The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”

—Acts of the Apostles 10:39

“The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.”

—James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (xiii)

 

book coverThe Cross and the Lynching Tree provides a provocative and relevant Lenten study for small groups in church congregations. Not only is the book a timely reflection on racism in this time of Black Lives Matter and tragedies like those of the Charleston church massacre, but also this theological work provides deep insights into what our primary Christian symbol really means and how the paradox of the cross informs our faith and congregational life. 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree was authored by the late James H. Cone, one of the most important Christian theologians of the last century. Cone grew up in Bearden, Ark., in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, and stayed in conversation with Wesleyan theology during his career.

Cone went on to become the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systemic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. Black Liberation Theology owes much to Cone’s work and encouragement of generations of students to engage race and theology.

Cone helped others to identify how historically white churches have often preached a Gospel based on white supremacy, instead of the liberation Jesus brings for the oppressed.

View James H. Cone speaking on The Cross and the Lynching Tree at the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church:

This “powerful and painful song for hope” is a perfect fit for Lent!  To learn more,  please email or call 972-526-5018.

 

Two Study Guides for The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Click on the titles for the complete PDFs

By The New York Annual Conference

Opening Song: “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen” (or in Songs of Zion #170). Listen to Paul Robeson sing it here

On page xiv, Dr. Cone states, “Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation [the cross] has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings…..” Do you agree? Did it ever occur to you to link the cross and lynchings in this country? Do you think that it is accurate to say that lynching is a “memory that most white Americans would prefer to forget?” Does a collective lack of remembrance lead to the “fraudulent perspective …of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation” as Cone claims?

Do we sometimes forget that the Cross is a paradox because it “inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat”? (p. 2) Does reading even this far in the book renew your understanding of the cross?

Cone says, “this dialectic of despair and hope defined black existence” (p.14). Can you think of situations today that embody this? What are some contemporary situations in the black community that might parallel the lynching era?

The classic question of theodicy – if God is good, why does suffering exist – takes on special poignancy when considering the plight of black people in the era of lynching. What became the refuge and comfort for them during this time? Are there contemporary examples of this kind of refuge?

Opening Song: “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” (#288 UMH)

On page 30, Cone says that “the crucifixion was clearly a 1st c. lynching.” Discuss why he says this (see page 31 for some descriptions.)

On page 35, Cone reflects on Reinhold Niebuhr’s “transvaluation of values”. Do you agree that Jesus was crucified because people expected a Messiah “perfect in power and perfect in goodness”? How do you see Jesus?

On page 51, Cone asserts that Niebuhr’s failure to deal with racial issues is a serious failure by someone often called America’s greatest theologian. How well do you think the Church today treats issues of race? Discuss how your congregation is or is not addressing issues like mass incarceration, police brutality, and whatever local instances there may be of racism.

Would you agree with Cone’s statement that “groups don’t love” (p. 53) and that, therefore, “love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” Reflect on what this means in practical terms. On page 55 a Rabbi is quoted as saying, “the most tragic problem is silence.” (even more urgent that bigotry and hatred!) Do you agree? How can this quote guide our actions as congregations and as individuals?

Opening Song: “O Christ , You Hang upon a Cross” (#3084 in Worship & Song)

Chapter Three begins with discussion of Emmett Till. Do you think that we, as a society, know enough about Emmett Till? Did you learn new things about that terrible situation in this book? Does describing Till as a “sacrificial lamb” (p. 69) add new resonance to the story?

Cone compares Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this chapter, asserting that Niebuhr viewed Jesus’ love as an unrealizable goal – “a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve…..the cross was an absolute transcendent standard…and the most we can realize is “proximate justice.”” MLK, Jr., on the other hand, would not settle for what was practically possible – but, rather, called out for an idealistic pursuit of freedom. How does this comparison enhance your understanding of what the Cross means? Do you think that the saving power of the Cross can be understood rationally or is there an “eerie feeling of mystery and the supernatural?” (p. 75)

Cone engages in an extensive explication of MLK, Jr.’s view of suffering. Do you agree that suffering can be transformed into a creative force? (p. 86) Could giving value to suffering help to legitimize it? (p. 92) Does this tension help us better understand the Cross and the hope it provides?

On page 91, Cone says, “No matter what disappointments he faced, King still preached hope with the passion of a prophet…” How do you find hope in contemporary situations of suffering and oppression?

Opening Song: “At the Cross” (#8 in Songs of Zion)

In this chapter, Cone focuses on some of the black writers, artists and poets who have portrayed the connections between the cross and the lynching tree; those who have tried to use art to convey that delicate paradox of victory in defeat; the ultimate power of the Paschal mystery. Ask the group if they have any favorite black writers. Do you think that mainstream culture is exposed to minority writers in a way that helps broaden our perspective and deepen our understanding of contemporary events? Ask the group to identify the examples of poetry in the book that they appreciated the most.

