James H. Cone. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis Books, 2011. (202 pages)
To the memory of Black People whose lives were lost on the Lynching Tree
I once participated in a small group that was intentional about discussing race, prejudice, and faith. Members were exhorted to be honest, real, and uncomfortable, as we held the space for one another in grace. I remember one [white] participant confessing (and I paraphrase) that he grew up with the whites at the table and the blacks as servants. To him, that wasn’t “racist.” That was just “normal.” I can say the same for my religious conversion and education through church, Bible college, and seminary, that a culturally- (white-) centric faith was not “racist,” but “normal.”
Except, it wasn’t. Normal that is.
And it shouldn’t be.
I cannot overstate the importance of The Cross and The Lynching Tree, a view of theology, American Christianity, and racial justice that must–and I mean MUST–be heard, studied, considered, and embodied. I agree with Cone, that “to forget [the] atrocity [of lynching] leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation.” (p. xiv) We must be able to name, and face, our racial history in full light. We must also recognize and accept that the racism of the past is not gone, but is still present today, evolved into updated forms of oppression. And just like then, we (White American Christians) must now be awakened that our “normal” is actually “white.” Then, and only then, in light of the truth of the matter, can we begin to live The Way of Jesus as truly redemptive and salvific.
May more voices and perspectives like James H. Cone flourish and redeem American Christianity from its color-blindness, it’s corporeal-callousness, and it’s racial inequities and injustice.
What was it that made me conscious of possibilities? From where in the SOuthern darkness had I caught a sense of freedom? Why was it that I was able to act upon vaguely felt emotions? … It had been through books … that I had managed to keep myself alive… [and that] had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. – Richard Wright, Black Boy, p.413
…as with the evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the true meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching. To forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation. (xiv)
How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation? (xvii)
If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population–slavery, segregation, and lynching–then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others. (xix)
I do not write this book as the last word about the cross and the lynching tree. I write it in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us. The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice. (xix)
1. “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See”; The Cross and the Lynching Tree in the Black Experience
The paradox of a crucified savior lies at the heart of the Christian story. (1)
The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last. (2)
Lynching was an extra-legal punishment sanctioned by the community. Many scholars date its origin in Virginia during the Revolutionary War when Charles Lynch or William Lynch (both were called the original “Judge Lynch”), with the support of the community, punished Tory sympathizers. As communities moved westward out of reach of the courts, Judge Lynch was invoked to punish (3) rustlers, robbers, wife abusers, and others who committed what a community perceived as outrageous deeds. Lynching was not regarded as an evil thing but a necessity–the only way a community could protect itself from bad people out of reach of the law. (4)
Lynching was the white community’s way of forcibly reminding blacks of their inferiority and powerlessness. To be black meant that whites could do anything to you and your people, and that neither you nor anyone else could do anything about it. (7)
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it would have been difficult to find white persons who would openly object to the right of white men to protect white women from sexual union with black men by means of lynching. (8)
I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patton, and I am proud of it. I directed every movement of the mob and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched. – William Van Amberg Sullivan, former U.S. senator from Mississippi
…the greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape–the most abominable in all the category of crimes, even worse than murder. – Theodore Roosevelt
How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? Self-defense and protest were out of the question, but there were other forms of resistance. For most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance. (12)
James Baldwin called this hope an “ironic tenacity”! (13)
Hope in black possibility, in the dream of a new world, had to be carved out of wretched conditions, out of a world where the possibility of violent death was always imminent. (15)
I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings. – Richard Wright
To be able to laugh, to say what’s on one’s mind, expressing feelings of disgust and rage, was liberating for blacks, who usually remained silent, hat in hand and head bowed in the presence of whites. As Albert Murray put it, the blues was nothing but “a disposition to confront the most unpromising circumstances and make the most of what little there is to go one, regardless of the odds.” (17)
