I’ve just read a book by a theologian unlike any book I’ve ever read.
The author is James Cone and his book is titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I’m hesitant to write this blog because I really want the people who read it to like me. My thoughts at this moment are dark and lamenting. Yet, I am aware that I do not understand the book fully because it doesn’t speak of my experience.
The author is embracing the cross on which Jesus suffered and died as a symbol of black suffering in the United States expressed most poignantly in the lynching tree.
The book is punctuated with accounts of black men and women who were lynched publicly while communities looked on both for the entertainment value and moral suasion. Because they are repugnant and unsuitable for this public forum, I choose not to describe the murderous details. But the book does not spare the reader. Suffice to say that lynching was not limited to hanging by the neck, it also included other forms of torture and painful death, always accompanied by the shame of public exposure.
The lynched victim was often accused of rape. In proper white society, lynching was a socially acceptable means of deterrence for black men whose appetites left vulnerable white women at his mercy. After the emancipation of slaves, whites felt the need to enact this form of public justice as a social control. The accounts of rape were often exaggerated. Sometimes sex was consensual. Sometimes it was contrived.
Lynching they claimed, was necessary to protect the virtue of white women from the ‘unspeakable crime’ of the ‘black male beast,’ who no longer had slavery in place to keep his bestial behavior in check. Rape ‘placed him beyond the pale of human sympathy,’ and ‘the world accepted the story that the Negro is a monster which the southern white man painted him. (Pg 124, citations are from Ida Wells, Southern Horrors)
The consensus was that the two races needed to be kept separate, so any intimation of a sexual relationship was adequate grounds for lynching. Never mind thousands of mixed race children that were the product of white sexual aggression against black women. In fact, some research suggests that rape was only asserted in about one third of lynchings. Sometimes it was nothing more than a black man who asserted equality. Females were executed in place of a male relative who had managed to elude his pursuers.
Public lynching was openly practiced and celebrated in the US from the 1880’s through the 1940’s. Over 5000 black men and women were executed with no trial, no jury, no recourse, no fair hearing.
Cone wonders throughout the book how a Christian nation could silently endorse the lynching instincts of white supremacy.
I wondered throughout the book, how I completed years of theological study, obtaining graduate degrees, and never seriously examined the ethics of lynching and the remnants of white supremacy. I should acknowledge that I recall one class in my undergrad study that dealt with social justice and race relations in Mississippi. It was my only exposure.
Insightfully, Cone contrasts the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., who he refers to most often as Martin King. Niebuhr was one of the most influential American theologians of the 20th century. He held a prestigious post at Union Theological Seminary (where Cone also taught at the time of writing). Niebuhr was primarily an ethicist, though Cone finds him decidedly lacking in his analysis of racial discrimination in the US. While acknowledging the tragedy of the black predicament, he urges a gradual improvement as blacks work to better their station in American society. Cone finds it to be a passionless theology…an ivory tower approach with no skin in the game.
Martin King, on the other hand was all in. He was not representing the black man in the south. He was the black man in the south. It was striking that MLK knew with each rally and public event he attended that his death was imminent. And so it was.
As I read those chapters on Niebuhr and King, it became crystal clear that I am Niebuhr, not that I’ve enjoyed his prominence. I mean that I enjoy his privilege. I’ve no skin in the game of race relations in the US. My theological upbringing was more evangelical and Biblically conservative than Niebuhr, but like him, I was able to soft-pedal the issues of racism and injustice that have plagued African Americans for decades. Wait, that’s not entirely true. Niebuhr dealt with race issues. I didn’t. So Niebuhr soft-pedaled. I abdicated.