In 2003, James Allen’s collection of lynching photographs, Without Sanctuary, was published. (Please be aware that the graphic nature of these photos is deeply upsetting and may not be appropriate to view.) Cone calls these photos “a type of pornography” because they were originally sold for profit as souvenirs. Do you think that these photos should have been exhibited and published? In response to Without Sanctuary, the U.S. Senate issued an apology to the families of the more than 5,000 lynching victims for failing to enact anti-lynching legislation 105 years ago. Cone says, “An apology, although important and welcomed by many blacks, is not justice.” (p.99) What problems are associated with these kinds of apologies? Can you think of other ‘famous’ apologies? As Christians, what do we ask as part of an apology?

On page 101, we hear of an artist who painted a black Christ on the cross. Cone says, “Simply turning him from white to black switched the visual signifiers, making him one with the body of lynched black people of America.” Have you ever seen a picture like this? Do you think that creating new meaning can be this simple?

At the end of the chapter (p. 118), Cone reconstructs a very brief “history” of black Christian tradition, saying that black slaves were cut off from their African religious traditions and only had white Christianity as a resource, but nevertheless saw the Bible as “stories of God siding with little people just like them.” How accurate do you think this interpretation of the Bible is? Do white theologians today agree with this? Do you think that this “commonsense” theology of the grassroots has had an influence on mainstream Christianity?

Opening Song: “Strange Fruit” Listen to Billie Holiday sing it here

Having just listened to “Strange Fruit” performed by Billie Holiday, reflect on how her performance affected you. Does this song still resonate today? One of the characteristics of the blues is that it speaks about the tragic and the comic, sorrow and joy simultaneously. How is this similar to our Christian faith?

In this chapter, Dr. Cone draws attention to the fact that women, too, were victims of lynching – both directly and indirectly since when men were killed their families suffered greatly. He says, “although women constitute only 2 % of blacks actually killed by lynching, it would be a mistake to assume that violence against women was not widespread and brutal.” What other kinds of violence were women subjected to? Women, too, struggled to maintain faith in God in the midst of so much suffering and injustice. Many blacks, both male and female, identified strongly with biblical figures like Job and Jeremiah. Do you think that such identification is limited to one particular race or group? What character in scripture do you identify with? Have you changed your affinity to bible stories over time or in response to different situations in your life?

On p. 125, we read, “The faith of black women gave them courage to fight, patience when they could not, and the hope that whatever they did, God would keep them “from sinking down.”” Various faith declarations are mentioned, like: “God may not come when you want but God is right on time” or “making a way out of no way”……Do you have a favorite faith declaration or saying?

On p. 139, the theologian Howard Thurman is quoted as saying, “ a person has to handle…suffering or be handled by it.” If there is time, invite sharing on this idea.

Traditional atonement theory about the cross can be problematic because it seems to lift up suffering as redemptive. Cone says, “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.” (p.150) As you have read this book over the last few weeks, have your thoughts about the Cross and its meaning changed?

Opening Song: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (#298 UMH)

This short chapter is a pithy summary of many of the themes from the previous sections. Especially, Cone returns to the paradox of the meaning of the cross and “salvation”. He says, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” (p. 160) Discuss the ramifications of this statement.

Over and over, we hear that the cross is “an opening to the transcendent” – something that is available to all. And yet, we also need “the imagination to relate the message of the cross to one’s own social reality…..” What are some of the social realities of today that reveal the cross?

Cone suggests that a new kind of “lynching” is taking place in the criminal justice system of our country, “where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. Nearly one-half of the more than two million people in prisons are black…..” (p. 163) Were you aware of this situation? (more statistics are easily available here and other sites online.) Did you know that the New York Annual Conference has passed a resolution to commit our church to ameliorating this situation? (copy of resolution at end of this document) As a group, discuss what might be some steps that your church could take to learn more about this “lynching without a rope and a tree” and do something about it.

Dr. Cone says, “The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the “least of these”, the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross…and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.” (p. 156) As we end this study and enter Holy Week, do you have a new vision of what the Way of the Cross means both in scripture and in the world?

By Elon Cook

Edited by Linda L. Grenz for the Center for Reconciliation associated with the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island

Discussion Areas:

1. “The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.”

2. “... as with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching.”

3. “Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation [the cross] has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings … The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament … Rather than reminding us of the ‘cost of discipleship,’ it has become a form of ‘cheap grace’ … that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.”

4. “... 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.”

For discussion questions, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'

Discussion Areas:

1. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39) “... Crucifixion was recognized as the particular form of execution reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels”

2. “Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching. People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling from the end of a rope ... Picture cards photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling the postcard showing a photograph of the lynched Negro. Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.”

3. “Lynching was not regarded as an evil thing but as a necessity - the only way a community could protect itself from bad people out of the reach of the law.” (4) “... the two-time governor and U.S. Senator from South Carolina, proclaimed that lynching is a ‘divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of jury."(7) “Strange … that the men who constitute these [mobs] can never be identified by ... governors or the law officers, but the newspapers know all about them ... what they are going to do, how and when it has been done,” how the victim begged and how their body was mutilated, and “the whole transaction...”

