James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” is a passionate and excellent contribution to the discussion of race and religion from the perspective of African-American believers and should help white Christians to see the world from the viewpoint of their black brothers and sisters.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James Cone (224 pages, Orbis, 2013)

I would not normally choose a book by a Protestant liberation theologian, but in the light of the racially-driven violence this summer, and because my parish is in a socially and economically challenged area with a large racial minority population, I thought it would help to read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

James Cone, who died in 2018, was an advocate of black liberation theology. His 1969 book, Black Theology and Black Power, was controversial, not so much because he asserted the human dignity of African Americans, but because he also called out white churches for preaching white supremacy in both word and deed.

As a graduate of Bob Jones University, I can’t disagree with Cone’s assertion. There was a strain in the teaching at that bastion of Southern fundamentalism that the three races (Caucasian, Asian, and African) were descended from Noah’s three sons Ham, Shem, and Japeth. The theory called “the curse of Ham” proposed that the Africans (who were supposedly descended from Ham) were destined to be subservient. This bizarre teaching was based on Genesis 9:26-27. I should add that this was not a predominant aspect of the life and preaching at BJU, but it was certainly part of the atmosphere and underlying belief system.

James Cone grew up in segregated Arkansas and attended the African Methodist Episcopal church. After college he decided on a career in theology and wound up at Union Theological Seminary in New York where he held the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology.

His thought is influenced by Paul Tillich’s understanding that theology must be grounded in social context and not simply be abstract theorizing. The experience of the black community in America is therefore the nexus for his writing. His 2012 book The Cross and the Lynching Tree can be seen as a summary of his thought, drawing from African-American culture: the blues, spirituals, and black preachers and writers as well as theologians.

Cone begins with a plea for the assumed white supremacy to be confronted—especially when it is evident in Christian churches. The lynching tree is a powerful reminder of the cross of Jesus Christ, and this connection ought to challenge white Christians to look with empathy at the black experience. Throughout the book Cone tells the stories of actual lynchings, showing how pervasive the crime was in American culture.

Cone then contrasts the academic concern for justice shown by the prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr with the passionate activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ida B. Wells who fought against racism at the risk of their lives.

He rightly sees the similarities between the lynching tree and the cross of Christ. The same sick dynamic of blame, fear, mob behavior, and scapegoating was functioning at Calvary as there was in the lynching of innocent black men, women, and children. This leads to a consideration of theories of the atonement and just how the cross sets mankind free from sin and corporate violence.

Cone’s book is a powerful and moving witness to the experience of African Americans and makes for a sobering read for Christians in America of every racial and cultural background.

As a theologian Cone was wise to see the larger issues at hand. His mature view was that the tortured experience of African Americans should be universalized. “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” While he was still critical of white supremacy within American Christianity, his thought moved beyond mere racial issues so he could write, “I think the time has come for black theologians and black church people to move beyond a mere reaction to white racism in America and begin to extend our vision of a new socially constructed humanity in the whole inhabited world…. For humanity is whole, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups.”

I could nit-pick about Cone’s emphases and priorities as a theologian, but allowing for his unique voice and viewpoint gives a new perspective to classic questions of soteriology and the atonement, and that’s okay.

My problem with Cone’s book is not so much what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Almost always when I take the time to read a Protestant theologian, I am amazed at the blind spot they have toward Catholic faith and experience. It is as if the world’s largest, most ancient and universal congregation of Christians never existed. Cone’s work on lynching would have been much deeper had he drawn on the work of Catholic thinker René Girard, for example. In his writings on the scapegoat mechanism, Girard actually comments compassionately on the example of lynching in the US, but Cone seemed unaware of Girard’s important work.

Similarly, Cone does not refer to Catholic social teaching on our shared human dignity and racial equality. Nor does he refer to the history of papal condemnations of slavery. While the record of Catholics on slavery is not spotless by a long shot, it was in 1435 that Catholic teaching led the way against slavery and in 1741 Pope Benedict XIV promulgated the bull Immensa pastorum principis against the enslavement of indigenous peoples. Catholics in the New World continued to keep slaves, but the church’s official stance is part of the history of Christianity and racism which doesn’t get a mention.

It might be argued that Cone was deliberately looking at the issue from the point of view of African Americans, and he does a good job by considering not just religious people, but African-American culture: poetry, preachers, singers, and artists as well as academics. Still, what is missing is any awareness of the black Catholic experience. In his chronicling of the African experience there might have been a mention of St. Josephine Bakhita, the Sudanese woman who was enslaved, but then freed to become a Catholic nun and saint.

Cone might have told the tragic story of Father James Edwin Coyle, a priest from Alabama who was murdered by a Klan member for officiating at a mixed-race marriage. In Coyle’s case the anti-Catholicism of the Ku Klux Klan was just as powerful a motivation for violence as the racial issue, and as an outspoken voice against racism, Fr. Coyle knew he was a target.

Surely part of the black religious experience in America are the stories of African American Catholics who were pioneers in the faith and racial struggle: Fr. Augustine Tolton, America’s first black Catholic priest who was ordained and served despite overt racism and persecution; the former slaves Mother Mary Lange and Henriette Diaz DeLille who founded religious orders for women of color to serve in orphanages, schools, and hospitals; and freed slaves Venerable Pierre Toussaint and Julia Greeley who served the poor and witnessed to their faith with courage in the midst of racial oppression.

For all that, The Cross and the Lynching Tree is an excellent contribution to any discussion on race and religion. Cone’s work is by no means a complete exposition of the atoning work of Christ, nor the final word on the troubled issue of race and religion, but it is a passionate contribution from the perspective of African-American believers and should help white Christians to see the world from the viewpoint of their black brothers and sisters.

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