African Americans embraced the story of Jesus, the crucified Christ, whose death they claimed paradoxically gave them life, just as God resurrected him in the life of the earliest Christian community. While the lynching tree symbolized white power and “black death,” the cross symbolized divine power and “black life”–God overcoming the power of sin and death. (18)
Our going to church on Sunday is like placing our ear to another’s chest to hear the unquenchable murmur of the human heart. – Richard Wright
Unlike Kierkegaard and Job, however, blacks often refused to go down into that “loathsome void,” that “torment of despair,” where one’s struggles with death but cannot die.” No matter what trouble they encountered, they kept on believing and hoping that “a change is gonna come.” They did not atranscend “hard living” but faced it head-on, refusing to be silent in the midst of adversity. (20)
If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history. (23)
No historical situation was more challenging than the lynching era, when God the liberator seemed nowhere to be found. (27)
If [God’s] love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? – James Baldwin
No one knows the answer to that question. (28)
One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of a pure regard for truth. Christ likes for us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms. – Simone Weil
2. “The Terrible Beauty of the Cross” and the Tragedy of the Lynching Tree: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr
Niebuhr taught that love is the absolute, transcendent standard that stands in judgment over what human beings can achieve in history. Because of human finitude and humanity’s natural tendency to deny it (sin), we can never fully reach that ethical standard. The best that humans can strive for is justice, which is love approximated, a balance of power among competing groups. (33)
Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. – Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. – Reinhold Niebuhr, Irony of American History
Niebuhr’s realist approach to Christian ethics was deeply connected to the cross, which he identified as the heart of the Christian gospel. “If the divine is made relevant to the human,” Niebuhr claimed, “it must transvalue our values and enter the human at the point where man is lowly rather than proud and where he is weak rather than strong. Therefore I believe that God came in the form of a little child born to humble parents and a manger…” This “life in the manger ended up on the cross… [and we] might end there if we really emulated it.” – Essays in Applied Christianity, ed. D.B. Robertson
Only poets can do justice to the Christmas and Easter stories and there are not many poets in the pulpit. – Essays in Applied Christianity, ed. D.B. Robertson
Why did Niebuhr fail to connect Jesus’ cross to the most obvious cross bearers in American society? (38)
| Niebuhr has a complex perspective on race–at once honest and ambivalent, radical and moderate. (38)
It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure. – MLK
The will-to-survive is so strong that it transmutes easily into the will-to-power. (40)
Unlike his “long love affair with the Jewish people,” Niebuhr’s lack of a strong empathy with black suffering prevented him from speaking out passionately for justice on behalf of black people, as did Clarence Darrow and many others in the NAACP and the Communist Party. (43)
Niebuhr knew that denying membership to persons merely on the basis of race was also a denial of the church’s Christian identity. Yet he also knew that white churches were not prepared to include blacks, a minority they truly despised, and he was not prepared to deny the Christian identity of white churches on that basis. (44)
If this element does not operate to mitigate racial antagonisms there is something the matter with the interpretation of religion. If religious idealism does not help us to live together decently with members of other races and groups, it is not producing the kind of social imagination without which religion becomes a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol. – Niebuhr, Detroit Times
During most of Niebuhr’s life, lynching was the most brutal manifestation of white supremacy, and he said and did very little about it. Should we be surprised, then, that other white theologians, ministers, and churches followed suit? (45)
I do mean to say is this: that the bulk of the white…Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know. … I don’t suppose that…all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself. – James Baldwin
When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime…the most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent problem and most disgraceful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem is silence. – Rabbi Joachim Prinz
This suggests why it is so hard for whites and blacks to talk about white supremacy; even among progressive intellectuals like Niebuhr, there is too little empathy regarding black suffering in the white community. Lacking empathy, he lacks the passion to engage the unspeakable evil of killing black children. (57)
What Niebuhr said about love, power, and justice helped me to understand that moral suasion alone would never convince whites to relinquish their supremacy over blacks. Only Black Power could do that, because power, as Frederick Douglass said long before Niebuhr was born, concedes nothing without struggle. (58)
Although Niebuhr is often called a “prophet,” and he claimed that “all theology really begins with Amos,” he was no prophet on race. Prophets take risk and speak out in righteous indignation against society’s treatment of the poor, even risking their lives, as we see in the martyrdom of Jesus and Martin King. Niebuhr took no risks for blacks. (61)
