I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2013). Pg. 202. Paperback $24.00.
I picked up this book at the recommendation of a friend. I’m glad it was recommended, because when I read this book, I discovered how the cross is still delivering a powerful message even in 21st century America. Between the Civil War and the 1940s, there were about 5,000 lynchings in America. This book explores how the African-American community was able to take this despicable act, and see in it the cross of Jesus Christ.
Cone’s message, in many ways, is a very simple one. He argues that the lynching tree served the same function that the cross served for the Romans in the first century: a brutal and humiliating warning for people to keep in their place. He notes that just as crucifixions were often driven by mob mentality (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19), so too were lynchings. However, he also argues that just as Jesus was able to take the cross, an instrument of death, and change it into a symbol of life, so too did the African-American community take the lynching tree, a humiliating and tragic part of America’s story, and change it into a sign of hope.
Through the various chapters, Cone explores the meaning of the cross in African-American churches, as well as how that imagery even influenced blues music. Both church and music allowed African-Americans to believe that, in the end, God could and would redeem their suffering.
In chapter two, he explores the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Because I’m an Orthodox Christian, I was unfamiliar with this theologian. Cone goes to great lengths to show how Niebuhr was aware of lynchings, but never connected lynchings with his theology of the cross. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was fair to argue against someone based on an absence of evidence, as Cone was doing here, but, as I’m unfamiliar with Niebuhr, I’ll assume Cone knows what he’s talking about. What I did take away, however, was that Cone really wanted to show that there’s an obvious connection between the lynching tree and the cross, yet, despite this obviousness, white theologians failed to make the connection.
In the next chapter, largely about Martin Luther King, Jr., Cone shows how there was a clear difference between white theology, represented by Niebuhr, and black theology. He shows that sermons and hymns from the American-American community were full of images of the cross; images that take suffering and transform it into a means of salvation. He further explores this idea in the next two chapters, which look specifically at popular literature, and women in the African-American community.
Cone very brilliantly concludes that the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians, and when we are able to see the cross as a first century lynching, then we are able to encounter Christ in our own time and place.
The reason I didn’t give it the full number of stars was because of the writing style. Cone often goes on tangents, which interrupt the train of thought. He uses a lot of quotes from sermons, letters, hymns, poems, etc., yet sometimes they are awkwardly placed. He also, at times, becomes repetitive, rehashing an argument he’s already made in a previous chapter. This leaves one wishing Cone had more to add to his argument. Perhaps a better way to have written this book would have been as a source book. He could have written a short introduction, and then made the rest of the chapter primary sources that backed up his argument. Despite these flaws, this book is still has a powerful message for America today, and it’s worth reading.