By Mel White
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree”
A book by James H. Cone
For more than 40 years I’ve been moved and provoked by the writings of James Cone, Union Seminary’s distinguished professor of systematic theology. While reading his newest book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” however, I felt grief and anger on a whole new scale. I felt grief for the nearly 5,000 African-American men, women and children who were lynched between 1880 and 1940, and anger that during that 60-year holocaust, white preachers, evangelists and theologians didn’t even notice. No author has ever made me more ashamed to be a white American Christian and at the same time no author has ever given me a more dramatic example of the sustaining power of the cross.
All my life I had been taught that the cross was at the heart of my Christian faith. It has been a long time since I was deeply moved by it. “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” helped me experience the cross on a far more visceral level. Cone says it simply: Jesus was lynched. He makes the connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of African-Americans. He explains why understanding that connection is vital to understanding the meaning of the cross:
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“As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African-Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”
During his decades of research, Cone found, incredibly, no sermons, lectures, books or articles by white preachers, evangelists or theologians linking what happened on the cross to what happened on the lynching tree—not even when lynching was at its peak.
Cone is particularly saddened that Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential theologian and ethicist of the 20th century, “failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time.” Cone, who is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas, is rightfully aggrieved when he describes the silence of Christian leaders during and after the lynching years. “To reflect on this failure,” Cone warns, “is to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African-Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination.”
Story after heartbreaking story, Cone walks us through those tragic and shameful years when thousands of black Americans were dragged from their homes and families, raped, tortured, disemboweled, castrated, burned and/or hanged by white Americans. Often those same white Americans were quoting Scripture while silhouetted by flaming crosses. Here are just two of the stories Cone tells to illustrate the horror of the lynching tree:
The Cross and the Lynching Tree
By James H. Cone
Orbis Books, 202 pages
In 1918, when a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., couldn’t find Haynes Turner (who was guilty of nothing more than being black) the sheriff arrested his wife instead. Mary Turner was eight months pregnant. When she insisted that her husband was innocent, she 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.”
In 1955, Emmett Louis “Bo” Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago, was kidnapped from his grandparents’ Mississippi home because (or so the rumor went) he had dared to whistle at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white woman, and moments later said “Bye, baby” as she left a local store. At 2 a.m. Bryant’s husband and his half-brother dragged Till to a barn where one of the boy’s eyes was gouged out. He was tortured, beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, tied to a heavy gin fan and dropped into the Tallahatchie River. The two men were arrested, tried and found not guilty of the crime.
Cone documents in grim detail the unimaginable mental and physical suffering black Americans experienced during those lynching years. But instead of giving up on God, those who suffered embraced their Christian faith with new zeal. Cone turns to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help us understand how great suffering, paradoxically, can lead to even greater faith. In his “darkest hours” during the Montgomery bus boycott, King’s own experience of suffering lead him to conclude that we do not know what we truly believe or what our theology is worth until “our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair” or “we are victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation.” Cone summarizes the mystery of faith that grew stronger during the lynching years:
“Black faith emerged out of black people’s wrestling with suffering, the struggle to make sense out of their senseless situation, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible. On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. That is the profound paradox inherent in black faith, the dialectic of doubt and trust in the search for meaning, as blacks ‘walk[ed] through the valley of the shadow of death.’ ”
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” also explores the connection between faith and art, through the music, poetry and prose of those who suffered. Cone asks: “How did ordinary blacks, like my mother and father, survive the lynching atrocity and still keep together their families, their communities and not lose their sanity?” He answers that question simply: “Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”
There was no opportunity for black Americans to protest, let alone defend themselves from the violence that permeated their lives. In public, where a black man could be lynched for looking a white man in the eye, they had to play the subservient coward. But on Saturday nights, by singing the blues in the privacy of their “juke joints” where the whole community gathered to dance, drink, clap, stomp and “hollar,” these “cowards” expressed their courage and their determination to overcome. Those nights brought a measure of joy and a lot of relief to black Americans. To the white man all that “noise” must have seemed tribal and orgiastic. But if those same white men had been capable of truly listening, they would have realized that the poetry of the blues was in fact restoring the souls of black Americans and renewing their determination to resist despair.
As a child, Cone remembers hearing the blues echoing at night from “Sam’s Place” near his home in Arkansas. The author recalls tapping his feet and moving his body to the sounds of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.” There is no question, however, that Billie Holiday holds a special place for the author. In 1939, on the stage of New York’s Café Society, Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” the first of many songs that would help mobilize the civil rights movement. Time magazine called “Strange Fruit” “the best song of the century,” and Holiday “history’s greatest jazz singer.” The song was written by Abel Meeropol, the white Jewish communist who later adopted the two sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution. “Strange Fruit” was inspired by an appalling photo Meeropol saw of a lynching in Mississippi:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh …”
On Sundays a different kind of music was heard. Cone uses the familiar spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” to show how the black poetry of those lynching years reflected both suffering and certainty. The spiritual begins with a mournful lament but ends with an almost inexplicable shout of praise: “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen … Glory Hallelujah!”
The Cross and the Lynching Tree
By James H. Cone
Orbis Books, 202 pages
Black poets and musicians brought hope in times of despair. They were not blind to the fact that white Christians were in large part the cause of their suffering. With scathing sarcasm, black poet Walter Everette Hawkins called lynching “A Festival of Christendom” alongside the festive days of Christmas and Easter:
“And so the Christian mob did turn from prayer to rob, to lynch and burn.