Unless we look at the “facts of experience,” as Niebuhr’s own realism demanded, what we say about the cross remains at the level of theological abstraction, like Karl Barth’s Word of God, separated from the real crosses in our midst. (63)
…if the lynching tree is America’s cross and if the cross is the heart of the Christian gospel, perhaps Martin Luther King Jr., who endeavored to “take up his cross, and follow [Jesus]” (Mark 8:34) as did no other theologian in American history, has something to teach America about Jesus’ cross. (64)
3. Bearing the Cross and Staring Down the Lynching Tree: Marting Luther King Jr.’s Struggle to Redeem the Soul of America
If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. – MLK
Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition, but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching. – Mamie Till Bradley, mother of Emmett Till
Suffering always poses the deepest test of faith, radically challenging its authenticity and meaning. No rational explanation can soothe the pain of an aching heart and troubled mind. In the face of the lynching death of an innocent child, black Christians could only reach into the depth of their religious imagination for a transcendent meaning that could take them through despair to a hope “beyond tragedy.” … As in the resurrection of the Crucified One, God could transmute defeat into triumph, ugliness into beauty, despair into hope, the cross into the resurrection. And so, like Paul, Mrs. Bradley was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not unto despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). (69)
Secular activists like Robert Moses, James Forman, and Stokely Carmichael drew inspiration from other sources, like Albert Camus’ The Rebel and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. With Camus, they said, “Better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.” But the poor southern blacks, who had little formal education in philosophy or political philosophy, it was (69) religion that offered the only resource–and the language–to fight against segregation and lynching. (70)
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)
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
While the cross symbolized God’s supreme love for human life, the lynching tree was the most terrifying symbol of hate in America. King held these symbols together in a Hegelian dialectic, a contradiction of thesis and antithesis, yielding to a creative synthesis. (70)
King came to see early that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.” Hate and white supremacy lead to violence and alienation, while love and the cross lead to nonviolence and reconciliation. (71)
| There was, however, an important difference between Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. that partly accounts for why King became a martyr in the civil rights movement while Niebuhr remained safely confined in his office at Union Seminary teaching Christian social ethics, never risking his life in the fight for justice. Unlike King, Niebuhr viewed agape love, as revealed in Jesus’ cross, as an unrealizable goal in history–a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve. For Niebuhr, Jesus’ cross was an absolute transcendent standard that stands in judgment over any human achievement. The most we can realize is “proximate justice,” which Niebuhr defined as a balance of power between powerful collectives. But what about groups without power? (71)
Reinhold Niebuhr analyzed the cross in his theology, drawing upon the Son of Man in Ezekiel and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah; and he did so more clearly and persuasively than any white American theologian in the twentieth century. But since he did not live the meaning of the cross the way he interpreted it, Niebuhr did not see the real cross bearers in his American context. (73)
Instead of attempting to explain the saving power of the cross rationally, black Christians recognized it as a mystery, beyond human understanding or control. (74)
The symbol of the cross spoke to the lives of blacks because the likeness between the cross and the lynching tree created an eerie feeling of mystery and the supernatural. Like Jesus, blacks knew torture and abandonment, with no community or government capable or willing to protect them from crazed mobs. (75)
As King saw it, the most powerful religious authority for black Christians was Jesus Christ, and Jesus’ teachings on love and nonviolence became his primary focus: “Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by.” (79)
Only God could empower black Christians to love hateful whites, and even God could not guarantee that they would return love for hate, nonviolence for violence. But King believed that God was the only hope for a minority to achieve justice. “Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement.” (79)
Like other black ministers before him, King connected the story of the black struggle for dignity with the biblical story of Calvary. In merging the two stories, he was enabled to face his own coming death. (82)
“If physical death is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from the permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive.” “To redeem the soul of America” was the motto of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), … (82)
Martin King’s perspective on the cross was not derived from reading theological texts in graduate school. His view of the cross was shaped by his reading of the Bible through the black religious experience, and his “personal suffering” in his fight for justice. “My personal trials have…taught me the value of unmerited suffering.” Suffering could create bitterness and hate or one could “seek to transform the suffering into a creative force.” (86)
