Strange Fruit: James Hal Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

On September 1, Orbis Books will release The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York .

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees . . . ,/ Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,/ For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,/ For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop—/ Here is a strange and bitter crop.

 Strange Fruit, words and arrangement by Abel Meerepol, as performed by Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of Strange Fruit conjures America’s horrific legacy of lynching—where white mobs tortured and murdered at least 3500 black men and women for a variety of supposed offenses (from “insulting” whites, interracial sex, to other generally unproven “crimes”).  The ugliness of lynching, which persisted from Reconstruction through the mid-1960’s, is difficult for both white- and African-Americans to face.  Lynching was carnage turned community pastime:  Whole families came for the spectacle; and merriment, food, and whiskey (and American flags) abounded.  The festivities obscured the sinister murder at their center and dulled the ritual’s true function: re-establishing and maintaining the power of whites over blacks in post-slavery America.

For more on Professor Cone’s theology of the cross, the lynching tree, and his conception of their interrelated impact in contemporary American and global society, please follow the jump.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone, the founder of black theology and one of today’s most influential American theologians, argues that the cross and the lynching tree interpret each other.  Their interrelation illuminates the gospels and provides a crucial, critical perspective of contemporary life.  The cross, a Roman device for the excruciating torture and death of thousands of First-Century, Jewish political dissidents—of which Jesus was one—has been rendered innocuous by time and ubiquity; yet a firm understanding of black Americans’ living in the oppressive shadow of the lynching tree, or dying upon it, unearths the cross’s lost evangelic truth:  Each was a symbol of domination; each stood as a fearsome warning to subjugated persons carefully to observe the boundaries of their overlords; and each was an instrument of death for those who transgressed those boundaries.

Cone elaborated this reality in a 2006 speech—the germ of this book [watch here]:

[It] is God’s message of liberation in an unredeemed[,] tortured world.  On the one hand, [it] is a transcendent reality that lifts our spirits to a world far removed from the hurts and pains of this one . . . .  On the other, it is an immanent reality, . . . a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now, . . . empowering them to fight for freedom here on earth.

Yet the lynching tree “liberate[s] the cross from the false pieties of the well meaning Christian”—in a sense, the picnicking reveler detached from the blood sacrifice at the festival’s core (my respects to Thomas Mann [see this article by Terry Eagleton])—, and unveils its harsh, forgotten reality.  Likewise, the cross “redeem[s] the lynching tree [by giving] lynched black bodies an eschatological meaning [to their] existence” and redemptive death.  Without this awareness, neither whites nor blacks can unlock the gospel’s mystery and, on a social level, can never heal the hateful, deadly racial divide that has persisted in America for four-hundred years.  With this awareness, we understand that the cross and its many iterations demand society address the oppression and inequality that pervades the human community and repair the imbalance between racial and social groups.  (To underscore the connection between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone quotes Acts, where Peter says to the Ceasareans, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and . . . power[.] . . . [H]e went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil . . . .  We are witnesses to all that he did . . . .  [But t]hey put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts, 10:38–39) (emphasis added).)

Ultimately, absent this awareness, we are blind to the ways in which Christ’s suffering, in the form of the tortured human body, plays out every day before our eyes.  We stand by and revel around the carnage, even as we speak piously.

Cone proceeds further in connecting the cross and the lynching tree, using their interrelation to critique contemporary social ills.  While lynching as I have described it has waned, Cone argues that lynching persists today in other forms.  As Cone also stated in his 2006 lecture:

[W]henever society treats a people as if they have no rights or dignity or worth, as the government did to blacks during [Katrina], they are being lynched covertly.  Whenever people are denied jobs, health care, housing, and the basic necessities of life, they are being lynched.  There are a lot of ways to lynch a people.  Whenever a people cry out to be recognized as human beings and the society ignores them, they are being lynched.  As such, these inequities recreate the murder of Christ again and again.

In Cone’s view, the atrocities committed in Guantánamo; at Abu Ghraib; and the unspeakable violence unleashed in Iraq since we began our war of choice there (at least 106,323 civilians dead today, according to Iraq Body Count, and possibly as many as 655,000, according to another study  [ca. 2006] utilizing otherwise respected methods), do the very same.  And in African-Americans’ persistent marginalization through cycles of poverty, educational neglect, and extraordinarily high rates of incarceration, Cone sees, again, the shadow of the lynching tree and, in turn, the cross.

Thus, it is within the framework of the cross and the lynching tree that we recognize the interrelation between these contemporary cultural ills and the mystery-narrative of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

Cone’s new work promises to be a powerful one.  He has been developing the theme of the cross and the lynching tree for several years now; and a giant like him, with such unique voice and perspective, yet adept knowledge of canonical figures like Tillich, Barth, and Niebuhr, cannot fail to produce theologically and morally compelling works of outstanding scholastic mastery.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

Further links:  The Murder of Emmet Till, The Tuskegee Institute Lynching Calender.

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