Reading “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”

CrossLynchingTreeTogether the Gulf Coast Synod staff is reading “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone in February and March. Please join us if you like.

Tentative Schedule

  • February 10 – Intro and Chapter 1
  • February 24 – Chapter 2
  • March 2 – Chapter 3
  • March 30 – Chapter 4
  • April 13 – Chapter 5 and Conclusion

Intro & Chapter 1

How did it feel? What were your initial impressions? 

Is it any wonder why African Americans don’t want to be a part of a white church?
We have detached the cross of Christ from the suffering of people today.
For many the cross is an ornament around people’s necks. It has become a form of cheap grace. 

Struck by terminology of “theological complacency”. What are else are we theologically complacent about? How can we change that? 

“How could I find meaning in a world that ignored black people?”
Feels like that could easily apply today. This is what the #BlackLivesMatter movement is all about. 

“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.” 

Embarrassed to be reminded that the lynching era was from 1880 to 1940. It’s important for us to be reminded that it wasn’t that long ago, even though some people would like to think so. The fact that there are actual pictures of lynching demonstrates how recent it really was. 

Many people think of lynching as just a hanging, but in reality it was much more than that – burning, torture, clipping off of body parts, public humiliation, intimidation, fear inducing, etc. Ten to twenty thousand people might show up for a public lynching. It was a spectacle promoted in journals and newspapers. Yet ironically enough those who participated were still “unidentified”.

Wonder how it would feel to read this book as an African American today? 

How can people be moved by the crucifixion of Jesus and not by the crucifixion of your fellow African American brother/sister?
What about your consciousness allows you to miss the connection to the cross?

How can those faced with lynching not identify with the crucified God? 

The negro spirituals had such a powerful purpose. It was a coping mechanism that transported them to another place, a place where they could express feelings that they had to suppress. There was a special freedom in expression through song.

With such a strong connection and difference in how we worship and connect to music, will we ever be a “real” multicultural church? Can we? If so, then what does that mean?How do we build a bridge?

Imagery of equating light and dark into good and evil; the blackness of sin covered by the whiteness of Christ and salvation. It sends a message that we continue to see today, associating black as “bad” and white as “good”.

What message does that send? How could that be perceived by a young black girl, for example? How could that affect her self image? 

We [the church] are not relating to gender, race, and sexual orientation with the same intensity? Why is that? 

Everything is a maintenance of white power, thinking “how do we maintain our dominance of our way of thinking?” The conversation surrounding Beyonce’s performance was a stark reminder of all of this.  

So what’s different today? Why are we hearing more and more about this?
We’ve reached a breaking point, media, technology.
We know about it. We aren’t dependent on a white media to tell us what they want us to know.
Communication power is at the individual level.
Perhaps an influx of immigration has created some of the tipping point, and also the breaking point for people of color.
All of this is giving more power and awareness to minorities, but also causing white power structure to “flail” as it loses power, tense up, rise up, gerrymandering, etc. 

“Whites acted in a superior manner for so long that it was difficult for them to even recognize their cultural and spiritual arrogance, blatant as it was to African Americans.”

Chapter 2

The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was a first century lynching. 

Some argue that Jesus’ crucifixion was state sponsored act. But was the lynching of black bodies not also a state sponsored act? 

Cone did not spare Niebuhr at all. He praised him for his insight but was not afraid to point out the absence of the connections he made to the cross. Niebuhr, although insightful, lived, spoke, and wrote from a place of privilege. It’s easier to walk around in the shoes of a white man. It takes a lot more of empathetic effort to walk in the shoes of a black person. 

The ability to choose to ignore something so important is representative of privilege just by itself. What are we choosing to ignore today? Others don’t have the luxury of compartmentalization. They live with the -isms on a daily basis and don’t have that freedom to not see it. 

Interesting that Niebuhr is aware that racism is a sin, but does not make the connection to the cross. He does nothing to dismantle the system and the racism embedded into that system. In what ways are we like Niebuhr?

We recognize that Luther himself was unable to see some of this in regards to the crisis with the Jewish community. Can we still love Luther and recognize that his silence in situations was noteworthy?

It’s easy to point out other’s flaw s without recognizing our own, so what are our flaws? 

Can we really get beyond the truth? 

The current generation reflects on people’s silence when looking back in history? So what are we silent about today? 

What will the future generations say about us? Would they be wrong? 

How do we think beyond our age? 

What are we taking for granted that 100 years from now a more enlightened society will notice? 

What are the theologians of today missing? 

We do we need to be better informed? 

What about the theologians/societal leaders that do think beyond our age and situation? 

What are people taking risks on and what are they not? 

How are the leaders of today failing? 

We find hope in the progress that we do see today, like in the progress of our own personal evolution. 

Chapter 3

Reading the accounts of what happened to Till made us want to look things up online. The pictures were shocking. There sure is power in these images, not to mention hearing the number of occurrences. The images and the numbers impact you in another way.

The fact that his mom wouldn’t let it be a closed casket shows how powerful and prophetic it all was.

The Till imagery reminded us of recent imagery of young black boys and men killed, serving as reminder of the racism and suppression that still exists today. The numerous names like Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others get lost in the midst of all of midst. Yet there is great power in saying their names. Naming them humanizes them. The power of names is further exemplified in the 9/11 memorial and Holocaust memorial.

The conversations about proximate justice can be particularly convicting.

The African American community told the story of Jesus crucifixion as though they too were there suffering with him; they channeled their suffering of lynchings into their storytelling.

It is amazing to be reminded that every decision that Dr. King made put not only his life on the line, but that of his family as well. They all knew what could happen, and yet they continued to move forward. This speaks volumes to not only Dr. King’s legacy, but also the great commitment that Coretta and his family had made.

Where is the risk taking of today? Who is taking those risks? Are we?

Some spiritual leaders, especially abroad, are arrested constantly as they stand on the side of justice.

What are the theologians of today taking risks on?

Chapter 4

“People with no imagination have no right to write about ultimate things.” 

Niehbur had a lack of imagination for not connecting the dots. 

Were the white theologians blind or did they choose to be silent? Are you ever really blind to the social justice issues? 

What are we doing today? Are we remaining silent in the face of injustice?

“Justice delayed is justice denied.”

These conversations are incredibly important. Yet, we are reminded that some of us have the privilege to walk in and out of these moments of awareness, and therefore in and out of these imperative conversations, while others live with this on a daily basis.

“Unlike preachers and theologians artists, writers were not bound by the inherited static religious history of white supremacy.”

There’s an unwritten orthodoxy of white supremacy in the church. So how do we address it? 

There’s a fear of speaking the truth when considering loss of members, loss of money, fear of tension, etc. 

How do we engage in these conversations? Is the pulpit the right place to begin the conversation? Or is it better to have a two-way conversation, through the development of relationships, workshops, community building, and the like. Perhaps the pulpit is not the place to start, but the truth does need to eventually show up there. If you don’t speak the truth from the pulpit, then the pulpit loses its meaning.

3 thoughts on “Reading “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”

  1. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching.

    — James Cone “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”

  2. This book continues to haunt me. It is amazing how oblivious I, and the white community, are to the tremendous advantages we have over people of color, on just about every front. Employment prospects, educational options, housing opportunities, economic starting point, engagement with law-enforcement, treatment in the general public. We imagine everyone is starting at the same starting line, and playing on a level playing field. We are unaware of the black experience, just as most men seem unaware of what women experience in the same venues. The church is no exception. Even our theology is often conspicuously lacking of the cross in the American context. Step one is becoming aware, then the rest will follow. And it seems to me that awareness only comes from being in relationship, substantial relationship with those in other walks of life.

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