BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Part 2: Niebuhr's blindness)

This is the second post of a three-part series examining James Cone's 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree.'

The complacency and silence of white Christianity during the Jim Crow era is uncomfortable to face. Even more so, the active participation and leadership of ‘good Christians’ in lynch mob violence. We shudder to see the Christian cross burned as a violent symbol of terror. It’s embarrassing to note the geographical overlap of lynching prevalence with the American ‘bible belt.’

It is easy, and certainly tempting, to distance ourselves from our ugly Jim Crow past. Shall we say it wasn't us in that mob? Shall we insist that had we been there, surely we would have spoken up? Surely we would have objected?Surely not I, Lord,” "Even if everyone else abandons you, I will not." But like Peter, and the rest of the disciples, white American Christianity could not stand the test.

James Cone uses Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most prominent American theologians of the 20th century, to demonstrate the moral failings of white Christianity in the face of lynching. Niebuhr was a liberal minded theologian with a strong awareness of the sociopolitical problems of his day. He was accustomed to viewing political issues through a biblical lens, and was sympathetic toward calls for racial justice.

Of any white Christian in that time, Cone argues, Niebuhr should have been in a position to see the connections between the cross and the lynching tree. Surely, he should have vehemently spoken out as a strong ally in Christ for black people facing violence and discrimination. But there is no such stand. In his writings, Niebuhr constantly stops short of urging meaningful change, preferring instead to keep the peace and to maintain a pace of change most comfortable for white Christians of the day.

Stephen G. Ray Jr. notes that Niebuhr is “exemplary of the tendency in 20th-century liberalism to treat the violation of black bodies by lynching as a national tragedy, but not as an ecclesial failure” Instead of observing a broad Christian moral failing, Niebuhr advocates for gradual transition, and even fails to support the integration of his own church.

In contrast, many black artists and theologians drew the parallel. James Baldwin observed that “the bulk of the white…Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands.” (55) Some went even further to say “Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynch law…, but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching.” (112)

Cone uses the work of Niebuhr to illustrate the moral blindness of Christians in the Jim Crow United States. Though there were individuals and small coalitions of white Christians that spoke out, a unified Christian front was shamefully lacking.

Cone asks “what happened to the indifference among white liberal religious leaders that fostered silence in the face of the lynching industry?...What happened to the denial of whites who claimed they did not know?” (164) Has that indifference simply disappeared today? Has it resolved itself into a coalition of Christian allies confronting modern issues of racial injustice? No, the silence remains.

Continue to part three, as we explore what this legacy means for American Christianity today…


  1. Thanks so much for making me look at my own demigods! This is a gift to me.

  2. Thank you once again, Debra, for your kind words and encouragement!

  3. Interesting. i was flipping through the early issues of Neibuhr's Christianity and Crisis magazine the other day and noticed many mentions of the civil rights movement. My research project was focusing on something else, so I didn't spend too much time reading those articles but I had a brief thought of "why wasn't this voice stronger/more effective at the time?" I may have to go take a closer look at those articles with this perspective in my head.

  4. That does sound interesting! If you come across them again, feel free to pass it along.


Creative Commons License
By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at @BTSFblog