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The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

2011, Orbis Books


In his introduction to this unique and profoundly important book about a particular aspect of racism in America, the late theologian James H. Cone summarises:


"The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though 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, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is a challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society." (Introduction, xiii)


I talked with Sally Pamplin, my friend Becky's mom, about how she was affected by The Cross and the Lynching Tree.


Sally, thanks for recommending this book. Why did you read it? I was reading it for a book club. A group from my White church in Atlanta met weekly with a group from a Black church. After a year the Black Church backed off. They felt that we were just listening and gathering information, rather than engaging in critical discussions. Then one of my friends said we should watch these videos of lynchings. That’s when I dropped the book club and the book. It was too disturbing.


Our history of lynching is terrifying, but I was struck by the comparison of Christianity and the cross to lynching and racism in the United States and wanted to read every word. Can you say more about how you were disturbed? I’m just so aware of the impressionability of the visual in my brain; it creates a kind of PTSD. There is an urge to feed it, escalate in disgust, as if I could build a high enough level of sorrow and anger that the atrocities would be resolved. It's very egocentric, but I think I can better serve with the knowledge, mixed with the passion of my own brain images from the descriptions in the book I read before dropping it.


I don't find that egocentric. I wish the crowds who used to go watch lynchings for fun had been disturbed. Instead, I picked up the book, White Fragility, which was an eye opener; it points out that Whites just touch the surface on race; they read about the problems and then slip back into their comfort zone, largely due to social forces which function powerfully to hold the racial hierarchy in place. Which is exactly the point … I wanted my comfort zone and did not want to see images of murder.


How can The Cross and the Lynching Tree help with the problem of racism in The United States? Awareness is key. The book brings awareness. A huge facet of this is that it spotlights the practice of Christianity. It's simple to say, "Love thy neighbor,” but when Christians carry out human atrocities based on prejudice or even economics, the words of Jesus are flushed away, and the church turns its head, is in denial, even subtly encourages the evil behaviors as redeeming. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, as I read it, impressed upon me the obliviousness of my White brain to Black suffering. White Fragility reminds me that my awareness is fleeting and that church and society do very little to make that awareness mainstream.


I wonder how many theological seminaries in the United States require students to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree? There is too much fear, refusal, and negation around this conversation. We have to face up to our past to be able to move into an acceptable future. The National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) encourages communities to engage in the discussion. See their materials on White privilege here.


Thanks, Sally. I hope we can discuss this further in the future.


John Jay Chapman Speech after a lynching in Coatesville, PA, 1911


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