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Author focuses on the Christianization of lynching and white people’s response to black suffering.
My great-grandfather was lynched. It was not a big affair in the town square; it happened on a dusty southern road. But its imprint and the communal denial in the small southern town that is our homeland have had lasting reverberations for generations of my family.
I begin with this disclosure because to adequately appreciate James Cone’s reason for writing this work, it is necessary to recognize that few African Americans are more than a few degrees removed from a similar narrative and the experience that it creates. It is the ubiquity of this experience that makes it a theological category. The theological methodology used by black theology is one which gives primacy to experience: experience of not only the divine but also of the vicissitudes of human pain and suffering caused by the workings of evil.
Whereas in other works Cone broadly takes on the corruption of Christian practice and proclamation and Christians’ complicity with racism, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree he focuses on a type of complicity that involves the church not just in corruption but in evil. The complicity on which he focuses is the Christianization of lynching: the common practice of murdering (killing seems too sanitized a term) African Americans as a means of social and political control after the demise of Reconstruction. Frequently these deaths were torturous and were made public spectacle.
More often than not, the public renderings of black bodies were carried out by “good Christian folk”—people who had become convinced that their dedication to the regime of white supremacy that demanded these executions was part and parcel of their Christian identity. It is no coincidence that most of the lynchings from the late 19th to mid-20th century occurred in the Bible Belt. Churchgoing lynchers were often murdering other churchgoing Christians who were of the same communion: Baptists killed Baptists and so on.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a theological meditation on a dimension of the lethal oppression experienced by African Americans that has been formative for both the faith and civic posture of the black community for a very long time. Cone foregrounds lynching and its ubiquitous threat as the concrete denial of African Americans’ claims to a recognition of their full humanity and of their citizenship in the body politic and in the household of God. The book is also a reflection on contemporaneous and historical erasure as a means of cultivating what my colleague Mary McClintock Fulkerson terms the “obliviousness of whiteness” to black suffering.