The Cross and the Lynching Tree (with a personal note)

James H. Cone,   (Marynoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 202 pages including notes and an index.


The late James Cone (1938-2018) tackled a tough topic, linking together the most powerful symbol for Christians, the cross, and the most shameful symbol of white supremacy, the lynching tree.  The shame of the latter has been with me since the fourth or fifth grade. We had just moved back to North Carolina and in our state history book, there was a photo of lynching in Moore County that occurred in the late 19th Century. The main thing I remember was all the people, many young, were smiling around a dangling lifeless body. It was as if they were having a party. I was born in Moore County. I quickly did the math and realized that some of my great-grandparents (several of whom were still alive) could have been in that photo. I was horrified and didn’t want anyone to know that I’d come from that county. Of course, lynching wasn’t limited to Moore County. There were more lynchings (and ex-judicial killings) in other counties within the state and even more in other Southern states. Lynching wasn’t even limited to the South. Lynchings occurred all over the country. While some victims were white; in the West, Chinese and Mexican were thrown into the mix. But most of the victims were African American. Lynching was a way to keep the race terrified and, having been freed from slavery, under the control of their former white masters.

Cone set out to ask, “Can the cross redeem the lynching tree?” and “Can the lynching tree liberate the cross and make it real in American history?” (161)  There is a danger to our theology when we spiritualize the cross. There is a danger to our humanity when we ignore the lynching tree and deny the sin of white supremacy and the horrible treatment that African-Americans have experienced since first being brought in chains to American shores in 1619.

Cone begins his study with a detailed look at the cross. As a religious symbol, the cross is a paradox. Like the lynching tree, the Romans used the cross to terrify and keep at bay those who might threaten the Empire. Death on the cross was horrible. Yet, the church adopted this horrific symbol, claiming that God’s power is greater than the worse evil humans can inflict on others. For the human mind, as the Apostle Paul points out, the cross is a contradiction. But God can redeem this symbol and today the cross instead of being the horrific symbol of the empire’s power, is a sign of freedom and hope. As Cone explores as the beginning of his book, the cross is a common theme in both Black and White churches, but because of the experience of the two races, the cross is experienced differently. In White Churches, its more about the other world. That’s true in Black Churches, too, but there the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope for a people who have been oppressed.

Cone explores the theology of the cross of Reinhold Niebuhr. Perhaps the greatest American theologian of the 20th Century, Niebuhr had a lot to say about the cross. (Cone suggests Reinhold Niebuhr may be the greatest American theologian ever, but I would argue that point. However, Niebuhr was a major theologian and a scholar in the public realm during the 20th Century.)  Much of Niebuhr’s early writings (1920s-1940s) was done at a time when lynching was at its height. And while Niebuhr spoke out against white supremacy, Cone finds it strange that he never linked together the cross and the lynching tree. The second theologian Cone explores is Martin Luther King. While King, coming from the African-American tradition, focuses on the cross, also avoids linking it with the lynching tree. However, the poets and musicians from the Black tradition, do make the link as Cone explains:

They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to the stories of the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as a central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (118)

Cone’s fourth chapter focuses on the women’s voice from the Black community. While some women were lynched (warning: there are horrific details of lynchings in this book), most victims of lynching were men. Women spoke out for the men who, in the face of the lynching tree remained quiet and tried not to be seen. However, the lynching tree, like the cross is stripped of its gender and made an experience of all who encountered it, whether as a victim or as a witness. Perhaps the best-known woman’s voice to raise the issue of lynching was Billie Holiday. In 1939, she began singing the song “Strange Fruit.” No publisher wanted to record this song, so she sang it in nightclubs. No one could doubt the meaning of the lyrics: “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.”

This book may be difficult for white middle-class Christians to read, but we can’t deny that these things happened. If we want to get into the experience of how others understand their faith, we must listen to their voices. We must acknowledge their pain. In this book, Cone forces us to see the horrible treatment of a race and how it contradicts the Christian message. We need to lift up the lynching tree, in confession, realizing the sin it represents and live in the hope of a God who has the power to free us from such a past and shape us into a new people who might live in sister and brotherhood with those of a different hue.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cone. In the late 1980s, while in seminary, I read A Black Theology of Liberation. As a seminarian, I also studied under Ronald Stone, whose writings and conversations helped Cone shape his interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s views of the cross. While the subject matter is often difficult, Cone is an engaging writer. In a time when American seems to be coming apart at the seams, this book should be read by those of us in the majority culture so that we can “walk a mile” in the shoes of those who are of a different color and whose experience as an American is different that ours.

23 Replies to “The Cross and the Lynching Tree (with a personal note)”

  1. Very interesting. I had forgotten the roots of the cross, that it wasn’t always that comforting feeling we Christians now get from it. Thanks for sharing this review. It’s a book I wouldn’t have even thought about if not for you.

