“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.”
That’s how Union Seminary professor James H. Cone begins his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a volume that overwhelmed me like few I have ever read. I must confess to and repent of reading it only recently, as part of a research project in which I’ve been engaged. The experience convicted me of the sin of omission, one of “the things we have left undone,” as the Book of Common Prayer calls it.
I’ve been studying American religion a long time, often on topics related to race and racism, slavery and Jim Crow, the South and southern faith-communities, black and white. But I’ve failed to give more than peripheral attention to the slaughter of black men—and, yes, black women—during the “lynching era,” 1880-1940.
And because I have given so little attention to lynching and the acquiescence or indifference of white churches to the practice, I’ve failed to communicate to my students the brokenness of the Christian gospel represented by those horrendous actions.
That inattention to the lynching tree warrants Cone’s poignant critique of individuals like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr and other “white theologians” who “have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.” He particularly is critical of Niebuhr, his erstwhile theological mentor, who could address the cross “with profound theological imagination,” and yet “say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy invalidated the faith of white churches.”
It was a killing field.
Cone cites white supremacist and Methodist bishop, Atticus G. Haygood, who declared in 1893: “Now-a-days, it seems the killing of Negroes is not so extraordinary an occurrence as to need explanation.” Accounts of those brutal murders make for heart-rending but necessary reading. Cone contrasts them with the courage of African Americans, sustained not only in the black church, but also in literature, poetry and music, particularly jazz.
“Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s trademark song—written by a Jewish composer—contained this plaintive refrain:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern Breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Beneath such violence, white supremacy lies at the root of the lynching tree, a “struggle to define America as a white nation and blacks as a subordinate race unfit for governing and therefore incapable of political and social equality.” Southern Christians lent their support, summoning “biblical” defenses of slavery and segregation that fabricated the “mark of Cain,” the “curse of Ham” and various Pauline admonitions, such as “slaves be subject to your masters,” a bastardized—the term fits—hermeneutic that some still retain.
The blight of white supremacy then and now demands our response. African-American pastor Dwight McKissic’s recent efforts to compel the Southern Baptist Convention to repudiate alt-right white supremacy finally produced near unanimous approval of a resolution denouncing such ideology. But America’s largest Protestant group missed the opportunity, even when asked, to publicly reject the “curse of Ham” as a long and often implicitly “normative” dogma in an errant biblical text. (See Alan Bean’s recent Baptist News Global column for details.) Nonetheless, as white Christians in the American South, we’ve all got a lot of history to make up for, whatever our denomination.
And then there is Jesus and the “ignominy of the cross,” as Thomas a Kempis says of it. Cone writes profoundly, and without hesitation, that for Americans to comprehend the meaning of the cross, “we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history—that ‘strange and bitter crop’ that Billie Holiday would not let us forget.”
He insists the gospel’s “real scandal” means that “humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” The lynching tree keeps Christ’s cross from becoming “a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety.” But the lynching tree needs the cross, “without which it becomes simply an abomination,” with no sign of hope.
So, let’s stop pontificating about theories of biblical inspiration, at least until we own up to ways in which we’ve used corpse-cold-literalism and make-believe-theology to perpetuate the “mark of Cain,” “the curse on Ham,” “biblical” defenses of chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, “lynching eras” and KKK-alt-right-white-supremacy.
Amid our perpetual debates over Christ’s atoning work on the cross, let’s reclaim our own atoning work to be accomplished at the foot of the cross and the trunk of the lynching tree. Binding up a gospel still broken by the racism that so easily besets us.
Bill Leonard is the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and professor of church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.