“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone

Monday, October 29, 2018

If my book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ ever goes into a second edition (based on its sales and staying power thus far, I hope it might), I hope it will contain a new afterword. This is a first draft of that potential afterword.


Just a couple of months ago I was in my local independent bookstore and saw on a shelf The Cross and the Lynching Tree (published in 2011) by James H. Cone. My own book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ has sold well for three years and was named Book of the Year 2016 by Christianity Today and the Academy of Parish Clergy. I worked on it for more than twenty years; indeed, in a sense I had been working on it my entire adult life. And yet I was not aware of Cone’s book until now. How I overlooked it, I do not know; I try hard to remain abreast of developments, but in this case I failed. I am appalled that it is not listed in my bibliography, nor is Jim Cone’s name anywhere to be found in the index to The Crucifixion.  I am moreover very surprised that during my 20-plus years of preparation for writing on the subject of the cross of Christ, no one suggested that I read Cone’s book. I missed something that would have strengthened my own work.

I knew Jim Cone, although not well. He was almost exactly my age. He had just arrived as an assistant professor on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where I earned my M.p. degree in 1975. I own some of his earlier books (Black Theology and Black Power, The Spirituals and the Blues), and I took a two-term systematic theology course in which he was one of three lecturers, but I can’t say that his work ever had much impact on my formation during those years (although later I did read Martin and Malcolm in America and liked it). I gravitated instead to accounts of the civil rights movement itself, and I can claim a fair degree of knowledge of that ineffably great enterprise, in my view the most profoundly Christian social movement that the world has ever seen. I wrote about the movement in The Crucifixion, and I emphasized the role of the black church in various ways–which is all the more reason for regret about my blind spot concerning The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

I saw Professor Cone off and on at Union in the years since my student days when he had become eminent, and we were certainly aware of each other (he was exceptionally affable and forthcoming in social settings), but I somehow remained oblivious to the publication of The Cross and the Lynching Tree in 2011 until it won the distinguished Grawemeyer award in 2018. That got my attention. Still, I don’t think I would have ever read it unless I’d seen it on the “religion” shelf (never underestimate the power of the independent bookstore) and bought it on impulse. After reading just a few pages I realized that I had missed an extraordinary opportunity.

Cone is typically described as a theologian. His PhD was in systematic theology at Northwestern (his dissertation was on Karl Barth), and he became a distinguished professor of systematic theology at Union, but honestly, I don’t think of him as a theologian precisely. I never got the impression that he was interested in doctrine, or influenced much by Barth. His work is an unusual mix of biblical interpretation, history, ethics, preaching, autobiography and deep cultural analysis–especially of his own black traditions. I mention this because I want to recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree to a wide audience of evangelicals (and others, of course), many of whom will perhaps be predisposed to expect a traditionally theological work and will therefore miss the point of what he’s doing. There will be complaints that he does not write about atonement, or justification, or reconciliation. Martin Luther King did not emphasize the cross as atonement either; but he brought glory to the name of Jesus. To complain about the missing themes in Cone’s book would be to deprived of the most arresting and moving insights into the nature of Christ’s crucifixion that I’ve read in quite a while. Moreover, the book serves as an invitation not only into the acute suffering but also into the redemptive nature of the black church. Cone’s evocations of black preaching and above all black gospel singing and blues are profound and moving. As I sit down to write this, I still have a sensation of tears brimming in my eyes. I rarely weep when I read books, but I have just finished this one, and it has affected me deeply.

I wrote at some length in The Crucifixion about the particular evils of crucifixion as a method of execution. I argued that there was nothing else comparable to it in terms of prolonged, sadistic cruelty performed in public for the express purpose of dehumanizing a victim before enthusiastic crowds. I mentioned impaling and the Tudor method of hanging, drawing, and quartering. Both methods, though unspeakably tortuous, prolonged, and conspicuously public, fail to correspond to crucifixion because they were used for nobles as well as the lower orders, whereas crucifixion was reserved for slaves and insurrectionists; Roman citizens were never crucified, however plebeian they might have been. I drew a blank after that. To my shame, lynching did not occur to me.

The aspect of lynching that corresponds to crucifixion is not just the sadism, the mobs, the violence, the impunity. Lynching was a quicker method, if you want to measure by that. The similarity between the two lies, rather, in their nature as public spectacle, even as entertainment, and its deliberate dehumanizing of the victim (we might well ask who, at the scene of a lynching, were the actual subhumans). It was a “cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death” (Cone).When it was finally over, the lynching victim, like the crucified victim, was “an unspeakably grisly, dangling horror” for all to see. Cone quotes Paula Fredrikson: “Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.” These features are often overlooked when Christians reflect upon the cross.