  2. I will have to read this book because as a kid I was shown what was described as one of Georgetown county’s lynching trees. The tree literally looked like something out of a Stephen King novel with its bare trunk and twisted branches.

    When shown the tree, lynching was a concept that was just too abstract for a six year-old boy to understand. It took seeing a picture of a young black man hanging from another tree to understand the nature of what it meant.

    One of the problems I have with what I describe as white suburban middle class Christianity here in the south is how so many refuse to even acknowledge the barbaric nature of what supposedly good people did to other human beings.

    Two of my uncles showed me the lynching tree and while I worshiped those men–who were like fathers to–me I have considerable trouble with the fact that they laughed when telling me about what occurred on that site.

    1. I think C. Vann Woodward hit the nail on the head with the title of his book, “The Burden of Southern History.” We do carry a burden of the past, and most of us have had encounters with others (like your uncles) who have shared things with us for which we are not particularly proud.

  3. Yes, lynching seems to have been a national evil. In California we had our share and not in the too dim past. Two men (these were whites accused of murdering a prominent businessman’s son) were hung in the city park, 1933.

    In the 1850s there were “famous” hanging trees in the southern part of the sate, and a lot of those victims were Hispanics.

    There’s nothing to justify mob violence no matter what racial religious groups are involved.

    1. It wasn’t limited to Southern California. Vigilante groups operated in San Francisco in the 1850s, and served as models for other groups in the Sierras and Nevada. I’m not sure of all their victims, but many were white.

  4. I don’t think I could read the book either. I’m already horrified by the way people treat each other, especially Christians. I probably shouldn’t single Christians out (all religions are guilty of atrocities in their name it seems – except maybe Buddhism), but I do hold Christians to a higher standard, and I’m always appalled at how many do not practice what is preached.

    1. There are some graphic scenes in the book, but it’s important that we don’t forget how inhumane we can be towards others. Atrocities have been committed by all religions and like you, I hold Christians to a higher standard. Jesus demands this, I think (Matthew 7:1-5)

  5. I broke out in a sweat reading your post, Jeff, and I don’t think I can read the book you reviewed. I have a visceral response to hanging and lynching unlike most other things that horrify me. Sometimes I think I may have been hanged in a previous life. A black friend of mine has shared the horrors of seeing lynched bodies in her childhood. That is a trauma she will carry always. The things that humans have done to other humans in the name of controlling by fear and terror are evil at work in our world. It is the darkest side of humanity. The cross is a powerful symbol of hope, but sometimes it’s difficult to forget how barbaric crucifixion was. I can only imagine how you must have felt seeing that photo and knowing that your ancestors might have been in it. Wow!

    1. I certainly can understand your feeling, but it is good that you seem to have empathy for those who have suffered, which is why such books need to be read by those of us of the dominate race. Thanks for your post, Louise.

  6. Fascinating post. The religious perspective is one I haven’t seen as much. American Christianity – let’s be honest, worldwide Christianity – has a complicated history to say the least.

    I think I’ve seen the picture you mentioned. Or at least, I’ve seen one like it. Chilling.

    1. The church, especially since Constantine, has had some sad episodes, and while it’s not an excuse, so had all human organizations including other faiths. One of the powerful teachings of Christianity is that we are all (including Christians) part of the problem. We can’t just blame others for the failures of humanity. However, not all Christians understand this.

  7. While I’m certainly not in denial about any of the atrocities of the past, I find it difficult reading about them. Sadly, I believe Arkansas had one of the worst “track records” when it comes to lynching. Definitely not a statistic to be proud of. What I can be proud of are some of my relatives (and those by marriage) who either spoke out or showed by their actions that they weren’t among those who celebrated the wrongs.

    1. While much of the book focuses on theology or culture history (as in his discussion of poets and musicians), there are enough horrific stories told to remind us of the horrors of lynching and it would make this book hard for many to read.

  8. What an interesting juxtaposition of images: the cross and the lynching tree. The first I associate with the goodness that Christians aspire to and the second, the horror that one race inflicted on the other. Yet I can only imagine what an alien would think if confronted with these images without knowing the context. How strange it is that such a horrific image of a man nailed to a cross can become a symbol of hope and forgiveness. After seeing it in churches and people’s homes for so many years, the symbolism makes the brutality almost disappear. I don’t know if that is good or bad. (Perhaps both at the same time.) It makes me wonder what other symbols might have been chosen for Christianity: a man in a shroud, a man emerging from a cave, or a man ascending into heaven? Thanks for reviewing this book.

    1. I agree that the power of the cross as a symbol is often lost these days. And putting it next to the lynching tree makes it a powerful symbol for a race of people.

  9. Great review. I will make it my next read after I finish Robertson’s biography of Stonewall Jackson. Still trying to understand Jackson’s association w God.

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