Theme for Negro writers will emerge when they have begun to feel the meaning of the history of the race as though they in one lifetime had lived it themselves throughout all of the long centuries. – Richard Wright
I read the book in two sittings that were separated by 45 minutes. I started the reading at my favorite coffee shop, but had to abandon it for the privacy of my home because I couldn’t stop the tears that constantly blurred my vision.
I don’t know that I’d ever shed tears before for what my ancestors endured in this country.
Like most of History, I kept Slavery and Lynching and all of the Big-letter events that happened to Black people in the abstract. Somewhere in the far distance where my awful near-sighted vision wouldn’t be able to make it out even with glasses on.
The events of our collective past were just facts like the statistics on my driver’s license: black people were enslaved, then they were freed, then the Civil Rights Movement, and now we have a black President (yay). Like the experiential knowledge that a hot stove will burn you, I avoided getting too close to the subject. I never allowed myself to think about all of those names that are missing from both sides of my family tree. I avoided making it personal.
When I was asked how I could possibly be a Christian given the history of Black people in America –the oppressive tyranny and terror that was endorsed, supported, and upheld by the Church, not to mention the current silence from Evangelicals regarding the same oppression –I would just shrug. Those two things, my Blackness and my Christianity, were never in conflict, because I’d allowed neither to touch me, let alone each other. They were two distinct and separate identities.
Much like History, my Theology was also kept in the abstract. Jesus and the place of the skulls was as far removed from me as the Underground Railroad. My theology was head-limited and earthbound; a list of facts that I acknowledged intellectually: Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, buried, and resurrected on the third day (hallelujah). It had nothing to do with me personally and was of little practical use.
It was reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone, in conjunction with his other works on Black Liberation Theology, that helped me to reconcile those two seemingly disparate identities: my blackness and my belief in Christ.
I’d never thought to juxtapose the Cross of Calvary, the ever-present symbol of Christianity, with the Lynching Tree that brutalized more than 4,000 black people; I’d never considered that those two topics were so closely related. In his introduction, Dr. Cone says:
The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy…While the lynching tree is seldom discussed or depicted, the cross is one of the most visible symbols of America’s Christian origins. Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin. Taking our place, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave “his life a ransom for many” (MK 10:45). We are “now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:24-25). The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation.
Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings– those whom Ignaciao Ellacuria, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than remind us of the “cost of discipleship.” It has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
When I read this it was as if the hot-handed History of my people, the one that I had avoided for so long, seared through sinew and skin; battled through bone and connective tissue, to lay claim to my heart. As I started to connect myself to the history of my people by reading their stories and sermons and spirituals as Dr. Cone lays out in his book, I came to see how the Gospel exists in America.
The enslaved didn’t need freedom from figurative oppression. Suffering wasn’t some abstract concept that they memorized bible verses to defeat. Tyranny and terror were their daily bread. The Gospel wasn’t head-level doctrinal purity or statements of belief as dictated by those in the Academia of Theological institutions, it was God, both then and now, acting in the world to aid and free those who are oppressed. Their theology, their very belief in the Gospel, was rooted in lived reality.
The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered. They came to know, as the black historian Lerone Bennett wrote, “at the deepest level…what it was like to be crucified…And more: that there were some things in this world that are worth being crucified for.” Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they knew they did not deserve it, yet faith was the one thing that white people could not control or take away. – The Cross and the Lynching Tree (pg 22)
The enslaved saw in Jesus a reflection of their own sufferings. In their own cries and prayers, they heard echoes of his. It was through their oppression that they saw the crucified Lord.
Black people did not need to go to seminary and study theology to know that white Christianity was fraudulent. As a teenager in the South where whites treated blacks with contempt, I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians or preachers could say would convince us otherwise…White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both of them outside of Christian identity.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree (pg 132)
The lynching tree of 20th century America threw the reality of Jesus’s cross into sharp relief. No longer was Jesus distant from me, some mythology that I learned in Sunday school, but he was suddenly here in real time –a very present help in times of trouble. What I once kept distance, I now fully embrace. This is the legacy handed down to me from my ancestors: a lived reality of Jesus.
This book was crucial to my understanding of blackness and Christianity.In my fight for social justice, as in my very own struggles with oppression, I find the Jesus of Calvary, arms stretched wide on the cross, waiting for me.
It is here at the cross, the precursor to the lynching tree, where my blackness meets my savior and the contradiction of being a Black Christian is resolved. It is here where I find my purpose of “uncovering the great mysteries of black life.”
It takes a powerful imagination, grounded in historical experience, to uncover the great mysteries of black life. ..The beauty in black existence is as real as the brutality, and the beauty prevents the brutality from having the final word. Black suffering needs radical and creative voices, prophetic advocates who can tell brutal and beautiful stories of how oppressed black people survived with a measure of dignity when they were not meant to. Who are we? Why are we here? And what must we do to achieve our full humanity in a world that denies it?
The Cross and the Lynching Tree (pg 95)