Who can doubt that those who suffered in the black freedom movement made America a better place than before? Their suffering redeemed America from the sin of legalized segregation. And those blacks among us who lived under Jim Crow know that that was no small achievement. (89)
Love and hope, which Martin King found in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, did not erase the pain of suffering and its challenge for faith. No black Christian could escape the problem of evil (91) that has haunted Christians throughout history. That is why the cross and redemptive suffering are not popular themes today among many Christians, especially among womanist, feminist, and other progressive theologians, who often criticize Martin King on this score. Theology is always so contextual that it is difficult for young theologians today, as it was also back then, to understand King’s profound, existential, and paradoxical truth. I, too, was slow to embrace King’s view of redemptive suffering. Have not blacks, women, and poor people throughout the world suffered enough? Giving value to suffering seems to legitimize it. (92)
| Whatever we may say about the limits of King’s perspective on the cross and redemptive suffering, he did not legitimize suffering. On the contrary, he tried to end it, sacrificing his own life for the cause of others. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That was precisely what King did. He, along with a host of others, black, white, and other Americans of many walks of life, sacrificed their bodies and lives for our freedom today. (92)
| Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet, we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know from where we have come and where we must go. We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational and historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy. Poetry is often more helpful than prose in expressing our hope. Through poetic imagination we can see the God of Jesus revealed in the cross and the lynching tree. Those who saw this connection more clearly than others were artists, poets, and writers. (92)
4. The Recrucified Christ in Black Literary Imagination
And nothing, absolutely nothing, was uglier than lynching in all of its many forms: hanging, burning, beating, dragging, and shooting–as well as torture, mutilation, and especially castration. And yet so many were blind, deaf, and dumb. What enabled artists to see what Christian theologians and ministers would not? What prevented these theologians and ministers, who should have been the first to see God’s revelation in black suffering, from recognizing the obvious gospel truth? Did it require such a leap of imagination to recognize the visual and symbolic overtones between the cross and the lynching tree, both places of execution in the ancient and modern worlds? (94)
| “People without imagination really have no right to write about ultimate things,” Reinhold Niebuhr was correct to observe. No one can claim that black preachers’ sermonic orations lacked rhetorical imagination. Yet both white theologians such as Niebuhr and black preachers throughout African American history either did not see the parallels between the cross and the lynching tree or else they were too fearful of the dire consequences–loss of social status, work, and possibly life–to make the connection. In short, they lacked imagination of the most crucial and moral kind. (94)
| It takes a powerful imagination, grounded in historical experi-(94)ence, to uncover the great mysteries of black life. (95)
Justice delayed is justice denied. – William Ewart Gladstone
An apology, although important and welcomed by many blacks, is not justice. (99)
How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. It keeps faith from being sure of (106) itself. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope. (107)
It is one thing to think about the cross as a theological concept or as a magical talisman of salvation and quite another to connect Calvary with the lynching tree in the American experience. (108)
It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity. Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynch-law…, but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching. – Watler White, national secretary of the NAACP, Rope and Faggot
Life makes poems. – Langston Hughes
It was not easy for blacks to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites who lynched black people. Indeed, it was white slaveholders, segregationists, and lynchers who defined the content of the Christian gospel. They wrote hundreds of books about Christianity, founded seminaries to train scholars and preachers, and thereby controlled nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition. Cut off from their African religious traditions, black slaves were left trying to carve out a religious meaning for their lives with white Christianity as the only resource to work with. They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to stories in the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as the central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (118)
More than anyone, artists demonstrate our understanding of the need to represent the beauty and the terror of our people’s experience. (119)
5. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree
– “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen)
