Every issue of the Review and Expositor Journal begins with a “Word from . . .” and a “Word about . . .” This blog will appear in the winter 2012 edition of the Review and Expositor as a “Word about . . .”
Race has been a topic of great concern in our nation since the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement (1948 to present). I am delighted that the Review and Expositor has given two full issues to the topic and even more delighted to provide a “Word About . . .” for this issue. In this brief “Word about . . .” I would like to highlight a new publication, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by Dr. James H. Cone (2011). In this recent publication Cone addresses the historic reality of mob violence and torture that led to the lynching of Blacks post Civil War and after the end of slavery in our nation. In the book Cone notes:
The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Although 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. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree relatively few people . . . have explored the symbolic connections. (xiii)
In chapter one Cone provides numerous accounts and details about lynchings that took place in the US post emancipation and during the time of Jim Crow. From a sociological prospective, one can say that lynching was an extra legal punishment sanctioned by the community. Many scholars date its origin in Virginia during the Revolutionary War when Charles Lynch or William Lynch (both were called the original Judge Lynch), with the support of the community punished Tory sympathizers. (3) During this era it was considered necessary to protect the community from bad people that were out of reach of the law. In later years it was applied to the freed Black slaves, for whom resistance to lynching was out of the question as it would lead to even more of the same.
In chapter two, Cone goes on to discuss the significant theological contribution of Reinhold Niebuhr, not only to the terrible beauty of the cross (i.e., salvation in the cross, victory in defeat, life in death), but also to Christian social ethics. Cone touts Niebuhr as “probably the most influential single mind in the development of American attitudes which combined moral purpose with a sense of political reality.” (32) Throughout the first half of this chapter Cone gives Niebuhr numerous accolades for his work to create theologies that confronted the injustices and inequities lived out in the United States during his lifetime, and rightly so—for Niebuhr did indeed significantly change the landscape of American theology. His work was seminal for many of the ideological emphases that we see today. Towards the end of the chapter and throughout the remainder of the book Cone provides honest critique of Niebuhr’s work; affirming the positive as mentioned above and challenging his silence and lack of action around the cry for legislation that would outlaw lynching.
According to Cone, Niebuhr was “at most a moderate on racial justice. Rather than challenge racial prejudice he believed it must ‘slowly erode.’” (48) In chapter three, entitled “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Struggle to Redeem the Soul of America,” Cone emphasizes King’s famous discussion on “Why We Can’t Wait.” Niebuhr encouraged patience; King responded “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” (39) For the transition from slavery resulted in the development of Jim Crow, yet another means for controlling Blacks in America; and along with Jim Crow came the rise of lynching Blacks in America.
King is famous, of course, for his Gandhian inspired non-violent resistance theology that undergirded the Civil Rights Movement. For King Non-violence was more than a strategy; in his thinking it was the only way to heal a broken humanity. In response to the fall out that came from King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967) King states: “. . . when I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. . . . It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.” (84) It is clear King had seen the power of the cross that was made even clearer by Oscar Romero’s famous statement pronounced shortly before he was martyred “. . . if they kill me I shall be resurrected in the hearts of the Salvadoran people.” In these two brief examples, I hope the reader can catch a glimpse of the profound significance of Jesus’ death on the cross that goes well beyond ideas found in classical traditional atonement theology.
As a “professional” student of theology for more than 27 years now, I want to state clearly that it was not until I took a study trip to El Salvador, heard the stories, talked to the people, and read the theological reflections of their contemporary theologians that I truly understood the significance of the cross and, consequently, of its comparison to the lynching tree. All of our big fancy theological words such as atonement, substantiation, propitiation, expiation, and so on, do not and cannot bring to life the truths found in the martyrdom of these great theologians (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero) who understood theology as something practical and active; who lived their theology and called out for others to do the same. The martyrdom of these two men changed the world and the theological enterprise forever.
In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, of which I have shared but a small portion in this brief “Word about, . . .” James Cone has exposed the gap between White progressive theology and the Black theology of Liberation. He has dared to be open and honest about the theological developments in Black culture and in so doing called the progressive White theologians to task for not adequately and actively addressing issues of race in their ethics. To Dr. Cone I say “Thank you for your honest reflections and your challenge to White America;” to White America I say “Please read this book and embrace its truth.”
“A Word about . . .”
By LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West at
The Graduate Theological Union