The Cross and the Lynching Tree — Throwback Thursday Books

“Two Italians were lynched in Florida. The Italian Government protested, but it was found that they were naturalized Americans. The inalienable right of every free American citizen to be lynched without tiresome investigation and penalties is one which the families of the lately deceased doubtless deeply appreciate.” — The Crisis, Volume I, Number 1 (November, 1910).

In its first issue, The Crisis, official publication of the NAACP (launched by W. E. B. DuBois and associates) published the bloody but wry notice of a Florida lynching. Since Italian immigrants had not yet approximated or achieved Whiteness in the United States, they were still subject to the same extra-judicial executions as Black people in this country. This was the only mention of lynching in the inaugural issue.

Photo by Brett Sayles on

By the fourth issue of the newspaper, “Lynching” had become a regular heading and a steady report of the ongoing terrorism against Black individuals and communities in America. It was included in the “Opinion” section of the paper. In that February 1911 issue, the publishers quoted an editorial from the Sioux City (Iowa!) Herald opinion page. Please remember that this is the same part of the country that a century later would produce the election of Steve King to the U. S. House of Representatives.

“The Sioux City Herald has an editorial pointing out how little the laws of the country protect black men,” The Crisis reports. “‘The record of the year 1910,’ it says, ‘is tainted by the stories of mob rule and murder of black people in the South. “Eight Negroes lynched in Alabama, eight in Arkansas, eight in Florida, ten in Georgia, five in Mississippi, three in Missouri, one in North Carolina, one in Oklahoma, one in South Carolina, two in Tennessee and four in Texas. A national scandal, a race crime. Besides these 52 black men, five whites
were lynched, four of them in the South and one in Ohio. There were 75 lynchings in the United States in 1909 and 65 in 1908.”

The publishers were playing a bit of “catch up” in their reporting of this ongoing horror. They would continue the collection of reports, rumors, photos, and outrages for the next several decades. These reports served as one of the many precursors for the comprehensive work of the Equal Justice Initiative, both in its own reports, and in its memorial and museum on the grounds of the EJI dedicated to remembering and reporting the American history of white lynching of black people. These reports are part of the data set which will inform several of my posts leading up to Holy Week 2021.

Today I reflect on a book that I have read several times — James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This is not an “old” book, having first been published in 2011. But it represents a culminating summary of Cone’s work in the theology of Black (and therefore of human) liberation over the previous five decades. I return to this text as we approach Holy Week and Good Friday, and I will refer to it in a number of posts next week in preparation for preaching and teaching on the Passion of Jesus the Messiah.

“Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree,” Cone writes, “relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet,” he continues, “I believe this is a challenge we must face” (page xiii). Reading Cone’s text is a searing and gut-wrenching experience for those of us who live in the community of and in continuity with the perpetrators of such crimes. But without this sort of historical, personal, and theological reckoning, we can never begin to think about the repentance, repair, and rehabilitation which must precede any move toward racial reconciliation.

Cone brings personal passion and theological precision to the work. I ask myself over and over, “How did I not know this? Why did I not read Cone’s work during my own theological training?” Cone wonders the same thing — although he knows the answer to the question. “How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?” (page xvii).

This question has some real bite for me as an adherent of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened,” Luther writes in his theses for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

I can no longer think about Luther’s theology of the cross without taking Cone’s work into account. I find any discussion of that theology which ignores Cone’s work to be incomplete. Cone states his basic question as this: “how to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression” (pages xv to xvi). That failure makes white American theologians what Martin Luther calls “theologians of glory.” Luther writes in thesis 21, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” White supremacy is Exhibit A in the American case against a theology of glory.

Cone’s questions are even more pointed and pertinent now in the era of Black Lives Matter, the Derek Chauvin murder trial, the clear racism of white American churches and denominations, the growing “Leave Out Loud” movement of Black evangelicals away from white evangelical institutions, and the inevitable “whitelash” of even mainline (ELCA Lutheran) white male theologians trying to tell Black people how they ought to theologize in such a time as this.

“How could whites confess and live the Christian faith,” Cone asks, “and also impose three-and-a-half centuries of slavery and segregation upon black people?” The answer is quite plain and simple. “Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel” (pages xvii-xviii). If only the past tense of those verbs were accurate! Little has changed in the decade since Cone wrote those words. Again, Luther would nod, I think, and note the theology of glory still at work.

As I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I see similarities to Luther’s framework in many places. For example, Cone highlights the paradoxical nature of the cross. Luther would note that God’s grace and mercy are always hidden under the form of their opposites — judgment and condemnation. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” Cone writes, because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2). He expands that observation on page 18 as he notes the life-giving power of Christ’s death on the cross for African Americans in their suffering.

Cone taps into the theme of the hiddenness of God which informs Luther’s theology at such a deep level. Luther asserts that the invisible things of God can only become visible by looking through the lens of the cross. Cone quotes one of Luther’s favorite passages in this regard, Isaiah 45:15. He then expands on this divine “inscrutability.”

“Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol of Gods loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156). Perhaps we Lutherans have been silent on this “cross connection” because we have resisted the obvious political implications of Jesus’ crucifixion for those of us who live in and benefit from the system of white male supremacy.

The intimate connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of Black people in America is not new, and Cone claims no novel insight in this regard. The December 1919 issue of The Crisis has two stories relating Black life to the Christian gospel of the cross. First, there is “The Gospel according to Mary Brown.” The story of Jesus is told as that of a Black impoverished mother. Her son, Joshua (another name for Jesus) is lynched. But he returns to his grieving mother as Jesus risen from the dead. She dies in the joy of the gospel rather than in the despair of hell.

The other connection in this issue flies in the opposite direction. On page 61 you will find a gruesome picture captioned “The Crucifixion of Omaha.” It is one of a number of photographs of the September 1919 lynching of Will Brown in the streets of Omaha, Nebraska. Brown’s charred remains appear in the form of a crucified victim, and the parallels were not lost on the publishers. The accompanying article detailed the white criminal and political interests that were served by the riot and murder. The picture was theology enough.

Cone comments on this lynching and the accompanying photo. “The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” he writes, “or more precisely, the relation between what white Christians did to blacks and what the Romans did to Jesus — was reflected in a photo…of a burned victim, with a throng of white men observing their handiwork.” (pages 103-104).

I have found the caption to that photograph compelling and convicting. It was not the crucifixion “in” Omaha, or “at” Omaha that was depicted. The editors named it the crucifixion “of” Omaha. It was not, in the end, Will Brown who has crucified for the sins of the city. Instead, the sins of the city were exposed for all to see. The cross was used to make the “invisible” things visible — starting with the leering faces of those who took such pleasure in this atrocity. The photograph continues to crucify white Omaha, a city that did not acknowledge this horror until a hundred years later and which has not placed a permanent marker to remember the event.

“The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people,” Cone writes to end his book. “It is a window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense,” he continues, “black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.” It is only in the making visible those things we white Americans wish to keep hidden and in reckoning with our past and ongoing white male supremacy that repentance, rehabilitation, and repair can happen. “If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation,” Cone concludes, “there is hope ‘beyond tragedy'” (page 166).

Perhaps that is a theme for Holy Week 2021 — hope beyond tragedy. We shall see…

One thought on “The Cross and the Lynching Tree — Throwback Thursday Books

  1. I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree about 3 or 4 years ago. I was the beginning of compassionate understanding. Still a long way to go but a start…


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