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The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Kenneth E. Kovacs reviews James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

James H. Cone
Orbis Books, New York, 172 pages

The provocative title draws us into the heart of James Cone’s sobering, seminal work. “The cross and the lynching tree are separated by 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America.” One is a symbol of hope and salvation; the other, a symbol of brutal oppression, cruelty and suffering. How do we reconcile “the essential symbol of Christianity and the quintessential emblem of black suffering”?

“The lynching tree [was] the most potent symbol of the trouble nobody knows that blacks have seen but do not talk about because of the pain of remembering — visions of black bodies dangling from Southern trees, surrounded by jeering white mobs — is almost too excruciating to recall.” Cone wants both blacks and whites to remember, to face this macabre spectacle and learn from it, to look and live.

For many blacks during the lynching era in America (1880-1940) the association between these generally unrelated emotionally charged symbols was glaringly obvious; but not for most whites. Cone makes this connection by theologically yoking the crucified, the one “put … to death by hanging … on a tree” (Acts 10:39), with the death of innocent victims, this “strange fruit,” as Billie Holiday used to sing, “hanging from the poplar tree.” Cone holds these two symbols in creative tension with explosive results, achieving what many white theologians in the past century (such as Reinhold Niebuhr) failed to do: make the link between them explicit, allow each to interpret and inform the other, offer both black and white Christians the possibility of reconciliation and the healing of old wounds.

For many African-Americans — theologians, pastors, ordinary church folk, blues and jazz musicians, courageous women (Ida B. Wells), daring writers (W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin) — the view of the cross was informed by their experience of suffering and hope. The lynching tree was an echo of Calvary; Jesus recrucified with every lynching. Therefore the cross must never be used to condone more suffering. Many looked to the cross not as sacrifice or expiation but as an expression of divine participation: Jesus as victim participating in human suffering, never legitimizing, justifying or even celebrating redemptive violence. “The lynching tree,” Cone writes, “reveals the true meaning of the cross for American Christians … The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering — to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety … yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination.”

Despite its heavy subject, this is a hopeful text. Life together, the beloved community — this is Cone’s aim.

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KENNETH E. KOVACS is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served churches in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, N.J.