Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

This summer I’ve been trying to read as much as I can on the topic of racial justice, covering a range of perspectives—both secular and Christian, and both progressive and conservative. One title that I just finished is The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, who is considered to be the father of black liberation theology. This book was one of his final works before he passed away in 2018. Its aim is to explore the symbolic connections between Jesus’ crucifixion 2,000 years ago and the lynching of nearly 5,000 Americans (most of whom were black, but about a quarter of whom were white) from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Cone believes that the lynching tree should be the central lens through which Americans view the Cross of Christ, the main theological significance of which Cone sees as demonstrating God’s solidarity with the oppressed.

Summary

The book begins with a helpful (albeit very unsettling) survey of the history of the lynching of blacks in post-Civil War America. For the most part, the response of white Christians to such oppression ranged from blatant support to quiet indifference. There were disappointingly few white voices who spoke out against the horrors of lynching.

The second chapter evaluates the life and work of 20th-century American theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was one of the few white theologians who gave much attention to the problem of racial injustice in America, although sadly this did not translate into much direct action on his part. He represents the all-too-common stance of the white moderates of the time, who advocated a more gradualist approach to racial reform. (It makes me wonder how history might have played out differently if white conservative evangelicals had pursued racial justice in the mid-twentieth century with the same sense of urgency and conviction as they pursue justice for the unborn today.)

The third chapter examines the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and particularly how he experienced the burden of bearing two crosses at the same time: “white supremacy and black leadership, one imposed and the other freely assumed” (81). Although King did not desire a martyr’s death, he lived in the constant light of its possibility, and he preached regularly on the theme of carrying one’s cross. Cone notes that King held to the conviction that the suffering of blacks “redeemed America from the sin of legalized segregation” (85).

The fourth chapter explores some of the literary, artistic, and musical work of twentieth-century African Americans, including Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. Through their various works, these individuals (many of whom were not Christian) depicted both Christ as a black man and also black Americans as crucifixion victims.

Chapter five focuses on the perspective of African American women, such as Ida B. Wells, Billie Holiday, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Cone notes how although black leadership in both the church and politics was generally male, much of the grassroots support for the civil rights movement came from women. Women, for example, made up about 80% of black church membership.

Cone’s concluding chapter reflects on what it means to be a black Christian in America today. He highlights (in distinctly Marxist language) the activist dimension of liberation theology: “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). He also emphasizes the unity and mutual dependence of black and white Christians in America.

Analysis

I found much in this book to be quite helpful, especially in illuminating the historical record on racial oppression and lynching in America. One of the most troubling truths of the book is that, historically speaking, the most theologically orthodox white evangelicals were often the ones most opposed to racial equality. This is a problem that historian Mark Noll addresses in his work The Civil War As a Theological Crisis (see review here). Bible-believing Christians need to wrestle with why this was the case, and what it means for us today.

That said, from a theological perspective, I found The Cross and the Lynching Tree to be deeply problematic. Here I will highlight three main critiques. First, there’s the problem of wedding Christian theology to identity politics. In the introduction, Cone writes:

[I could not] separate my Christian identity from my blackness. I was black before I was a Christian. My initial challenge was to develop a liberation theology that could be both black and Christian—at the same time and in one voice.

Cone, xvii

Throughout the book, Cone repeatedly contrasts “black Christianity” with “white Christianity.” It would be difficult to imagine the apostle Paul endorsing a distinction between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity, when so much of his writing was devoted to dismantling such distinctions (cf. Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). So why should we endorse what amounts to the same kind of distinction today? While it may be sociologically useful to speak of general categories like black Christians and white Christians, it would be wrong to reify such categories into dogmatic positions like “black Christianity” and “white Christianity.” To the extent that we have tied our faith to our racial or tribal identities, we have fallen short of a truly universal and biblical faith.

Second, one could argue that Cone’s position violates the Second Commandment. He repeatedly refers to black victims of lynching as an “image” of Christ: “In the United States, the clearest image of the crucified Christ was the figure of an innocent black victim, dangling from a lynching tree” (93). In his chapter on African American women’s perspective, he takes this idea a step further:

When we look at a lynched black victim transfigured as the recrucified Black Christ, we might as well be looking at “a colored woman … stripped naked and hung in the county courthouse yard and her body riddled with bullets and left exposed to view!” … Unfortunately, the powerful image of “Christ as a Black Woman” has been left out of our spiritual and intellectual imagination, needing further theological development.

Cone, 121

Cone even goes so far as to say that “the cross needs the lynching tree,” because Americans cannot understand the true meaning of Christ’s suffering apart from using this image (161).

In contrast, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 109 explicitly forbids “the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” Other Christian traditions have sometimes faulted the confessional Reformed prohibition against images of Jesus (and especially mental images) for being overly strict. However, I believe Cone perfectly illustrates the concerns that the Westminster divines had in mind when they wrote this prohibition. To the extent that we have made Christ conform to an image of our own devising (whether as a black Christ, or an Anglo Christ, or whatever), we have instrumentalized him to suit our own purposes—even if such purposes are well intended, such as calling attention to historic injustices. As J.I. Packer put it, “To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of him from a human source, rather than from God himself; and this is precisely what is wrong with image-making” (Knowing God, 49).

[Update: I want to clarify a potential misunderstanding on this second objection. It is true that lynching victims are images of Christ, in the sense that all humans are made in God’s image. It is also true that Christ identifies with the suffering of his people, and whatever we do against Christ’s people, it is as if we do it against Christ himself (Matthew 25:40; Acts 9:4). But this thoroughly biblical notion isn’t quite the same as what Cone is doing. He isn’t merely calling us to see Christ in the lynching victim; he’s calling us to see the lynching victim in Christ. That is, for Cone, the lynching victim norms our understanding of Christ, rather than Christ (rightly) norming our understanding of the lynching victim. In the confessional Reformed tradition, we should be extremely wary of any statements like, “We need to picture Christ as…” In Cone’s framework, this leads directly to the problems mentioned in my third objection below.]

Third, Cone’s doctrine of the Atonement diverges sharply from historic Christian orthodoxy, which leads to a profound misunderstanding of both humanity’s most fundamental problem and also the nature of salvation. As stated above, Cone believes that the Cross serves primarily as a demonstration of Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed. Cone writes:

I accept [womanist theologian] Delores Williams’s rejection of theories of atonement as found in the 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.

Cone, 150

Conspicuously absent from Cone’s description of the Cross is any notion of the forgiveness of sins, as affirmed in the historic creeds of the church. In fact, reading Cone, it is hard to tell whether he thinks that black people need to be forgiven at all. He even ascribes to them what amounts to the role of a second mediator between God and their white oppressors:

Black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice. Just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary, so black people had no choice about being lynched.

Cone, 166

Except that Jesus did have a choice in his journey to Calvary. It was part of his predetermined purpose, as he repeatedly declared throughout his earthly ministry (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:45). Further, while Christ’s crucifixion was indeed perpetrated by unjust men, it is simultaneously the supreme expression of God’s justice. It is what enables sinful people to be reconciled to a holy God. By identifying humanity’s deepest problem as oppression rather than as sin, Cone misses the real liberation that the Cross provides.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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