“The lynching tree interprets the cross. It keeps the cross out of the hands of those who are dominant. Nobody who is lynching anybody can understand the cross. That’s why it’s so important to place the cross and the lynching tree together, because the cross, or the crucifixion, was analogous to a first-century lynching. In fact, biblical scholars, when they want to describe what was happening to Jesus, many of them say it was a lynching.
“And all I want to suggest is, if American Christians say they want to identify with that cross, they have to see the cross as a lynching. Any time your empathy, your solidarity, is with the little people, you’re with the cross. If you identify with the lynchers, then, no, you can’t understand what’s happening…Power in the powerless is not something that we are accustomed to listening to and understanding. It’s not a part of our historical experience. America always wants to think it’s going to win everything. Well, Black people have a history in which we didn’t win. We did not win. See, our resistance is a resistance against the odds. That’s why we can understand the cross.”
The Rev. Dr. James Cone passed away on April 28, two days after the opening of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which remembers victims of lynching and racial terror in America who were at the core of Dr. Cone’s teachings.
James Cone, the founder of Black liberation theology, was an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church; a distinguished professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary where he taught for nearly 50 years; and a tireless crusader against racial terrorism and other forms of injustice including mass incarceration beginning with what the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) calls America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis. He authored a dozen groundbreaking, history making, and movement shaping books. They include Black Theology and Black Power, A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, he pulled the academy and theology into the struggles against oppression in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. As a theologian his central message was that the God of the gospels must be understood as a God of the oppressed who is most concerned with the poorest and most vulnerable members of society – a message with radical implications for American Christianity and all faiths and for our nation and world.
We were blessed with his presence at CDF-Haley Farm’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry four years ago. The quote at the beginning of the column is from an interview Dr. Cone gave four years before the release of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a book he told us he had been writing his entire life and would not finish until he drew his last breath. Every July the Proctor Institute brings together “Great Preachers and Great Teachers” like Dr. Cone with clergy, seminarians, religious educators, community organizers, young adult leaders and a range of faith-based advocates in an intergenerational, interracial, multi-ethnic, ecumenical community pursuing justice for our nation’s children. In 2014 he taught two Theology and Child Advocacy Bible study sessions and shared how his beliefs were shaped:
“I left graduate school during the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power in the 1960s. I was a theologian obsessed with civil rights and Black Power, since both of these movements helped me to see that God is found in the midst of the oppressed, fighting for dignity, justice, and respect…The heart of the Christian faith is the cross of Jesus, the one who shed his blood as a crucified victim in Jerusalem…No one can understand this Jesus…without seeing Jesus through the experiences of crucified peoples today. No people can understand the transforming power of Jesus except through the solidarity with the poor and the wretched among them,” adding: “God is always found where we least expect to find God, like in a manger in Bethlehem, on the cross in Jerusalem, or hanging from a lynching tree in America.”
The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he said, “is my prayer, my invocation to God, on behalf of Black people, in the hope that the nearly four centuries of Black suffering will be redemptive for our children and grandchildren, revealing to them the beauty in their tragic path, and also empowering them to continue to fight, to resist the violence of White supremacy. It is also my hope that Whites, too, will be redeemed from their blindness, and made to open their eyes to the terror of their deeds, so they will know that we are all of one blood, and what we do to others we do to ourselves.” He continued: “Literally and symbolically, biologically, and spiritually, Blacks and Whites and others are brothers and sisters. We need to start acting like that…Let us hope that we, through God’s grace and our struggle, we will be able to overcome our prejudices and hate that separate us, and thereby empower us to become the one people God created us to be.”
The new lynching memorial and museum created by EJI led by the wonderful Bryan Stevenson remind us of progress made and how far our nation must still go to acknowledge, understand, and end the ugly legacy of the lynching tree in America which has morphed into new forms including police killings and massive gun deaths enabled by the insane proliferation of guns in civilian hands no other nation permits. It is indefensible that there have been 16 times more Black children and teens killed by guns than all the recorded lynchings of Black people from 1877-1950. Let’s hope the horrible truth about our history enables us to hear Dr. Cone’s message and repent. Only then can we become the one nation under God we profess to want to be. Dr. Cone said that must happen before we can be historically, culturally, and spiritually free. He never lost hope or stopped struggling and neither must we.