AN INVITATION: Matt Logan and Keith Dove invite you to study, engage, and reflect as they share a chapter-by-chapter discussion of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Here, an introduction and Chapter 1. See list of chapters below.
“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.” (Pg. 2)
“The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared to talk publicly about it.” (Pg. 15)
“If the blues offered an affirmation of humanity, religion offered a way for black people to find hope.” (Pg. 18)
“The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross — a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows.” (Pg. 23)
The cross and the lynching tree do not just have allegorical or symbolic similarities. There are concrete-material overlaps that interrogate the suffering and persecution of Jesus of Nazareth and the Systematic terror endured by black folks throughout America, and particularly in the Jim Crow South. The cross is not like the lynching tree. Literally, it is a lynching tree.
I separated the first chapter into three parts. 1. A brief description of the crucifixion at the center of black religious experience and a brief history of the lynching tree and the cross as a spectacle of terror. 2. Modes of resistance in black life–specifically, the Blues and the Church. 3. A meditation on how the prospects of despair for many black Christians during Jim Crow produced an arc of hope and redemption. This is what I think Cone means by, the ‘dialectic of doubt and faith.’
Within all three parts, I was struck by how both the cross and the lynching tree are not reducible to the execution of a person. Instead, this practice was clearly a method of terror meant to assert dominance and control. It was also clear to me that Cone is not trying to romanticize the brutal executions that took place on both the cross and the lynching tree. He is not searching for some redemptive quality in the events themselves. He draws us to the fact that black bodies, like Christ’s body, are not reducible to torture or death.
What did you think?
Would you say that in our tradition there is enough emphasis put on the crucifixion? What do you think is the relationship between Good Friday and Easter Sunday in Cone’s understanding between the Cross and the Lynching Tree?
What did you think about the paradoxical nature of his understanding, the image of both a sign of great suffering and torment but also of hope? Would it be safe to say that the lynching tree only has this paradoxical meaning in the black religious experience? For me, the lynching tree is a symbol of shame and lament.
Sending my love at a social distance.
I agree with Matt’s breakdown of the chapter, and I highlighted pretty much the same quotes in my own reading.
I do not think that our tradition focuses enough, at least right now, on the crucifixion. We often focus on palm, rather than passion, on Palm Sunday and then zoom straight forward to Easter. This results in us having two big triumphs in a row, with little attention paid to passion in between them. Even more than Good Friday, I think our tradition is averse to sitting in the grief of Holy Saturday.
For Cone, and because I am familiar with his other works and people heavily influenced by him, I think that Easter proclaims that life persists through death. When some traditions put a heavy focus on the crucifixion, it is often with the mindset that the crucifixion was a necessary thing. With Cone, the crucifixion isn’t necessary. Instead, Jesus lived a particular type of life that could not be killed, and Easter is proof of just that. With the connection between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone is suggesting that black folk are also tapping into this sort of life that cannot be killed, which is found in Jesus on the cross. For the terrorized black community, the cross is proof that life can persist in the face of the lynching tree.
I agree that also for me, the lynching tree is a sign of shame and lament, especially growing up as a white guy in the south. And I’m not sure what to make of Cone presenting it as a sign of both suffering and hope. I think that the best way for me to understand it is to take on the role of an overhearer in this instance. I will never fully understand the terror of the lynching tree/cross, nor the paradoxical hope of it. But by listening to the voices of others, who know that that paradox is there and real, I begin to get a better sense of the fullness of the meaning of the cross. I think that understanding the paradox is the key to understanding Cone’s work, and it will be interesting to see how those of us who are outsiders to the black experience will be brought into a completely different hermeneutic than what we are accustomed to.
One thing stands out to me in your response. This is a pretty basic question, but I think the way we answer it reveals a lot. In the first and last paragraphs, you wrote about two different traditions. You gave a critique of our tradition, writing, “I do not think that our tradition focuses enough, at least right now, on the crucifixion.” You also wrote, “I think that the best way for me to understand [the paradox of suffering and hope in the crucifixion] is to take the role of an overhearer.”
How do you understand the role and nature of experience when it comes to greater spiritual understanding? I think you are wise to point out the different traditions. It seems to me, that you and Cone agree that there are at least two distinct understandings of Christianity or at least two instantiations of what it means to be Christian. In this case: the white church and the black church. How can both of these traditions be in relationship with one another? Can you give a brief account of how you think the experiential plays a role in Christian theology and practice? What are its limits?
To put it clearer–If we do have a gap in understanding when it comes to the crucifixion and that gap is at least partially because of our lack of experience, what does this say about our congregational communities? Also, what does it say that Christians couldn’t make the connection between the Cross and the Lynching Tree?
Experience is tricky, and I am not sure that I have a fully formed answer about it. I am definitely not in the camp that finds truth only in things that have been personally experienced. Truth is not limited to my own experiences, and it would be silly to think so. That being said, experience still matters. I cannot pretend to speak from the same position as Cone can with regard to suffering and oppression. I cannot write a book called The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Which, I think, really leads me to back to the idea of two traditions. As an ordained pastor, I am able to speak about things like marriage and children, although I am not married and have no children. I am even able to speak about things like death, although I clearly have not died. In doing these, I am speaking out of a tradition that has formed me and has things to say on these topics. But our tradition (and by tradition I mean the PCUSA) has little room to speak from on the oppression of black folk. We can really only speak from a place of repentance, and not from a place of having experienced it. While there are black presbyterians and predominantly black presbyterian congregations, the PC(USA) is still 94% white. The narrative of the black church is not a place from which an overwhelming majority of the PC(USA) can speak. When the PC(USA) is at its best, it does seek to elevate those voices which were previously excluded and who can speak from places that the majority cannot.
I’m not entirely sure if I’m even answering your questions or just talking around them. But I do think that the two traditions thing is key. On one hand, I believe that there is only one true Church, visible and invisible, with no divisions in it whatsoever. But on the other, I lament that there are multiple churches. Specifically, I lament that there is a black church and a white church. I think often of my professor Dr. Valerie Cooper, who posed the question in her Segregated Sundays class “Are the black church and the white church even worshipping the same God?” My religious studies/sociological answer to that is “Of course not.” Emile Durkheim wrote of how each community has its own totem and own identity, therefore each has its own god. As congregations in the US are hyper-segregated, it means that they worship different gods. That being said, I constantly hope and pray that we are indeed worshipping the same God. Honestly, though, we won’t know if that is the case until we actually worship together.
It should not be a surprise that white Christians do not make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree–we prefer to identify with the protagonist Jesus when we read scripture. As white people were the lynchers, rather than the lynched, making that move would make no sense in the framework through which we have historically read scripture. If we were to make that connection, we would have to read scripture against ourselves, identifying with the crucifiers, rather than the disciple at Jesus’s feet. Ultimately, this failure shows that we have a history of worshipping gods other than the One who sides with and joins the oppressed.
Introduction and Chapter 1: “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See.”
Chapter 2, “The Terrible Beauty of the Cross”
Chapter 4, “The Recrucified Christ”
Chapter 5, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”