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.

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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…

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (part 2); 2 Lent B 2021

Part Two: Why Do You Have to Die, Jesus (And Take Us with You)?

Following Peter’s confession and Jesus’ orders to keep it quiet, Mark moves to the central focus of his account. “And Jesus began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected as deficient by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and to be killed,” Mark writes in 8:31, “and after three days to rise up” (my translation).

What, according to Jesus’ teaching, was “necessary” if in fact he was the Messiah? In our reading and theologizing, we tend to focus on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death, to the exclusion of his resurrection. Like Peter (and the blind man at Bethsaida), we tend to see only half the picture and then draw the wrong conclusions.

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Ira Brent Diggers discusses this “necessity” in his excellent commentary on “When this passage is taken out of context, it seems to suggest that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to suffer and die,” he notes. “However, when we read it within its narrative context, we come to see that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to give life,” he writes, “knowing that earthly powers will violently oppose them.”

What is “necessary,” Diggers points out, is not the suffering and death that will be a focus of Markan account. Instead, Jesus’ mission is necessary. The responses of human and demonic powers are not “necessary” but rather contingent. “Jesus dies,” Diggers writes, “because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order.”

There will be no victim-blaming in this account. Jesus responds to his Messianic vocation with faithful obedience. It is the powers of this world who are to blame for their own responses. “So, the real epiphany of Mark 8:31 is not that Jesus’ mission is to die,” Diggers explains, “but that his faithfulness to God’s healing mission will inevitably result in his death. In Mark, Jesus “must” die,” Diggers concludes, “because his commitment to human healing will not falter.”

I find this to be a critical insight into the text. The favorite tactic of oppressors, abusers, and tyrants of all kinds is to blame the victims of such authoritarian regimes for their own suffering.

If only the spouse had been more submissive and less demanding, the abuser would not have put her in the hospital with a broken jaw. If only Emmitt Till had followed the unwritten rules of conduct for Black men, he might have lived to see his fifteenth birthday. If only impoverished people had the good sense to work hard and make lots of money, the rest of us wouldn’t have to penalize them with even deeper poverty. When Jesus’ suffering and death are treated as the goal of the process, then abuse and murder can find grounds for excuse.

“Essentially,” Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”

When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces. What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, life, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.

James Cone tracks this dynamic in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” he 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).

Cone does not suggest that suffering and death are the goal of the process any more than Mark does. Instead, Cone describes the opposite impulses of the reign of God and the dominion of death. “Both the cross and the lynching tree,” Cone writes, “represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning” (page 3, with Cone quoting Mircea Eliade).

Cone describes how violence, suffering, and death result as the system of white supremacy responds to the work of human liberation. “Although white southerners lost the Civil War, they did not lose the cultural war,” Cone writes, “the struggle to define America as a white nation and blacks as a subordinate race unfit for governing and therefore incapable of political and social inequality.” Whenever that system was “threatened” by black courage and progress, the predictable result was public and horrific violence and death.

Cone’s direct connection between the cross of Jesus and the white American lynching tree is precise and powerful. The Romans used crucifixion to terrify and traumatize, to shame and shackle subject populations. That was especially the case with slaves and rebels. Following the Spartacus slave rebellion, for example, the road from Rome to the seaport of Puetoli was lined with six thousand crosses as a warning to any and all who might consider such rebellious behavior. The sign or titulus attached to Jesus’ cross was a similar tool of terror and oppression.

Jesus teaches that suffering, cross, and resurrection are “necessary.” But necessary for what? Large parts of western Christianity are committed to the Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement. The cross, in this theory, was necessary in order to pay a “debt of honor” owed to God by sinful humanity. Sinners could not pay such a debt, so God provided the payment in the form of the Beloved Son. The Father hands the Son over to such death in order to make “satisfaction” for sin and thus to remove the obligation. Victimization is necessary to balance the books in the Divine economy.

While there is certainly language in the Christian scriptures to underwrite such a theory (formulated most clearly by Anselm of Canterbury in the 10th century CE), the more ancient and life-giving metaphor sees the cross as necessary to God’s victory in Christ over the powers of sin, death, and evil that seek to suck the life out of the cosmos. Gustav Wingren describes the ancient imagery in detail in his classic work, Christus Victor.

Luther, Wingren notes, embraced and deepened that ancient imagery in his theology. God’s work of forgiveness, life, and salvation is hidden under the form of its opposite, Luther tells us. In other words, one cannot use the tools of evil in order to defeat evil. Instead, suffering and death become necessary for Christ on the way to life beyond the grave – the life which the Creator has intended for us all from the beginning.

In our gospel text, Mark assures us that Jesus declares this Divine necessity and the systemic response “openly.” The Greek word has to do with public proclamations and declarations. It is the word Paul uses frequently to remind his readers that he and others have preached the Gospel of Christ with “boldness” – that is, in public and with no holds barred. Jesus has kept things relatively quiet until now, but the time for reticence is past (at least in his conversations with the disciples).

The sequence in verse thirty-one takes us from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. That “open” declaration will be required of those who wish to follow Jesus in the future. Part of the painful irony of Mark’s account is that Peter, who makes the first open declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, will be the one who later denies that he ever knew him. Thus, Peter will be the first to deny Jesus before others.

In spite of that massive failure, Peter becomes the head in some sense of the churches in Rome. If Peter can be restored in the wake of such an apostolic collapse, then there can be hope and a way forward for other disciples as well. There could be a word of gracious discipline and hopeful forgiveness for Christians in Rome who had succumbed in the face of persecution (perhaps the persecution in which Peter was himself martyred).

There is a stern warning about the possibility of such failure and an implied hope for restoration and new life. Our imagined baptismal candidate might indeed know Christians who had failed and been restored to the community. Perhaps some of them witnessed to our prospective new Christian. This passage would help the community understand and interpret how to deal with such lapses and restorations.

Perhaps it is also a challenge for us to declare openly the necessity of our own proclamation of justice and the inevitable response of the systems of sin, death, and evil among us. We should be able to see that a primary expression of such systems is that of white, male supremacy in the Western world (and church).

“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar,” Cone writes, “that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (page 31). Peter’s response, coming from his half-sight of self-interest can help us white, privileged, powerful people confront our own willful blindness and move toward real life. More on that in the next post.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

Diggers, Ira Brent.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.