James Cone, the cross, and the lynching memorial

Dr. James Cone at the 174th Convocation of Union Theological Seminary in New York in 2009. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

This photo shows a bronze statue called “Raise Up” that is part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, on April 23, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala. The national memorial, which aims to teach about America’s past in hope of promoting understanding and healing, opened April 26. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(RNS) — On April 26 America received its first-ever memorial dedicated to the more than 4,000 victims of lynching in this country. Two days later, James Cone, the acclaimed author of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” died.

The opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., and the passing of a theological legend coincide in ways that provoke thoughts about the spiritual implications of American racism. How do the cross and the lynching tree represent both injustice and redemption? How do we confront the dark truths of our past to create a future that is brighter for all people?

At the lynching memorial, rusted iron columns hang suspended from the ceiling. Each column, numbering about 800 in total, represents a county where a lynching occurred. Many feature multiple names as the number of human beings killed for their color stacks up to create the crushing weight of an undeniable, yet underrepresented, history.

Visitors to the lynching memorial learn that racial terrorists designed lynching as a public spectacle to intimidate black people.

“Racial terror was characterized by extreme violence: victims were tortured for hours before their brutalized bodies were left out on display to traumatize other black people,” one placard reads. It goes on to explain that members of the mob often posed for photographs next to the mutilated corpses of their victims. These horrific displays served as “the primary tool to enforce racial hierarchy” in America.

The memorial reminds visitors that lynching victims are real people, not simply anonymous figures from history. They have heart-wrenching stories such as Luther Holbert who was forced to watch as a white mob burned his wife, Mary, alive before they killed him. Others lynched Elizabeth Lawrence for telling white children not to throw rocks at black children. Lynchers killed Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, for protesting the lynching of her own husband, Hazel Turner. The voyeuristic and violent deaths of these individuals plus thousands more represent the heinous apotheosis of American racism.

The systematic terrorization of black people created indescribable grief in the past and has contributed to the generational trauma of racism today. Against this backdrop of unremitting suffering, black people looked to religion for answers.

Often, however, they found not comfort but affliction. Christianity as practiced by white racists and segregationists merely compromised with the status quo. But James Cone refused to assign any authenticity to a religion that claimed to be Christian but did not address the liberation of black people from white supremacy. Cone wrote “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” as a theological response to the extrajudicial murders of black people due to racism.

A father of black liberation theology, Cone helped pioneer a field that dealt with the racism at the core of much of American Christianity. His journey into black theology began with the social upheavals of the mid-1960s. Malcolm X, in particular, had a pivotal effect on him. The more he listened to the most well-known prophet of the Nation of Islam, the more disturbed he became by the Eurocentric form of Christianity he and other black people practiced.

“The Cross and The Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone. Image courtesy of Orbis Books

“For me, the burning theological question was, how can I reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr’s idea of nonviolence and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ philosophy?” he asked in the book “Black Theology & Black Power,” published in 1969. Cone’s book became his initial public attempt to answer those questions.

Decades later in 2011, Cone wrote “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” and it quickly became one of his seminal works. In the book, he traces the parallels between Christ’s crucifixion and the persecution of black people in America. For Cone, the lynching tree is a visual and historic representation of white racist tyranny. Juxtaposed with the cross of Jesus Christ, lynching becomes a kind of crucifixion for black people.

Just as the religious and political leaders of his day lifted Jesus up on a cross to remove his threat to an oppressive hegemony, white supremacists lifted up black people in brutal lynchings designed to preserve the racial hierarchy.

“Both Jesus and blacks were ‘strange fruit’,” Cone explains. “Theologically speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil.”

He shows that black people could understand Christ’s suffering by recalling their own sorrow related to the lynching tree. At the same time, the cross provided comfort because black people could know for certain that in his life and death, Christ identified with the oppressed.

“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,” Cone writes.

Yet Jesus did not remain on the cross. The resurrection represents hope out of despair and life out of death. “It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor,” Cone writes. It is to the cross — as the triumph of liberty over lynching — that black people must cling in order to make sense of their plight in America.

Both the cross and the lynching memorial invite people into solidarity with the oppressed. Both stand as signs of lethal injustice while also illustrating the possibility of change and growth. They send a message that hope is not meant for some far-off tomorrow; Christians have a responsibility to act today.

Cone believed in the power of the cross because “I have seen with my own eyes how that symbol empowered black people to stand up and become agents of change for their freedom.”

James Cone has laid down his cross to take up his eternal rest. The lynching memorial in Montgomery challenges a new generation to take up the cross of justice today and continue with the struggle for black liberation.

(Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. He is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Mississippi. His book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism is forthcoming from Zondervan. Follow him on Twitter: @JemarTisby. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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  • The stark, grim, evil photographs of past lynchings are, (like it or not), part of America’s **religious** history. American Christians chose to look the other way, just like German Christians in the 3rd Reich.

    So this last book of Dr. Cone, will get a lot of buzz. But there ARE very real problems with Cone’s theology, and very real problems with his book. So please bookmark the following.

    1. Ron Rhodes: (scroll down to the excellent gig on Cone’s beliefs.) http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/BlackTheology.html

    2. Snippet from the “Independent Conservative” website (which I prefer Ron Rhodes instead of “IC”. But these two Bible items from “IC”, are extremely correct and necessary.)

