Were You There?

JAMES CONE’S The Cross and The Lynching Tree argues a devastating point: American Christians grasp the horror and hope of the crucifixion only by looking at the lynching tree. The author anchors the cross within history, insisting that readers remember its inhumane absurdity. Cone alludes to this work when he contends, “to forget this atrocity leaves us with a fraudulent perspective of this society and of the meaning of the Christian gospel for this nation.” The Cross protests disembodied reflections by American theologians on sin and inordinately European treatments of theodicy. This protest is both invitation and indictment—an invitation to grapple with God’s goodness in light of America’s social sin; an indictment upon those who gasp at the Inquisition and the Crusades while glossing over the horrors of lynching. Ida B. Wells, the famous anti-lynching activist, punctuates the latter point: “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”

Cone strengthens his crucifixion-lynching analogy by composing a nuanced allusion. He cites Acts 10:39—“they hung him on a tree”—to establish a visual connection between Jesus’ crucified body and the battered flesh of lynching victims. Although he does not mention it, Deuteronomy 21:23, which is interpolated into Galatians 3:13, merits mentioning: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Next, Cone deepens the biblical allusion by expounding upon the song “Strange Fruit.” Consider the song’s haunting lyrics:

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Abel Meeropol wrote the song, but Billie Holiday popularized it with her flawless and emotionally resonant delivery. Contrary to general misunderstandings, Cone patiently explains that both black male and female bodies constituted the “strange fruit” swinging in the breeze from Southern trees. Cone’s point is as much existential as it is theological: We gain an experiential understanding of the sweetness of Christ’s salvation by first encountering him as the strange—and bitter—fruit of American racism.

Upon finishing the book, many readers may wonder, is lynching an important but finally antiquarian interest? Three indicators suggest otherwise. First, Cone pinpoints the criminal justice system—the death penalty in particular—as a pernicious legacy of the cross and the lynching tree. Cone contends, “The death penalty is primarily reserved, though not exclusively, for people of color ... That is why the term legal lynching is still relevant.” The death penalty differs from lynching in important respects, but its disproportionate use on minorities and in cases where guilt is not beyond reasonable doubt—Georgia’s 2011 execution of Troy Davis comes to mind—is sufficiently alike to warrant the comparison.

Second, culturally, the noose retains its abhorrent allure as a symbol of hate. In early January, a group of white teen boys in Hickory, North Carolina, threatened a 14-year-old black girl with a noose. Such incidents are not merely Southern phenomena: Last December, an employee of the New York City Parks Department found a metal noose around the neck of an African-American baby doll.

Finally, Cone’s reflection on lynching unravels the political fiction of American exceptionalism. From George Washington to Barack Obama, our commanders-in-chief have routinely argued that our nation, since its inception, somehow surpasses others in virtue, dynamism, and other superlatives. Such hagiographies wither away when one considers that America’s sons and daughters murdered 5,000 lynching victims between 1880 and 1940. If we must sing encomiums of America’s beauty, let us also intone the bitter melodies of our brutality—including the cacophonous note of lynching.

Andrew Wilkes (@andrewjwilkes) is the faith and community relations associate for Habitat for Humanity-New York City and an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York.

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