The latest work by James Cone is a must read. For the few theologians who might remain unfamiliar with his earlier books, which are undisputed classics, this newest offering provides as reliable an introduction as any. For those who are already well-acquainted with his writings, The Cross and the Lynching Tree will not disappoint. Even though, as he says, "this work is a continuation and culmination of all my previous books" (xv), each page is replete with fresh insights regarding a topic which he has thus far left relatively untouched: the precise relationship between the cross and the lynching tree.
Cone summarizes his argument in this way: "The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering . . . Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination" (161). In other words, these historically rooted symbols interpret each other. The remembrance of the now widely forgotten history of lynching in the U.S. injects an indispensable element of realism and concreteness into our reflections on the cross, whereas the paradoxically hope-filled event of Jesus' crucifixion, which is imbued with hope from the perspective of the resurrection, enables us to recall the roughly 5,000 black men, women, and children who were lynched without thereby falling into total despair.
Cone develops his analysis in five original and thought-provoking chapters. In the first, he gives a helpful overview of the historical literature regarding the grisly heyday of American lynching (1880 - 1940) and, building on the work which he began in The Spirituals and the Blues (Orbis, 1972), explores the musical and prayerful forms of resistance that flourished within the black community. The second chapter presents a devastating critique of the highly influential Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. Although Cone treats Niebuhr with fairness and charity, he zeroes in on his lamentable refusal to address the problem of lynching in any serious way. This line of critique continues in the next chapter, which is devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. and adds another layer to the account offered in Martin & Malcolm & America (Orbis, 1991). Unlike Niebuhr's understanding of the cross, King's "was inflected by his awareness of the lynching tree" (70)—and this made all the difference. King responded to the horror of lynching by taking up "the cross of black leadership" (81) and putting his life on the line for his people.
The fourth chapter makes a stunning contribution to the field of theological aesthetics. Cone demonstrates that, whereas white and black theologians and preachers tended to keep quiet about the complex intersections between the cross and the lynching tree, many black artists and literary figures perceived the deep theological resonances and used them to expose the hypocrisy of the racist mainstream of white American Christianity. In the final chapter, Cone takes to heart the words and warnings of his womanist colleagues. He begins by discussing the history of black women's resistance to lynching. Then he affirms Delores Williams' suspicions regarding the cross as a symbol of redemptive suffering but nevertheless sides more with other womanist theologians, such as M. Shawn Copeland, JoAnne Terrell, and Jacquelyn Grant, who see some positive theological value in the cross.
The conclusion is prophetic. In a society which lives with "one million black people behind bars" and a legalized death penalty that is "primarily reserved, though not exclusively, for people of color" (163), one is forced to ask whether we are really done with the phenomenon of lynching. What, Cone demands, has happened to the hate and the indifference? Have they simply disappeared? He thinks not. The hypocrisy today would lie with a Christianity which silently fears, despises, and forgets these incarcerated and condemned masses.
One aspect of the text which could benefit from additional reflection is the treatment of racial mixture. Cone clarifies that "even when sexual relations were consensual, 'race-mixing,' mockingly called 'mongrelization,' was always translated to mean rape, and it was used as the primary justification of lynching" (7). This historical observation is quite provocative. However, insofar as Cone's theology occurs within the space opened up by a black identity (153), it leaves little room to consider what positive significance an openness to racial mixture might have in overcoming the fixation on racial purity that made lynching possible. In other words, in this book, as in his others, Cone's brilliant theological resistance to racism could be enhanced by a more direct engagement with the possibilities and dilemmas presented by an (at least in some contexts) increasingly hybridized and racially messy world.