    (Cone) calls Jesus a “victim of lynching”.
    Jesus Christ is reduced from our Lord who laid down His life for His sheep, John 10:14-15. Lowered from NO ONE TAKING HIS LIFE, but He laying it down, John 10:17-18, to a mere “victim”.

    (Cone) claims the Cross all about Jesus taking on the suffering of the victim (like Black people).
    Jesus was taking on the sins of the world. Sins of people in need of a savior, that are called to Him by His Father. It was not simply an act of accepting anyone’s suffering and treating anyone that is killed for whatever reason as if they are a sort of Christ. Jesus died because we are depraved and needed His blood to cover the sins of those who believe on Him, not merely because we kill each other, 1 John 1. If a person dies by lynching who does not have Christ, they go to the SAME HELL that the person lynching them goes do if they don’t repent.

  • James Cone explains to Chris Hedges what motivated him to write his magisterial work The Cross and the Lynching Tree: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/james-cones-gospel-of-the-penniless-jobless-marginalized-and-despised/

    And then the other question was, how could white Christians, who say they believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them, how could they then turn around and put blacks on crosses and crucify them just like the Romans crucified Jesus? That was an amazing paradox to me. Here African-Americans used faith to survive and resist, and fight, while whites used faith in order to terrorize black people. Two communities. Both Christian. Living in the same faith. Whites did lynchings on church grounds. How could they do it? That’s where [my] passion came from. That’s where the paradox came from. That’s where the wrestling came from.

  • By the way, there’s a third major problem in there. In Cone’s world, ALL the oppressors, all the killers, all the lynchers are white. But in the real world, we blacks do our share of oppressing and lynching.

    Blacks are getting lynched in Chicago every week. Men, women, even children. Sure, we don’t use ropes and trees. But we DO use guns, and many of those Chi-town shootings have been openly intended to send a terror message to the rest of the community, just like whites did in the KKK days.

    Cone never did get around to discussing the black-on-black stuff. Didn’t quite fit his “liberation theology” gig, Iit seems.

    Update: Today Snoop Dogg’s cousin went on YouTube and called on all the black Crips gang –all of them — to attack and injure Kanye West whenever they see him, or at his next concert gig. A “Crip Alert”, it’s called. This stuff is no joke.

    Kanye’s crime? Publicly expressing support for President Trump. That’s all. Just that. Cone talked about oppressors and lynching, but he always made sure to give us blacks a Free Pass whenever we did OUR version of that stuff.

  • “Blacks are getting lynched in Chicago every week. Men, women, even
    children. Sure, we don’t use ropes and trees. But we DO use guns, and
    many of those Chi-town shootings have been openly intended to send a
    terror message to the rest of the community, just like whites did in the
    KKK days.”

    That is what happens when you support the NRA. They intentionally frustrate law enforcement efforts to stem the flow of illegal weapons flooding city streets. By pretending national level gun ownership stats are a prelude to confiscation, straw buying becomes a frequent and ongoing concern.




    “Cone never did get around to discussing the black-on-black oppression. Didn’t quite fit his “liberation theology” gig.”

    The predominately conservative and white politicians are the ones enabling the illegal gun trade making it easy for black kids to kill each other on the streets. Add to that lack of resources devoted to their communities, education and in many cases even infrastructure. Would the Flint water crisis have happened if it were a middle class mostly white suburb? Not by a long shot.

  • In this day and age, where people are willing to commit murder to preserve past symbols of racial oppression, the Lynching Memorial is timely and necessary.

  • The problem is that Chicago is the Gun-Control capital of the Solar System. But it ain’t working.

    Blaming the NRA isn’t stopping us black oppressors and lynchers from gunning down innocent blacks like a KKK midnight-ride beer party.

    NRA isn’t killing black babies. KKK ain’t raping black women. WE doing it.

  • Of course not. Because we have a thriving illegal gun trade outside of the city. All thanks to lobbying to prevent sane and effective law enforcement against it. As I said. If the problem is from out of the state and for the most part nationwide, there is only so much local laws can do there.

    “Blaming the NRA, isn’t stopping us black oppressors and lynchers from
    gunning down innocent blacks just like a KKK midnight-ride beer party.”

    Because those people are smuggling guns in from Mexico and Canada? No. They are being bought in states and localities where gun regulation is notoriously lax and taking advantage of the lack of nationwide ownership data. All thanks to the NRA’s lobbying efforts. The NRA also benefits from urban violence in order to spur panic buying for suburban whites for “self protection”. It is a win win for them and lose lose for black communities.

  • Why not just release all black people from incarceration and then build a memorial to the relics of the past. No more jails!!!

  • “Because we have a thriving illegal gun trade outside of the city.”

    Your source:


    funded by Michael Bloomberg, multi-billionaire anti-gun czar.



    Reality internationally:


    Chicago’s problem is an inept corrupt government, an inept corrupt police force, and long history of being soft on gun crimes.

  • “[I am] intimately identif[ied] with the struggle of being black in America … [with] persistent racial tensions in my relations to the whites and lingering ambivalence in my feelings toward the blacks … [And so] I concede, generally speaking, that a certain parallelism rings true between the lynchings of blacks and Jesus’ crucifixion, yet I am unwilling to go as far with it as [James H. Cone] does. In my estimation, it is not helpful to lift up blacks [my people] as the most oppressed of all of America’s oppressed people.”

    Source: James Ellis III, “A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology”, Day 1: A Ministry of the The Alliance for Christian Media, July 9, 2011.