears,
And passed them round as souvenirs.

James Andrews incorporates the idea of animal sacrifice in “Burnt Offering” (1939):

A lonely tree, a surging crowd
With clubs and stones and voices loud;
A black man as a calf they bring.
Upon a newer Cross he dies,
And smoke ascends toward the skies:
Burnt offering.

The effect of these poems, and the dozens of others Cone explores while telling stories of both lynching and protest, is (at least for me) a remarkable one. It illuminates the savage horror of lynching, of course, but it also illuminates the savage horror of the cross, in ways that I find extremely moving. I happened to read it at Newday; as I finished it I could hear the gospel choir rehearsing in the Big Top, and couldn’t stop crying as I heard them sing, “Our God is the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain / For the sins of the world, his blood breaks the chains / And every knee will bow before the Lion and the Lamb / Every knee will bow before him!”

That may just have been me having a moment. But it may also testify to the power of Cone’s book, and the value of seeing the cross through new eyes. As Cone puts it in his conclusion: “The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering - to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety ... Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope.” Glory, Hallelujah.

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