book review: the cross and the lynching tree

Occasionally a book is published with a title provocative enough to carry its message well beyond the minds of those who take time to read its pages. James Cone’s latest, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011), does just that.

Using black experiences of suffering to ground his theo-ethical work, Cone draws a direct parallel between ancient and more modern instruments of sanctioned violence. He writes, “Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists” (31). Both the cross and the lynching tree functioned to control – not just to kill bodies but to create an atmosphere of psychological oppression.

Suffering of body and spirit grounds the theological work Cone does, but he does not accept the redemptive suffering that is so often associated with the cross. Rather, suffering becomes complex, even paradoxical. Suffering is the root from which faith emerges and faith speaks hope into impossible sufferings. At the same time, suffering is the very experience that contradicts faith. There is no abstraction to Cone’s theology, for it is grounded in the heart of one of the great tragedies of human existence, the black experience of slavery in America from its inception to today.

Cone passes on horrific stories of violence and writes about the work of artists who portrayed the disturbing images of lynching, including multiple references to Billie Holiday’s lyrically and musically haunting “Strange Fruit.” In doing so he makes the theological connection that “both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty” (31). And in doing so he challenges thinkers and leaders who do not make these connections.

Cone’s chief dialogue partner is Reinhold Niebuhr, and he spends a great deal of time exploring Niebuhr’s thought and especially Niebuhr’s conspicuous moderation and even silence on matters of race. In fact, as we’ve come to expect in his work, Cone questions whether the white church and white thinkers can truly understand the power of the cross from their positions of power and privilege. He writes,

What most whites call ‘integration’ (or in the  language of today, diversity) is often merely ‘tokenism.’ There is very little justice in any educational institution where black presence is less than 20 percent of the faculty, students, and board members. There is no justice without power, and there is no power with one, two, or three tokens. (60)

Though his extended conversation with Niebuhr helps crystallize the importance of theology rooted in black experience and the limitations of most white theologians, Cone spends more time than necessary dissecting Niebuhr.

Instead I would have liked to see Cone draw his theology more clearly into the present by elaborating on the contemporary version of “lynching of black America… taking place in the criminal justice system” (163). He references the work of Michelle Alexander, but his theological lens would be a dynamic addition to the conversation she advances. Additional points for development would have been work with the “living memory” and “psychology of the black experience” that continue to shape both the African American religious and social experience in the United States today.

All in all it is a provocative work with prophetic undertones and a worthy read for both ministers and lay people alike. As with all his writing, Cone’s work should not be relegated to the realm of minority perspectives but should be central to theological thinking today.