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.
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 Richard 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).