The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Having read very few black theologians over my past couple decades of reading theology, it was far past time for me to get to the late Dr. James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Dr. Cone, a longtime proponent of black liberation theology, makes a forceful case for the parallel between the cross of Jesus Christ and the hanging trees on which so many black people were lynched throughout American history.

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 book came with great reviews and reputation, so I was a little bit underwhelmed by the first few chapters. But then came chapter 4, “The Recrucified Christ in Black Literary Imagination”, and Cone introduces us to the vivid poetic imagery that black writers have used to parallel Jesus’ suffering with those of black Americans, and I found myself heading off to the internet to better acquaint myself with Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, and Langston Hughes.

The concluding chapter, though, was worth the entire book. Dr. Cone shares his own experience and then explains his beautiful theological conclusions.

The Christian gospel is God’s message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world. As such, it is a transcendent reality that lifts our spirits to a world far removed from the suffering of this one…

…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… 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”.

And so the transcendent and the immanent, heaven and earth, must be held together in critical, dialectical tension, each one correcting the limits of the other. The gospel is in the world, but it is not of the world; that is, it can be seen in the black freedom movement, but it is much more than what we see in our struggles for justice.

I could quote the whole last chapter but I won’t. It’s really worth picking the book up to read the whole thing.

Or maybe just one last paragraph.

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today…

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, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor. “Do not fear those who kill the body’s, and after that can do nothing more” (Lk 12:4).

Simply wonderful.

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