When a mob in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1918 failed to find Sidney Johnson, accused of murdering his boss, Hampton Smith, they decided to lynch another black man, Haynes Turner, who was known to dislike Smith. Turner’s wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, protested vehemently and vowed to seek justice for her husband’s lynching. The sheriff, in turn, arrested her and then gave her up to the mob. In the presence of a crowd that included women and children, Mary Turner was “stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.” (120)
The significance of Christ is not found in his maleness, but in his humanity. This Christ, found in the experiences of black women…the oppressed of the oppressed,…is a black woman. – Jacquelyn Grant
Unfortunately, the powerful image of “Christ as a Black Woman” has been left out of our spiritual and intellectual imagination, needing further theological development. (121)
Although women constitute only 2 percent of blacks actually killed by lynching, it would be a mistake to assume that violence against women was not widespread and brutal. (122)
For black women, however, running away was not an easy option. It was difficult for them to leave their children. They had to think about more than trying to secure their own safety. (125)
The heart almost loses faith in Christianity when one thinks of…the countless massacres of defenseless Negroes, whose only crime was the attempt to exercise their right to vote. … O God, when will these massacres stop? – Ida B. Wells
Faith and doubt were bound together, with each a check against the other–doubt preventing faith from being too sure of itself and faith keeping doubt from going down into the pit of despair. With faith in one hand and doubt in the other she contended against the evil of lynching. (131)
The nation cannot profess Christianity which makes the golden rule its foundation stone, and continue to deny equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the black race. – Ida B. Wells
Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians. – Ida B. Wells, critical of evangelist Dwight Moody
Black people did not need to go to seminary and study theology to know that white Christianity was fraudulent. As a teenager in the South where whites treated blacks with contempt, I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians and preachers could say would convince us otherwise. We wondered how whites could live with their hypocrisy–such a blatant contradiction of the man from Nazareth. (I am still wondering about that!) White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its relgion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both of them 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. There was no way a community could support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing in word and deed the one who was lynched by Rome. For Ida B. Wells, Christian identity had to be validated by opposing mob violence against a powerless people, and no amount of theological sophistry could convince her otherwise. As far as she was con-(132)cerned, white Christianity was a counterfeit gospel–“as phony as a two-dollar bill,” as blacks often said in Bearden. (133)
When reflecting on lynching, black women refused to believe that white Christianity was the true gospel. “The old white preachers talked with their lips without saying nothing, but God told us to talk with our hearts,” commented an ex-slave. This radical difference between white and black Christianity began during slavery and has persisted throughout American history. (133)
Black men seemed less able to navigate the complex relationship between survival and dignity in the violent patriarchal South. Just out of slavery, they wanted to be men, just like white males–providing economic support and physical protection for women and children–but they were not permitted to do so. As a result, black men tended either toward violence, which often placed them on lynching trees, or toward passivity, which led to the loss of dignity: few other options were available. (139)
Scholars who criticize blacks for their “otherworldly” religion should look a little deeper into the ways blacks resisted the demonic in their midst. (140)
Through their actions, women expressed the conviction that their nonviolent suffering could save not only the black community from white supremacy but even save America from its worst self. (143)
The believer who has communicated with his [or her] god is not merely a man [or woman] who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he [or she] is a man [or woman] who is stronger. He [or she] feels within him [or her] more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them. – Emile Durkheim
To say that black women “transformed America through their suffering” is not intended to valorize their suffering or suggest that God willed it. I intend only to acknowledge the great sacrifice my mother and other black women made to ensure a better future for their children and their community Like Jesus, black women (as well as men) sacrificed their lives for others, especially their children,… (147)
Some of the black folks got the news that they were gonna burn it down. My neighbors was afraid of gettin’ killed. People standin’ behind buildin’s, peepin’ out behind the buildin’s, to see what’s goin’ on. So I just told ’em, ‘Dyin’ is all right. Ain’t but one thing ’bout dyin’. That’s make sho’ you right, cause you gon’ die anyway.’ … If they burnt it down, it was just a house burn down…” – Mary Dora Jones, at the risk of her life and threats to burn down her home, took in seven blacks and four whites during the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Marks, Mississippi.