A victim helplessly he fell to tortures truly kin to hell;
They 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.
The bored hot irons in his side and reveled in their zeal and pride;
They cut his quivering flesh away and danced and sang as Christians may … ”
In spite of their anger at white Christians, they spoke of Jesus’ life and death with increasing reverence. Black poet Countee Cullen writes, “How Calvary in Palestine, extending down to me and mine, was but the first leaf in a line of trees on which a Man should swing … ” Cone points out that in this poem Cullen is claiming “that Christ, poetically and religiously, was symbolically the first lynchee,” and by this close association with Jesus “turned lynch victims into martyrs.” Cullen wrote, “The South is crucifying Christ again,” and this time “he’s dark of hue.” According to Cone, Cullen and many of his fellow poets and musicians could not help but see “ … the liberating power of the ‘Black Christ’ for suffering black people.”
“Ordinary blacks” survived those lynching years, Cone says, because their Jesus too had been lynched. He too had suffered exactly as they were suffering. They were not alone when they walked into the valley of death because Jesus walked that way before them. “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,” a spiritual begins, “He had to walk it by himself. Nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.” African-American Christians were absolutely certain the Christ who died on a cross understood their suffering and would see them through it.
Cone understands that although black art and music helped foment the civil rights movement, “ … the blues and the juke joint did not lead to an organized political resistance against white supremacy. But one could correctly say that the spirituals and the church, with Jesus’ cross at the heart of its faith, gave birth to the black freedom movement that reached its peak in the civil rights era during the 1950s and 1960s. The spirituals were the soul of the movement, giving people courage to fight, and the church was its anchor, deepening its faith in the coming freedom for all.”
Cone makes it clear that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—with spirituals as its soul and the church as its anchor—saw an end to segregation but not to white supremacy. At its heart, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” is a powerful indictment of white supremacy, past and present, and a challenge to white Americans to have “the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation.”
The lynching of black Americans is still taking place in the 21st century. Cone targets America’s criminal justice system “ … where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of 18 and 28 are in prisons, jails, on parole or waiting for their day in court.” Cone continues:
“Nearly one-half of the more than 2 million people in prisons are black. That is 1 million black people behind bars, more than in colleges. Through private prisons and the ‘war against drugs’ whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America. … Nothing is more racist in America’s criminal justice system than its administration of the death penalty. America is the only industrialized country in the West where the death penalty is still legal. The death penalty is primarily reserved, though not exclusively, for people of color, and white supremacy shows no signs of changing it. That is why the term ‘legal lynching’ is still relevant today. One can lynch a person without a rope or tree.”
I am a white American. What questions should I ask myself about living in a nation still permeated by white supremacy? What questions should I ask myself about living in a mostly white neighborhood, attending a mostly white church and hanging out with mostly white friends? Cone states unequivocally that Jesus calls us to confront white supremacy. “I believe,” Cone writes, “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.”
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” also transcends the topic of lynching and the suffering of African-Americans. Cone asks his readers to see all suffering and oppression in light of the promise of the cross. Therefore—and please forgive this personal aside—his “every kind of injustice” includes the injustice faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. What was Matthew Shepard’s death but a lynching? All the elements are present. Shepard was harassed, kidnapped, driven to a remote country area, robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die. Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old trans man who was raped and murdered, is just one example of dozens of forgotten trans people who are lynched every year. And in some ways Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer and all the other gay teens and young people who have committed suicide because of bullying and harassment are lynching victims.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree
By James H. Cone
Orbis Books, 202 pages
My son once asked me, “How can you still be a Christian, Dad, after what the church has done to you?” Suddenly we’re back to the same mystery we encountered with black Christians during the lynching years. Cone quotes the Apostle Paul to describe this mystery: “St. Paul said that the ‘word of the cross is foolishness’ to the intellect and a ‘stumbling block’ to established religion. 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 believed that Jesus was with me during the attacks by Bible-quoting Christians, during the disappearance of most of my old friends and clients, and during the aversive therapies, the electric shock and the exorcisms by well-meaning Christians who tried to rid me of the “demon of homosexuality.” And in my lowest moments when I genuinely longed for death, I knew that Jesus would walk with me through that valley as well.
Black Americans were victims of white Christian bigotry as gay Americans are victims of straight Christian bigotry. Please don’t think for a moment that I am comparing my suffering or the suffering of the LGBT community to the suffering of African-Americans during the lynching years. I am not. But in the struggle between faith and oppression, and sensing Jesus’ presence during my own suffering, I feel solidarity with my African-American family whose faith in the “old rugged cross” was the key to surviving the lynching tree.
Here is the danger: To say that Jesus stands with me in my suffering is far too simple. My redemption doesn’t come that easily. There’s something in the cross that says this is not just about my “salvation” but about the “salvation” of all those who suffer injustice and inequality. The cross warns and welcomes. It warns me that if I confront white supremacy, homophobia or injustice of any kind, I could end up being lynched. And the cross welcomes me to that great company of the committed who believed its promise that “death is not the end but the beginning of life.”
Cone reminds us that “ … it takes a special kind of imagination to understand the truth of the cross. … 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, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.”
The Rev. Mel White is co-founder of Soulforce and the author of “Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America” and “Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right.”