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Monday, July 1, 2013

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Part 1)

They put Him to death by nailing Him on a tree. 

As we grapple with the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, there may be no more vivid image for American Christians than the lynching tree upon which thousands of black women and men were murdered.

In his book ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree,' theologian James Cone notes that “though both are symbols of death, one represents message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message…What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel.” (xiii)

In our daily lives, “the cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks,” (xiv) but “if the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history.” (23)

White Christians’ participation and silence in the midst of racialized violence, both modern and historic, is a telling indication of our allegiances and priorities. W. Fitzhugh Brundage notes that “perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s [white] collective historical memory” but that “to forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation” (xiv)

Perhaps we are not self-aware enough to see the parallels between our actions and those of the crowds of Jerusalem: “as Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs” (31) with the complicit backing of legal and executive authority. Poet Countee Cullen highlights it: “Lynch him! Lynch him!’ O savage cry,/ Why should you echo, ‘Crucify!’" (99) 

Beyond the punishment of the offender, crucifixion was a public warning to dissidents and troublemakers. Both lynching and crucifixion yielded a “a cruel, agonizing, contemptible death” that served as “public spectacles, shameful events, instruments for punishment reserved for the most despised people in society.” (161) We are reminded that “Jesus’ agonizing final cry of abandonment from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ was similar to the lynch victim Sam Hose’s awful scream as he drew his last breath, ‘Oh my God! Oh, Jesus.” (161)

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) Cone notes “white theologians, then and since, have typically ignored the problem of race, or written and spoken about it without urgency, not regarding it as critical for theology or ethics” (52)

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)

The result was a weakened gospel, and a broken witness of Christ’s love for the world: “Like most blacks of her time [Ida B.] Wells dismissed white Christianity as hypocrisy.” (131) In her view, “our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”

Even those disagreeing with her indictments, can see the deep stain of mistrust and alienation that resulted from white Christianity’s absence from racial allyship. “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 Christian identity.” Thus, “The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians” (161) The message that was sent was that some lives, some souls, were less worthy, less precious, less deserving of God's attention. In the eyes of their black sisters and brothers, white Christianity was fraudulent.

Given this track record, is there any wonder that Sunday mornings remain segregated? Is a response of caution and distrust of white proclamations of unity all that surprising?

Continue to part two, exploring the moral blindness of Jim Crow Christianity …


  1. Lauren Rea PrestonJuly 2, 2013 at 3:34 PM

    I myself have a hard time listening to White brothers and sisters talk about the gospel right now.


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