When young, northern, mostly white students began to debate whether God exists, as they had heard it discussed in their university philosophy classes, Fannie Lou Hamer was quick to respond: “Don’t talk to me about atheism. If God wants to start a movement, then hooray for God.” (148)
Black women’s faith empowered them to transform America, not just for black people but for all Americans, including white men. They redeemed America through nonviolent suffering, which they, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and others, identified with Jesus’ invitation: “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). Like Martin Luther King Jr., black women throughout African American history not only preached the cross but bore it, and sometimes died on it. (148)
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)
We cannot separate the cross from the Christian gospel as found in the story of Jesus and as lived and understood in the African American Christian community. The resurrected Lord was the crucified Lord. Whatever we think about the meaning of the cross for black women should arise out of their experience of fighting for justice, especially as seen in their collective lives and struggles in the civil rights movement. God’s salvation is a liberating event in the lives of all who are struggling for survival and dignity in a world bent on denying their humanity. (151)
Conclusion: Legacies of the Cross and the Lynching Tree
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. Fitzhugh Brundage
Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky.” (155)
We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel – Lk 24:21
One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in (157) tragedy. What kind of salvation is that? No human language can fully describe what salvation through the cross means. … Salvation is broken spiritis being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness. (158)
| And yet another type of imagination is necessary–the imagination to relate the message of the cross to one’s own social reality, to see that “They are crucifying again the Son of God” (Heb 6:6). (158)
White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s great sin. (159)
The cross is a reminder that the world is fraught with many contradictions–many lynching trees. (159)
Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. (162)
The church’s most vexing problem today is how to define itself by the gospel of Jesus’ cross. (163)
When we remember, we give voice to the victims. (165)
No two people in America have had more violent and loving encounters than black and white people. We were made brothers and sisters by the blood of the lynching tree, the blood of sexual union, and the blood of the cross of Jesus. No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God has joined together, no one can tear apart. (166)
| The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice about being lynched. The evil forces of the Roman state and of white supremacy in America willed it. Yet, God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope “beyond tragedy.” (166)
God Of The Lynching Tree: Why Everything Doesn’t Happen For A Reason
Have you ever experienced a tragedy in your life or knew of someone who experienced loss or great pain?
What was a typical response spoken from a relative, friend, or pastor during this time?
It was most likely the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason. God is in control.”
Does this sound comforting or hopeful?
Is this phrase supposed to make you love God, trust God, or feel better?
What these words actually mean is, “Tragedy is meant to happen for greater reasons unknown to us. And God is in control. He ordained it to be, allowed it to happen, and his hand was involved.”
If this is true, I don’t want to be a Christian, or at least I don’t want to worship a God like this.
The phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is very different than the phrase “Beauty can come from destruction.” One says, “God ordered destruction for the purpose of beauty” and the other says that, “God works through his people and divine mysteries to turn tragedy into beauty.”
I am a firm believer in the latter because it reflects the nature and message of Jesus that we get from the Holy Scriptures (Romans 8:28, Isaiah 61:1-3).
The black community has endured some of the darkest tragedy and persecution than any people group known to earth. The most disturbing thing is that the persecution was mostly done by white Christians in America. And the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” was used as a weapon aiding this persecution.
This reflection and conversation stems from the work of Black Liberation Theologian James E. Cone and mainly his work from “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”
I don’t want to get into theological weeds and debate camps. I have many friends in different theological circles that are different than mine, and it is never helpful to lump people in one category. That would be a false generalization and would only continue the “us vs. them” narrative. Instead, I simply want to tackle specific words and phrases that cause damage to us and our view of God, and words that have also led to accepting persecution when it should have been stopped. I also want to use this conversation to highlight the persecution of the black community and how these phrases have aided in these tragedies. I don’t want to just leave you there, but I hope this can brighten our view of God and hopefully bring enlightenment to all of us today.
In the frame “Everything happens for a reason,” the persecution of the black community in all of history, especially during the lynching era (1880-1940), and the continuation of suppression today by white supremacists is enough evidence that God is a torturing sadist or this theology/view of God is constructed by man to encourage people to accept that their suffering has a purpose. Accepting this phrase is to blindly trust that God has everything in control, and He ordains it all.
