Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

urlI began to read James H. Cone at the end of last year when I decided to take up a project to better understand my position of privilege as a white male in America today.  Much of my impression of Cone came from the media sensation surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright out of Chicago during the 2008 Presidential Election.  In case you don’t recall, the man was Obama’s former pastor (Obama has since distanced himself from him) who said some pretty radical things about America and, during a FoxNews interview (of all things) said something to the effect of “How many Cone books have you even read?” to the interviewer.

Naturally, this had me curious as to who Cone was, and my initial feelings were of concern and a little shock.  Here was a man who sounded like he hated anyone who had white skin and no doubt intended to incite a violent revolution where African Americans would attack whites and take over the country.  Obviously none of this is true, but this is where my college junior mindset took me at the time.   All the same, as my interest in liberation theology has grown, so has my interest in Cone. When my friend David offered to lend me The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I happily accepted.

TCLT is a bit difficult to describe in light of Cone’s other works, but the easiest thing to say is that the book draws parallels between the unjust torture  and death of Jesus of Nazareth on the Roman Cross, and the unjust torture and death of African-Americans who were lynched under Jim Crow.  For Cone, every black person that was ever lynched was Jesus Christ crucified all over again, a perpetuation of the very system of violence and oppression that Jesus has freed us from in his death and resurrection (referencing Hebrews 6:6 in this).   Cone draws somewhat from theology and Scripture to make his point (particularly in his critique of Reinhold Niebhur in chapter 2), but works primarily (and I love this) from African American historical accounts, as well as gospel and blues music.  Through these accounts, Cone demonstrates how African-Americans have identified very closely with the cross over the years, not out of some twisted sado-masochist thinking, but by identifying with Jesus as the man who suffered as they did, who carried the yoke of oppression during His time on Earth, and who knew their suffering under slavery and Jim Crow (and continues today under the War on Drugs; see Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow).

I’m going to skip my comments on style (Cone’s a very easy read for a theologian, and I appreciate that greatly), and just get to one of the things I really appreciated about this book: its accessibility. Cone’s earlier works, such as Black Theology and Black Power, come across as very visceral and intimidating to most (white) readers.  That’s by no means a criticism; what needs to be said needs to be said.  However,  it DOES cause the powers at be to misunderstand and misinterpret the message (blatant as it may be), so accessibility is somewhat important when writing such a critical text, and, make no mistake, this is a critical work.  Cone is forcing whites to look at the horrors of lynching and admit their horrific wrongdoings (he even makes mention of James Allen’s book Without Sanctuary, a collection of lynching photographs and POSTCARDS [sic]), and that’s never easy to swallow.  What’s definitely different about TCLT in relation to Cone’s other works, though, is the language.  Cone’s come a long from from BT&BP; he’s  still fiery and in your face, but with the wisdom and honesty that comes from a seasoned teacher, rather than that of an angry young man.

The other thing I liked about this book was what this did for me in terms of my thoughts on atonement.*  My descent into progressive Christianity has moved me away from penal-substitution atonement theory, that being the idea that God’s wrath had to be satisfied through blood, which is what Jesus came to do.  Jesus took the punishment that should have been ours.  As I’ve come to see God more through the lens of Jesus’ teachings and through reading differing opinions, I’ve begun to distance myself from this view of atonement because it seems contrary to God’s nature, especially if Jesus is to be the “image of the invisible God.”

Anyway, Cone’s work here has pushed me even further away from PSA because of how it’s shown me how human God really became in Jesus. Whereas PSA subscribers claim that Jesus came to take our place, what I find in Cone is that Jesus participated in our suffering with us, exposing the corruption and oppression of the powers that be, and offers us deliverance and liberation in his victory (Christus Victor). Jesus was as human as God could get, and it’s far more human than I currently am and, I think, could ever hope to be.  If I indeed do hope to be human, however, then it begins with setting the captive free, and bringing hope to the hopeless.

Anyway, this book was excellent and challenging. Check it out.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

  1. I appreciate your very thoughtful review and experience of the book. While I’ve not read it yet, my partner has and he highly recommends it. It is on my to read list.

    I would challenge you on one issue though: you use a tone argument here that highlights your level of privilege. About Cone’s earlier writing style, you say, “However, it DOES cause the powers at be to misunderstand and misinterpret the message.” No, it doesn’t. The anger of oppressed people is never the cause of injustice, and to say so is to ignore far larger and more insidious reasons why misinterpretations and misunderstandings are built into the system already. The Powers That Be will not bend toward justice because of a kind request. They are not ignoring Cone or anyone else because of their anger. They are not just waiting for someone to explain the problem correctly. They are invested in injustice.

    I take the time to mention this to you because I think you’re interested in improving your grasp on justice. Making this argument is a derailment and a distraction, not to mention an insult, whether you intend it that way or not (and I don’t believe you intend it that way). It will damage communication you try to engage in. People in groups who are systematically mistreated are told their anger is a problem CONSTANTLY. We are told at least once a week, day, or hour that the problem will be solved if we’ll just be nicer. It won’t. This argument you buy into here is that the oppressed’s behavior is part of the problem. It’s not. You are contributing to the problem (and you will mark yourself as untrustworthy and uninterested in justice) when you forward this idea.

    • Thank you for your comment. I actually fully agree with what you are saying, and I honestly did not mean it to sound like the oppressed need to be nicer when they speak out (though, at one time, I did think that way). All I mean to say is that the text in question here does come across as less visceral than his previous texts, and if someone were interested in the writings of Cone and trying to grasp his message, then this would be a better text for them to start with, rather than, say, Black Theology and Black Power. This is, as you point out, no fault of Cone’s, by any means, but the fault of those invested in injustice. By no means do I want Cone to be nicer in his arguments; if he were, he wouldn’t be James Cone, nor would his message be heard.

      My wording is certainly very poor here as well. What I mean is that a disconnect in communication does occur when books like this come out, though (again) this is no fault of the author. I wasn’t even looking to place fault on anyone. I’m simply acknowledging the event. I wrote it this way because when I began to take a harder look at justice, I really needed help overcoming my own investment in injustice so I could better understand and listen, and it was difficult to find that help. I would ask “Help me understand” and the response would often be “It’s obvious. Figure it out for yourself.”

      What I wanted this review to say is that, while this is still a very in-your-face book (in true Cone fashion), it’s more helpful in helping those of us with privilege see how broken and corrupt the system really is. I’m writing for those interested in listening, if that makes any sense. All the same, I apologize for the confusion.

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