The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Review by Brian Tanguay

I began reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by the late theologian James H. Cone the week before a white gunman murdered ten black people at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York. I thought of the suffering of that community, the circles of friends and relatives grieving and traumatized by the violence, many who might never experience life the same way again. Where would they turn at this moment for comfort, and who could possibly help them come to grips with this tragedy? A passage I highlighted from the book seemed painfully relevant: “No rational explanation can soothe the pain of an aching heart and troubled mind.”

James H. Cone had a long and distinguished academic career at Union Theological Seminary, and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles. He was a son of the South, born in Arkansas in 1938. Arkansas was a lynching state, and when Cone was a child white supremacy was pervasive and inescapable. As an everyday reality this meant, as Cone remembered, that “White people were virtually free to do anything to blacks with impunity.” As did many southern blacks, Cone experienced firsthand the dichotomy between the Christianity preached by whites, with its dehumanizing and segregated gospel, and the gospel of suffering and salvation preached in the black church, which instilled congregants with passion and energy and hope. Even as a child Cone wrestled with questions of faith. If God loved black people, why didn’t he stop their suffering? But the question that drove Cone to write the The Cross and the Lynching Tree was this: How did black people survive four centuries of white supremacy, and in particular the horror of lynching? 

Lynching was a most cruel and arbitrary punishment, vigilante violence often perpetrated as a public spectacle attracting hundreds of onlookers. Every lynching served a dual purpose: to remind black people of their inferiority and to terrorize them into subservience and silence. From Reconstruction until well into the Jim Crow era as many as five thousand black people — men, women, even children — were lynched. Lynching was part of a social structure erected over centuries that traded in black bodies, denied their basic humanity, and condemned them to lives of servility and brute labor. And yet, remarkably, black people transcended their circumstances to pioneer art forms like the blues and jazz, and make significant contributions to American literature and dance. Only a resilient, deeply moral people could create cultural forms admired and imitated by whites while at the same time being despised and oppressed by whites. 

After much reading, reflection, thought and prayer, Cone focused on the symbol of the cross and an interpretation of its meaning. “The lynching tree is a metaphor,” Cone wrote, “for white America’s crucifixion of black people.” Cone recognized that a powerful religious imagination was required to see redemption in the cross, life in death, and hope in tragedy. But wasn’t Jesus mocked, flogged, rejected and crucified by the powerful of his time? Cone believed black people empathized deeply with Jesus’ suffering at the hands of the powerful. “The cross is a reminder,” Cone wrote, “that the world is fraught with many contradictions — many lynching trees.” The faith that sustained black Christians was the faith of an abused people. 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree was published in 2011 — before Ferguson, Missouri and the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Reprinted fifteen times since, the book remains relevant in this period of hostility to history, fear of inquiry, book banning, and resurgent white supremacy. “What happened to the hate,” Cone asks in the final chapter, “that created the violence that lynched black people? Did it disappear?” What happened at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo is the starkest reminder that the hate lives on. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Bryan Stevenson and many others, Cone believed that the only path to racial healing in America was remembering and retelling the history of racial injustice.