Can you put yourself in the shoes of a black woman who is cutting her husband down from a tree? Do these words sound hopeful or damning? Can you imagine what this community went through? All they had was the cross of Jesus that symbolized that beauty can come from tragedy.
While the suffering of the black community has aided in the liberation and progression of racial reconciliation and equal rights, to say that burning bodies swinging from a tree were ordained by God for a future liberation is a dark twisted view of love. “Everything happens for a reason” is a saying that has made white people feel better for their ancestral crimes.
We often don’t know what to say when we learn hard truths like this. We don’t know what to say about the history of the lynching era or when we realize our great grandparents were most likely involved. We like to talk about “good” things, and we don’t bring up historical tragedies because we start to feel guilty and we don’t like to feel guilty.
However, I believe we should feel guilty for what humans have done to other humans and what humans are doing to humans today. This is not to bring shame to ourselves, but to actually feel something. We don’t want to feel guilty, because we don’t want to feel the darkness that is connected with such tragedy. BUT we must. We must feel. We must lament. We must repent. Not repent because we have ever lynched anyone, but because it is actually scriptural to repent for our ancestors’ crimes, and we must repent for where we go wrong every day in our own lives.
A Prayer we can all say today: “God help me see my sisters and brothers as your reflecting image so that I may love them unconditionally as you have loved me. Forgive me for choosing selfishness, anger, hate, and superiority. Teach me to be humble and to be equal with others.”
White people will never be able to understand what the black community went through or what they are going through today, but researching, having conversations, lamenting, and repenting is the beginning of a reconciled world. We must feel so we won’t become numb to the marginalized.
James E. Cone says it “takes a whole lot of empathic effort to step into those of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”
If we choose blindness and don’t accept the hard truths of the human experience, we are just wearing the cross around our necks as a trophy of salvation verses a symbol of suffering turned to beauty.
Cone says, “Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called ‘the crucified peoples of history.’ The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the ‘cost of discipleship,’ it has become a form of ‘cheap grace,’ an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
Jesus said following love would come with persecution (John 15:20). He didn’t say “I have ordained the persecution of many people so that the gospel may be heard.” The fact that beauty can come from destruction is part of the divine miraculous works of God on earth today through the works of his people. We have the opportunity to engage in gospel miracles by doing our part of lamenting and reconciling. We have the free will to do so (Galatians 5:13).
To reconcile means to not ignore the past, but acknowledge it, lament it, repent of it, and makes steps towards being better in our everyday lives by engaging the communities that we may be uncomfortable with, but this will add to the greater good of the kingdom of God.
Martin Luther King Jr. says, “Resistance and nonviolence are not in themselves good. There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”
To accept the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is accepting the God of the lynching tree. The God of the Crusades. The God of the Holocaust. The God of the Columbine shooting. The God of 9/11. The God of Titanic. The God of the white man. The God of cancer.
The list is too big.
Our God is the God of love. Period.
Our God did not ordain these tragedies for His good. Our God did not have a purpose for this darkness. If He did, count me out. But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because Jesus contradicts this very idea. And I interpret the Bible and the world through Jesus.
God gave us free reign on this earth, and we killed each other, including God.
Our mission is to simply partner with love in turning tragedy into goodness. Not tragedy into more tragedy. God has given us an opportunity to fight tragedy with love.
The love of Jesus who is Love.
The cross is a symbol of how we crucify Jesus every day when we kill each other. This is not a racial issue, but simply a human issue. We do not see each other made in the image of God and we do not see our enemies as our sisters and brothers. Once we get that engrained into our souls, we can begin to make the world a better place.
Cone says, “The Gospel of liberation is bad news to all oppressors because they have defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.” And while America doesn’t practice slavery anymore, and we have come a long way in the reconciliation narrative, we can still enslave others with our words, thoughts, and deeds no matter the race.
Every day I strive to say this prayer for myself and on behalf of the world: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
And the best news is that we are all forgiven. Even the worst of us. Now, let’s love.
Lord, make us one. Make us better. Make us one. Amen.