4. “Bishop Atticus G. Haygood of the Methodist Church complained in 1893 that ‘Now-a-days, it seems the killing of Negroes is not so extraordinary an occurrence as to need explanation; it has become so common that it no longer surprises’ ” ... “the image of black men was transformed from docile slaves and harmless ‘Sambos,’ to menacing ‘black beast rapists.’ ”(6). Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stated, after the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, that “[blacks] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

For discussion questions, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'

Discussion Areas:

1. “In the ‘lynching era,’ between 1880-1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women ... 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.”

2. “Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar ... Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

3. Distribute the Witnesses Handout. Allow your group five minutes of silence to examine the photo and answer the questions. Then read aloud the Reading to provide the group with the history of the photo. Have their feelings about the image changed now that they have more information?

For discussion questions and picture, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'

Discussion Areas:

1. “Because Niebuhr identified with white moderates in the South more than with their black victims, he could not really feel their suffering as his own.”

2. “Niebuhr speaks about ‘God’s judgment on America. He calls ‘racial hatred, the most vicious of all human vices,’ ‘the dark and terrible abyss of evil in the soul of a man,’ a ‘form of original sin,’ ‘the most persistent of all collective evils,’ ‘more stubborn than class prejudices.’ ‘If the white man were to expiate his sins committed against the darker races, few white men would have a right to live.’” Niebuhr supported the “separate but equal” Supreme Court ruling which make Jim Crow segregation legal and was pleased that the Court added “with all deliberate speed” to their decision ending segregation in schools. “The Negroes will have to exercise patience and be sustained by a robust faith that history will gradually fulfill the logic of justice. He also said: “I never envisaged a fully developed interracial church at Bethel. I do not think we are ready for that.”

3. Neibuhr and Bonhoeffer were both noted theologians who taught at Union Seminary in NYC. Neibuhr was born in America; Bonhoeffer only lived here for a year (1930-31). But during that time he immersed himself in the Black community, befriending Black people, attending, preaching and teaching at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, reading African American history and literature, and seeing the Negro Spirituals as the most influential contribution the Negro made to American Christianity. Neibuhr, in contrast, showed little or no interest in dialogue with blacks about racial justice and seemed only marginally concerned about justice for black people even though he opposed racial prejudice in any form.

For discussion questions, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'

Discussion Areas:

1. “Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition, but who knows ... the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.”

2. The following are quotes from sermons or letters written by Dr. Martin Luther King: “... when Jesus fell and stumbled under that cross, it was a black man [Simon of Cyrene] that picked it up for him” “this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people ... this suffering ... will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state and America a better country ... I have faith to believe it will ... Our suffering is not in vain.

3. "I will die standing up for the freedom of my people ... If physical death is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from the permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive"

4. “Who can doubt that those who suffered in the black freedom movement made America a better place than before? Their suffering redeemed America from the sin of legalized segregation. And those blacks among us who lived under Jim Crow know that that was no small achievement.”

For discussion questions, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'

Discussion Areas:

1. James Cone uses poetry, music and art to deepen our appreciation of both narratives from the Bible and from America’s history of lynching.

2. “The South is crucifying Christ again. By all the laws of ancient rote and rule ... 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.” – ‘Christ Recrucified,’ Countee Cullen, 1922

3. On pages 98 and 99 James Cone discusses the book of lynching photos, Without Sanctuary by James Allen. “These photographs, a type of pornography, were initially part of the apparatus of the lynching spectacle, created by photographers at the scene who sold them for profit as souvenirs for members of the lynching party, who then displayed them in family albums and gave them to friends and relatives who could not be present.” Consider how murdered and often mutilated black bodies were used by white photographers, mobs, artists, politicians, social activists, the media and the families of the deceased.

4. “Where was God in these agonizing deaths? ‘Likely there ain’t no God at all ... God, if He was, kept to His skies, and left us to our enemies.”

5. “It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity ... Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynch law ... but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching” Walter White was the national secretary for the NAACP from 1931-1955.

For discussion questions, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'

Discussion Areas:

1. “When I look at those pictures [of lynchings in Allen’s book Without Sanctuary] I don’t see a lifeless body. I look at those pictures and I see my son, I see my brother, I see my father. If I look at the lifeless body long enough, I see myself.”

2. “Although women constitute only 2 percent of blacks actually killed by lynching, it would be a mistake to assume that violence against women was not widespread and brutal ... They were tortured, beaten and scarred, mutilated and hanged, burned and shot, tarred and feathered, stabbed and dragged, whipped and raped by angry white mobs ... Some were murdered because of their connection to “an intended male target” while others were lynched “because they courageously challenged white supremacy.”

3. “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

For discussion questions, download the PDF by clicking on 'By Elon Cook'