In very recent years, thanks to the work of Bryan Stevenson and many others, the history of lynching, so long ignored and almost forgotten by whites, has begun to make itself known. (Read about Stevenson, his Equal Justice Initiative, and the new memorial to lynching victims taking shape in Montgomery, Alabama: Thanks to Stevenson and others, the profile of the history of lynching in America (it can be dated more or less from the end of the Civil War in 1895 to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s) has been greatly expanded. The time is ripe for reconsideration. Still, I am shocked that, as Cone himself documents, no white theologian made any connection between the horror of crucifixion and the horror of lynching. I am one of those who failed in this regard, to my dismay. The parallels are so obvious: the public nature of both methods of execution, the kangaroo court, the powerlessness of the victim’s family and friends, the location chosen to invite a maximum number of witnesses, the permission and even participation of the authorities, the enjoyment of the onlookers who were invited to hurl abuse and insults, the obscenity of the accompanying rituals, the sadism, the sexual shaming, the use of the method as a warning to other potential victims. There are some differences–crucifixion was a more studied, deliberate, prolonged method sanctioned by the state–but the similarities are truly remarkable and it is a wonder that, as Cone points out, no white religious thinkers have noticed them.

Indeed, had I read Cone’s book while I was still writing The Crucifixion, I would have given significant space to the similarities of lynching and crucifixion because they give emphasis to the argument I have made that shame, humiliation, degradation, obscenity, and dehumanizing were an essential aspect of the way Jesus died. Cone has produced a work that is suffused with a sense of the shame and humiliation of black life in America (“abused and trampled down”), while yet remaining triumphant over it. 

I am selecting several main themes from Cone’s book to emphasize. In light of the fact that my latest book (Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ) has just been published and is much on my mind, I begin with this one, which could be called the essence of the mood of Advent: 

Other themes that are related to the motifs that I emphasize in The Crucifixion are:

James Cone embraces this affirmation, which is all the more convincing because it is obvious that over the decades, he has grappled with many challenges to his cross-centered point of view, including the Black Power movement with its antagonism to anything that could be perceived as weakness. The chapter on women (“Mary don’t you weep”) is exciting to read, as one wonders which position he will ultimately embrace. The final chapter is full of powerful personal declarations and moving memories of his parents’ overcoming daily indignities, and it ends with a heartfelt call for black and white reconciliation. At the last he seems to see that black and white are all in this together and that Jesus died for us all.

This last section of the book is strikingly personal. James Cone must have worked on this book for many years, in his head as well as with his pen, and his passion gives energy and life to these chapters. I remember him in his early thirties, an upstart on the faculty, challenging senior professors

–even the radical Paul Lehmann–for lacking “concreteness” in lectures on doctrine. I am sad personally, because Jim Cone died a few months ago and I will not have a chance in this life to thank him for his gift to me after all these many decades.  Again, I urge potential readers to understand that although many aspects of salvation by the cross are missing in Cone’s book, what is here is deeply significant. His personal investment in what he believes to be the saving of his people in the midst of indescribable pain and loss of humanity moved me to the core and will always inform my further understanding of what Jesus’ death means for us in the struggles of our exceptionally ugly times in America right now. 

There are many groups who compete for our understanding, sympathy, and help in the present turbulent and unstable era. Refugees and migrants of all sorts, Jews entering into a new and frightening time in America, Hispanic people desperate to get across the border and away from lethal violence, the “wretched refuse” of the “teeming shore” of the Mediterranean–all need us to see them and care about them. In addition, however, I believe that we owe a special, indeed unique amount of our attention, empathy, and generosity to the millions of native-born citizens of our country who have lived among us for more than 250 years because their ancestors were dragged here in chains and auctioned off in slave markets. We who are white did this to them and are doing this to them, not directly any longer in the sense of  actual enslavement, but in the sense of forgetting what they have overcome and not caring about what they still have to overcome. James Cone’s book gives us a window into that struggle and a way of thinking about it that is uniquely humane and ultimately tied to the future of God for humanity. I therefore urge every reader of this blog, but especially white people, to acquire this book (it’s not long, nor is it expensive) and “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” it for your soul’s health and for a better hope for all of us.  

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