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

It’s been fun carrying this book around with me and reading it between classes because whenever someone casually asks, “oh, what are you reading?” I get to hold up the cover and launch into a (brief) description of how the image of the cross and the image of the lynching tree have been interpreted differently in the black and white churches of America. (This is usually met with polite acknowledgement and probably a silent vow to never ask that question again.)

Hopefully there are some people who are intrigued, though, because this is going on the list of books that have been profoundly formative in my understanding of Christian theology! It is – dare I say – prophetic. And although it did take me awhile to read, I would still say the language is pretty accessible for such an academic topic.

Title – The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Author – James H. Cone

Page count – 166

Goodreads rating – 5/5 (it was amazing!)

As mentioned above, this book examines the parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross in Rome and the brutal lynching of black people in the United States, and how that parallel imagery has been interpreted by the white and black churches in America.

The first chapter examines the concept of “suffering” and how African Americans – from slavery to segregation to the present – have used music, particularly hymns and the Blues, to find comfort in the midst of suffering.

Chapter two focuses on the work of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a white man who addressed racial inequality and the imagery of the cross in ways his colleagues did not, while still not pushing the boundaries toward true racial justice or making the connection between Christ crucified on the cross and black people lynched on the tree.

Next, Cone looks at the birth of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and other black activists – both religious and secular – in fighting back against the white supremacy that supported such a sustained era of terror directed at African Americans.

The fourth chapter uses the works of writers, painters, and other artists to examine how some black people did make the connection between the crucified Christ and lynched African Americans that theologians and religious leaders were unable (or unwilling) to make.

The final chapter focuses specifically on black women’s contributions to racial equality and anti-lynching movements, bringing in the theory of intersectionality and womanist theology.

I flagged and marked so many great quotes that it is impossible to include them all. This would be a perfect and necessary book to include on the reading list for any academic course on Social Justice, Racial Justice, Racial Reconciliation, etc. Here are just two short passages:

“Faith and doubt were bound together, with each a check against the other – doubt preventing faith from being too sure of itself and faith keeping doubt from going down into the pit of despair.” (p. 131)

“A symbol of death and defeat, God turned [the cross] into a sign of liberation and new life. 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.” (p. 156)

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