Black Liberation Theology and the Lynching of Jesus

The Cross and the Lynching Tree
by James H. Cone
Orbis Books, 2011

It took James H. Cone four weeks to write his first book, Black Theology and Black Power, a work surging with revolutionary expectation. It took him six years to write his latest work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a book of haunting sorrow and beauty.

Staring at the pictures of tortured black victims was too much to bear on a weekly basis. Writing about them was slow and tortuous. On numerous occasions he had to push the manuscript away. I learned to stop asking him if he was making progress on the book; he could tell me only so many times that he was proceeding “like a turtle.” But it helped that Cone is a Christian theologian who had never quite gotten clear on what he wanted to say about the cross of Jesus. The cross helped him grapple with the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped him grapple with the cross.

Cone’s joyful ebullience, playfulness, and tender heart don’t often register on his written pages the way they do in person. But joyfulness distinctly pokes through in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, despite the book’s gut-wrenching subject matter. This book is a magnificent capstone to Cone’s forty-three years of theological leadership. It teaches that the lynching tree is a metaphor for the crucifixion of black American Christ figures. And it points the way to the redeeming presence of God and to Martin Luther King Jr.’s hopes for a beloved community.

A Theologian of the Black Power Movement

The Cross and the Lynching Tree builds on decades of Black Power theology. To appreciate the significance of this latest book, it’s helpful to look back through the years of its author’s powerful contributions. In 1967 Cone was a young theologian at Adrian College, ninety minutes from Detroit, when Detroit and Newark erupted in summer riots. Cone had spent the climactic years of the Civil Rights Movement in a seminary library, earning a doctorate. He lamented that his teachers fixated on European theologians, but he wanted the degree and an academic career, so he mimicked his teachers, writing a dissertation on Karl Barth’s theological anthropology. Then he taught theology at two colleges, feeling increasingly alienated from his field, while the Black Power movement arose. Cone prized the writings of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), which blazed with anti-racist rebellion, but he was stuck with white theologians who epitomized the culture of whiteness and who rarely uttered more than a few words against racial prejudice.

Cone decided that he was in the wrong field. He could not spend his life teaching theologies that dismissed slavery and white supremacism as topics not germane to theology. But then Detroit and Newark exploded, and Cone decided that he lacked time for the doctorate in black literature that he had been considering. He would have to make do with the education that he possessed, to say something on behalf of the struggle of oppressed American blacks for freedom.

Cone found his voice upon hearing white theologians and pastors admonish blacks to follow Jesus instead of resorting to violence. He later recalled: “I was so furious that I could hardly contain my rage. The very sight of white people made me want to vomit. ‘Who are they,’ I said, ‘to tell us blacks about Christian ethics?’” How did whites muster the gall to lecture oppressed blacks about love and nonviolence? How could whites be so surprised by the anger of American blacks? “My rage was intensified because most whites seemed not to recognize the contradictions that were so obvious to black people,” he added.

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