Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

James Cones_The Cross & The Lynching Tree“I wrote because words were my weapons to resist, to affirm black humanity, and to defend it.”

“Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”

I teach a black nationalism (BN) course that looks at the earliest manifestations of the ideology in this country and how it still presents itself today. Black nationalism, loosely, subscribes to the idea of creating a separate black state/body politic. When that is impossible, the ideology seeks to create all-black institutions or programs. So, when black people thought that slavery would have no end, many believed that the answer lies in emigrating to Africa and the Caribbean, places where there were large populations of blacks.

Many of you who are familiar with black nationalism, are familiar with the particular versions that emerged out of the 60s: the Black Power Movement and the Nation of Islam. When analyzing the writers of the 60s, my students always made comments on the significant influence of the Nation of Islam on black nationalist ideology. Many asked if Christianity spoke to black nationalism in any way. The question drove me right into the pages of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). Reading this book made me sorry that I had not read his other work sooner.

In his Introduction, James Cone addresses the premise on which he compares the lynching of hundreds of African Americans in this country to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He argues that, because the “cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding 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” (Kindle location 198). Because of the ways in which white supremacy has historically and continually used Christianity as a tool of oppressing African Americans, specifically where lynching is concerned, Cone argues that theologians cannot thoroughly engage the the meaning of Christian identity in America by negating the role of white supremacy.

I really enjoyed Cone’s book and appreciated it from both an academic and spiritual perspective.


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