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 they conclude with Chapter 5: “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.” See list of chapters below.
“What is the meaning of this unspeakable black suffering–suffering so deep, so painful and enduring that words cannot even begin to describe it? Only the song, dance, and the shout — voices raised to high heavens and bodies swaying from side to side — can express both the wretchedness and the transcendent spirit of empowerment that kept blacks from going under, as they struggled, against great odds, to acknowledge humanity denied.” (P. 124)
“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.” (P. 131)
“Dying for others was not unusual for black women, and they taught their sons and daughters to give back to the community, to give even their lives for freedom. Despite the dangers, they believed Jesus, their protector and friend, would walk with them and would see them through hard trials.” (P. 147)
In this chapter, Cone narrates the terror inflicted on African American women in the South. Also, he writes about the strategies of resistance and the politics of change where many African American women led the way, specifically Ida B. Wells. In the previous four chapters, Cone focuses in on the two major effects of lynching. Obviously, the first is that it is an extrajudicial murder that becomes a spectacle of unspeakable violence. The second, and directly related to the first, is that the kind of violence perpetrated was meant to cast a shadow of terror within the black community. Lynching had the desired effect of ‘putting African Americans in their place.’ Until this chapter, Cone had not written about the material impacts lynchings had on the black community and the black household. Most times, African American women bore the brunt of this impact.
Cone points to the egalitarian strength of black women, the majority of which, filled the pews of black churches. Cone points out that very few African American women had leadership roles within the church. Yet, the religious life at the intersection of faith and doubt led many women to take up leadership roles within justice advocacy networks. One of my favorite references in the chapter is when Cone writes, “Rosa Parks sitting down, gave Martin King the courage to stand up.” Cone also points out that white progressive women were not too dissimilar from white progressive men in that few spoke out against the brutality of lynchings. When they did, it was like speaking out on a political issue within a number of other political issues. More often than not, white women were more concerned about the devolving of the rule of law in general, instead of the torture inflicted on black bodies and the black community in particular. I think this still haunts some progressive social justice movements in America. Generally more concerned with upholding some imaginative ideal than attempting to liberate those who are marginalized and oppressed.
Cone hits on the same themes of the dialectical black religious life in America. In the prospect of community terror, the black church provided a powerful and faithful witness that encompassed the doubt of their experiences. Cone writes that faith keeps one from despair. Doubt holds faith accountable, never allowing it to be sure of itself. However, this chapter narrates the inspiration black advocates gained from watching black women in their communities. Black women anchored the family. Children would often worry whether or not their fathers would come home after having been beaten, or sometimes tragically, not at all. Their mothers were the backbone of the family, but they were not limited to care-taker rolls. Black women also pointed out great hypocrisy in the southern lynching logic. As hard as this is to stomach, lynching was defended and justified with the logic that it must be put into place in order to protect white women from being raped by black men. The historical language used to describe black men was abhorrent. Black women advocates pointed out the hypocrisy of the historical realities of rape during chattel slavery and the Jim Crow Era. Some being bold enough to write in local newspapers and in wide-media why white men were not being lynched for their crimes.
Keith, can you describe the disagreements that Cone, and some womanist theologians have related to surrogacy and suffering?
How do black women relate to Jesus in regard to the Cross and the Lynching Tree?
Specifically, Delores Williams and Cone are in disagreement about surrogacy, suffering, and the Cross, but they represent two larger schools of thought on this. For Williams, the Cross, as it is most commonly presented, encourages black women to take on surrogate suffering. If Jesus suffered on behalf of others, and if this suffering is redemptive, then the suffering of black women on behalf of others also appears redemptive. Williams is very much opposed to the idea of redemptive suffering, so much so (in my opinion and I think in Cone’s as well) that the Cross becomes sidelined into something that really is not important.
Cone, although still rejecting redemptive suffering, keeps the Cross as central to Christianity. For Cone, the Cross proves that God achieves victory even in apparent defeat. Cone sees this as both salvific and hope-giving. Williams, on the other hand, sees Jesus’s ministerial life and his mending of relationships as salvific and hope-giving. Williams is not wrong in this, and I don’t think that Cone would think she is wrong either. Rather, Cone wants the Cross to still matter, where it seems like Williams is quick to abandon it altogether.
I think that the clearest way that black women relate to Jesus in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is in their pursuit for justice and the suffering they endure because of it. As Cone narrates it, black women tap into the persistent life that Jesus modeled more than any other demographic. In their fight for life, they share that life with their families and communities, becoming the life force that holds things together. They model lives that death cannot kill — taking care of children and families in the very face of death for centuries.
Tell me if you think this is correct! Cone is trying to imagine a faith perspective that is driven by representation. He thinks about theology through the lens of the experiences of different groups. The way protestant theology is traditionally understood is through dogma and faith statements using the Bible as the foundation. Today, I went back and read through our entire correspondence. Both of us try to ‘theologize’ everything. Most of my questions are about how to theologically understand ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing Cone wrote. It is theology from above. Cone wants you to think theology from below. He wants to interpret these experiences using Golgotha as the starting point. You could call it ‘Identity’ theology. This is why African Americans identify experientially with the person of Jesus. He IS NOT saying that black women or black men have a different more privileged path to salvation or even a better theological perspective. However, due to historical circumstances, specifically, the audacious hope that flows out of the black church in general and black women, in particular, allows for a clearer identification with our crucified Lord.
In Cone’s understanding, black women do not become agents of atonement for all of humanity. Black folks and black lives do not bear the burden of sin and death. It is about identity, not a theological justification from above. It is a simple question with a series of different ways to answer. Historically, who has lived the kind of life that we would identify with Jesus? This is the analogical power of the cross and the lynching tree. The more convicting questions for me are, who played the role of the torturers and Executioners? Who played the role of the bystanders? Who wept? Who cheered? These are the questions that still flow downstream. You could just as easily make all these questions present tense.
I think you’re correct in this. Your first paragraph is telling for the way that we have been formed. We both received really good educations at Duke Divinity School, but also our education was mainly in how to do top-down theology. Even as we had some professors try to teach as a theology from below, most of the white mainline Christian academy is steeped in a from-above perspective. We are not exempt from that, and it is clear that our education falls short and has failed us on that account. This is what white theology looks like, which is a problem.
The questions you ask are so important. I am currently writing this during Holy Week. We white people must read Holy Week against ourselves. And when we do, we do not end up on the side of Christ. For me, it is difficult to read the passion narratives, understand the history of race in America, and still identify with Christ. In America, we know who was hung on trees. We know who cheered and mocked. And we know who did nothing as it all happened. These parallels are so important to draw out. And ultimately, they should lead to confession and repentance from the white mainliners, who were mostly just the crowds watching and letting it happen.
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”