The Cross and the Lynching Tree was the last book published by Dr. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, before his death in 2018. His work is a meditation on the historical, symbolic, and spiritual connections between the cross on which Jesus died and the ‘lynching tree’ on which thousands of blacks were murdered.
Given the insistence of most evangelicals that Cone’s theology was highly unorthodox, the book’s first several chapters took me by surprise, as Cone said little that I disagreed with. He devoted a chapter to the history and horrifying reality of lynching in the South, another chapter to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, and a third to the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Very little of this discussion mentioned Cone’s own beliefs, which only surfaced towards the end of the book.
The demonic character of lynching and the depth of white supremacy demonstrated in Cone’s accounts of lynchings may be difficult for modern readers to accept, but are important for that very reason (see also Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning): “Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attend [the lynching]. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims – burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs” (p. 9).
Even Blacks who were not physically attacked were understandably terrified for their lives. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father “Daddy King” told his son about witnessing the lynching of a Black man by a group of white men for “taking their jobs”: “It was payday and they tried to take his money. ‘This money fo’ my chil’ren now,’ the black man screamed, fighting back. ‘I cain’ let you have that.’ They proceeded to kick and beat him severely… They lifted him up and tied the end of the belt to this tree and let him go… his feet about five or six inches off the ground” (p. 76-77). This story reminded me of Pastor Eric Mason words in Woke Church: “This is how it works. One generation’s pain and fears are passed on to the next… It doesn’t mean that we must repeat the sins of racism and bigotry of the past, but it does mean that they impact us in some way” (Woke Church, p. 77). White Christians should be especially sensitive to the fears that have shaped and continue to shape the experiences of Blacks in this country.
Cone’s reflection on the role of the cross in the theology of the Black Church was particularly helpful. Slavery and lynching were more than forms of oppression; they were also instruments of racial terror and subordination that produced intense psychological suffering. Cone highlighted how Black Christians turned to Jesus for hope in their misery, “for he is a friend who knows about the trouble of the little ones, and he is the reason for their ‘Hallelujah'” (p. 21). Moreover, Black spirituality centered on the cross because it demonstrates the degree to which God identifies and suffers alongside of his people: “The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death… The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built” (p. 21).
Yet while we should acknowledge the white supremacy that permeated American history, we should also scrutinize Cone’s historical claims and his interpretive framework. In the latter portion of his book, he attempted to draw a stark contrast between “White Christianity” -the Christianity of the segregationist, the slaveholder, and the lyncher- and the “Black Christianity” of the black freedom struggle. To that end, he made claims like this one:
White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed them both outside of Christian identity. I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher. (p. 132)
A quick search of the Southern Baptist Convention’s list of Resolutions reveals following succinct statement, made in 1933:
we condemn lynching and all other forms of lawlessness and pledge our unfaltering support of all public officials in all their honest and faithful efforts for the enforcement of law.
This resolution was followed by similar anti-lynching resolutions in 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939, and 1941. Given that the SBC was created to preserve the “right” of Christians to own slaves, the existence of such resolutions makes it very implausible to characterize Southern Baptists, let alone other conservative Christian denominations, as “[endorsing] lynching as part of [their] religion.”
The most tragic consequence of Cone’s overarching theological framework is his rejection of the cross as the instrument of human salvation:
Rejecting the teaching of black and white churches that Jesus’ death on the cross saved us from sin and that we too are called by him to suffer as he did, some black scholars, especially women, reject any celebration of Jesus’ cross as a means of salvation. Theirs is a just and powerful critique of bad religion and theology, which must be reckoned with so as not to make suffering a good in itself (p. 119).
He goes on to say:
I accept Delores Williams’ rejection of theories of atonement found in 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. (p. 150)
What’s most perplexing about Cone’s rejection of the saving work of Christ on the cross is that he is self-consciously repudiating the very doctrine that the historic Black Church embraced to make sense of and overcome the suffering inflicted on them. Our of his fear that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement will make people acquiesce to racial injustice, Cone rejected the heart of the Christian message.
Because the focus of The Cross and the Lynching Tree was on the theology and beliefs of others, it’s difficult for me to systematically address my concerns with Cone’s own beliefs. However, based on the book’s final chapters, my sense is that Cone’s fundamental mistake is characterizing doctrines as either ‘White’ or ‘Black’ and then rejecting doctrines that he deemed ‘White.’ He interpreted the Bible and Christianity through the lens of the “black freedom struggle,” leading him to dismiss doctrines that he deemed harmful to black liberation. Yet Christians cannot approach the Bible with that kind of pragmatism. If the Bible is God’s word, then we should accept what it teaches, whether or not we think it ‘works.’ Truth is truth, wherever its found and however it is misused.
In reimagining the Bible as a narrative about political oppression and subjugation, Cone misses the real liberation and unity that only the true biblical narrative can provide. Physical bondage is terrible and degrading, but spiritual bondage is far worse. Jesus indeed came as a liberator, but he came primarily to set us free from sin, death, and condemnation. And when Jesus liberates us from our slavery to sin, he welcomes us into the community of the church, where we find true unity across lines of race, class, and gender.
It is on this issue that I worry about Cone’s influence among modern evangelicals. We may find Cone’s concerns about race and injustice so compelling that, while we don’t immediately abandon doctrines like the atonement, we begin to downplay their centrality. In doing so, we repeat his error in a more subtle form, finding unity in our shared political commitments rather than in our allegiance to the teachings of Scripture. Instead, the reverse needs to be true. As Christians, we need to ground our unity in the truth of Scripture and the work of Christ. Out of that unity will flow a commitment to justice. But we dare not reverse the two.