“Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching three is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross” (158). So concludes James H. Cone in his essential new book.
Really if you read only one piece of theologically informed non-fiction this year, make it this one. [This book has become especially relevant with the recent tragic killing of Trayvon Martin.] Among other things, Cone draws our attention to the fact that no one, not one single theologian of note in the last century, has ever drawn a sustained comparison between the innocent suffering of those lynched in the United States, and the cross/lynching of Jesus Christ. Although conservative Christians made lynching an actual part of their religion, liberal Christians of the same period were completely silent on the subject—an omission as damning as the commission.
As an epigraph in the book states, “Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory” (W. Fitzburgh Brundage, Lynching in the New South).
James Cone takes as his point of reference for this insight the work of Reinhold Niebuhr who, in a theological career that influenced many African-American and social justice theologians, failed himself to highlight any direct comparison between the practice of lynching, and the cross that centered prominently in his theological ethics. It was and remains a glaring oversight.
To reflect on the failure of one of our nation’s most “progressive” theologians to consider the analogy between the cross and the lynching tree is “to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination” (32).
The first chapter of this book recounts the history of the lynching tree in the black experience, and looks at poetry and art from the time period that illustrates the analogy between the cross and lynching. Chapter two, as has already been mentioned, focuses on the failure of Niebuhr to make use of this analogy in his theology. Some of the most poignant passages in the book are when Cone shifts from the voice of theologian and historian into a more personal voice. Cone teaches at Union Theological Seminary, where Niebuhr also taught, and so Cone recognizes the ways he has been shaped by Niebuhr and the tradition he established, while also being excluded or overlooked by it. As he notes (thus illustrating the winsomeness and power of his liberationist approach to theology), “White theologians do not normally turn to the black experience to learn about theology” (64).
Chapter three is a meditation on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “staring down of the lynching tree.” King, together with all African-Americans of the time, lived with the horrible prospect that at any time they might be lynched. Living one’s theology makes a lot of difference to the theology we develop. “It is one thing to teach theology (like Niebuhr, Barth, Tillich and most theologians) in the safe environs of a classroom and quite another to live one’s theology in a situation that entails the risk of one’s life” (70).
Chapters four and five are theological meditations on lynching in the literary imagination of the African-American community. Perhaps the most concise and powerful statement of this imagination is Gwendolyn Brooks’ line in “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” when she writes, “The loveliest lynchee was our Lord” (98). Chapter five also shifts to a specific look at the womanist perspective, especially as this informs our theologies of atonement and understanding of the “meaning” of innocent suffering. His summary of the womanist approach is worth quoting in full:
“I accept Delores Williams’s rejection of theories of atonement as found in the Western theological tradition and in the uncritical proclamation of the cross in many black churches. I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself. The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection” (150).
Cone concludes with one further insight, that “in Black Theology and Black Power [his first book] and all the texts that followed, including this one, I begin and end my theological reflections in the social context of black people’s struggle for justice. The cross is the burden we must bear in order to attain freedom” (151).
As a church, we keep lamenting that we are a shrinking denomination, and we think this is because we've lost our identity and missional impulse. But what if in fact we are shrinking because we are in captivity to white middle-classness? What if the antidote is clear listening to the black experience in order to overcome our pious and faulty misunderstandings of the cross? These are the kinds of questions James Cone forces this white theologian to ask.
[Forthcoming in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, and used with permission]