As a result, I’m wondering how a theology that is dedicated to the authority of Scripture can be spineless in dealing with societal injustice. You only have to read Jesus and the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Amos, Ezekiel, etc.) to know that justice and equity are core concerns of the Bible. The liberal theologians, who ostensibly are less inclined to take the Bible seriously, do better. My theological formation was largely cerebral. We paid verbal homage to behavioral change even as we personalized and privatized sin. We were reluctant to look at the social implications of estrangement from a God of love and justice. I still love the Bible, but I think a lot of Evangelical thought has avoided issues of social justice which the Bible tackles head on. I want to change.
Cone included a chapter on the role of women in fighting against the social evil of lynching. I was not aware of Ida Wells, described as the woman who “began the awakening of the conscience of the nation” (pg. 123). She was born a slave in Mississippi in 1862 but became a journalist for a Memphis newspaper. After the lynching of her friend, Tommie Moss (with two companions) in Memphis in 1892, Wells took up the cause of lynching in her piercing editorials and pamphlets. Wells unmasked the empowered horror of lynching as it “represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.” (pg. 158)
Cone cites another courageous woman—Fannie Lou Hamer. She was shot and beaten severely on numerous occasions, nevertheless she kept her confidence that God was with her. “I guess if I’d had a little sense I’d been a little scared…the only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember” (pg 138). Cone says that for Hamer, the cross was “a symbol that empowered black people to stand up and become agents of change for their freedom” (pg. 136).
Cone also dedicates a chapter to the music and poetry of blacks seeking justice in a society that held them to be of less value than their white compatriots. I was taken aback by the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” performed powerfully by Billie Holiday, crowned history’s greatest Jazz singer” by Time magazine. Listen to it here.
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!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
You may be saying in response to all this, “but lynching stopped in the 1940’s. Come on, let bygones be bygones. Let’s move ahead and quit looking back.”
I find that response wholly inadequate. First, the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others invoke the collective memory of lynching. It is contemporary. That’s the point! Second, it was my race and my people who committed these atrocities. They happened in my country that is still boiling with the rage of African Americans who are telling us in full-throated protest that they still haven’t obtained justice. So maybe it’s time we looked back…to slavery…to Jim Crow segregation…to lynching…to discrimination. Since we haven’t been able to move ahead, maybe it’s time we, as a nation, confess our two original sins—driving our native population from their native lands and enslaving Africans. Since we’re still stuck in the systems and attitudes of our past, maybe the only way to bring healing is to face our past fully.
I said at the beginning of this blog that The Cross and the Lynching Tree is unlike any book I’ve ever read. That’s not entirely true. In the book, I find echoes from the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations. Oppression and injustice are not unique to American society. The difference is that the Hebrew prophets recorded Israel’s injustice for posterity, forcing the nation to face their evils squarely. I think America’s prophets would do the same and many have.
The other book that comes to mind as I read about the lynching of innocent blacks in America is the gospel. I recently heard a young child ask a bishop why Jesus had to die on a cross. Why could he not die a normal death? The response was that God sent his beloved son to the extreme limit of human suffering. The cross, during that time period, was Rome’s most shameful and humiliating means to end life.
Consider that final anguished cry of Jesus on the cross: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s the same cry of innocent African Americans in the lynching era…of George Floyd calling for his mother as he is unable to breathe. In the lynching era, the body of Christ largely withdrew from public protest. Will the body of Christ continue in that vein? I hope not. That’s why I see the recent protests of George Floyd’s (and others) murder as a significant opportunity for the church. We can turn our eyes upon Jesus, looking to the cross to see God going to the utter limit of abandonment and shame. Or, we can look away. But if we look to the cross, we must also look through the cross to the suffering of our world. We cannot turn our ears away from the cry of injustice and oppression. Otherwise, we are no better than the mob that jeered Jesus asking him to come down from the cross if he was really the Son of God.
If we fail to stand against oppression and injustice in our society in this time, we have nothing but the hollow gospel of white-washed tombs to share with the next generation—our children and grandchildren. Our churches will be washed away with the rising tide of godlessness. If we don’t stand with the oppressed, can we really claim to be the “body of Christ?” Can we?