Home > Book, Genre, nonfiction, Review > Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Cover of the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Summary:
Dr. Cone is respected as the founder of Black liberation theology. In this book first published in 2011 he explores the connections between the Jesus’s crucifixion and the lynchings committed by white Americans against Black Americans. He also explores in a forthright manner how Christianity is experienced and expressed in Black American churches and directly addresses the seeming contradiction of Black Americans embracing the faith they encountered initially through white enslavers.

Review:
I think it’s important before giving my thoughts on this book to establish for those who may web search their way here who I am. I’m a white, US American woman with the privilege of a Masters degree. While I don’t hazard to guess who Dr. Cone intended to write for, I will say I found both a greater understanding of the Black Christian church in the US and simultaneously called out as a white US American – a couple of times as a white woman specifically. If you are a white US American and not a Christian, this is still a relevant read for you. 79% of Black US Americans consider themselves to be Christian (Pew Research Center) – a greater percent than either US Americans overall or when compared to white US Americans alone. If we are to be good allies, it’s important to understand how this faith intertwines with the atrocious history and (Dr. Cone argues, and I agree with him, continued presence of) lynching in the US.

Dr. Cone gives context for how Black US Americans, especially those who are descendants of enslaved people, came to find and embrace the Christian faith. He also discusses some prominent white and Black theologians, highlighting the differences in how they addressed or, in the case of white theologians, failed to address systemic racism in the US.

I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher.

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I was particularly moved by the section that discussed how these theologians reacted to the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing, which resulted in the deaths of four Black girls – Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11). Dr. Cone’s justified palpable frustration at the general lack of response even in the face of such clear evil was important to hear.

The title of the book alludes to the answer to a couple of questions I’ve heard people ask before – how is the Black Christian experience different from that of white Christians and how did the descendants of enslaved people come to embrace the faith of those who enslaved their ancestors? According to Dr. Cone, Black US Americans saw a fellow sufferer in Jesus and a clear connection between how he was crucified and how Black US Americans are unjustly treated. He also draws attention to how Black churches pay attention to different aspects of the Bible than what you might hear in white churches.

One cannot correctly understand the black religious experience without an affirmation of deep faith informed by profound doubt. Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt. How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. It keeps faith from being sure of itself. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope.

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Dr. Cone directly addresses the frustration of the white people who enforce segregation and lynching and Black people suffering from these things both laying claim to the same faith and how painful that is. My takeaway was that, rather than ask how white supremacists and Black US Americans can lay claim to the same faith, acknowledge that white supremacy is twisting the faith of white US Americans.

Hate and white supremacy lead to violence and alienation, while love and the cross lead to nonviolence and reconciliation.

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White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God.

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Dr. Cone also dedicates space to Black women’s voices, and I was particularly moved by this part as it features Black women directly calling out white women as having the ability to bring change to white supremacy. I have so often heard the opposite, disempowering message that our options of action as white women are limited due to the patriarchy, but that is an overly limited viewpoint. While it is true the patriarchy limits us, we do have the ears of other white folks in a way that Black people often do not, and white women may have more influence over the men in our lives than we may realize. (When I say men in our lives I mean this in the most inclusive way possible – family members, sons, friends, colleagues, etc…) Black women in this book see and call out the power that we white women clearly have with specific examples of how white supremacy responds to perceived affronts on white women. If we have the power to cause harm to Black folks in this way, then we have the power to, at the very least disengage from it by not allowing our experiences to be used as the spark to start off the firestorm, but perhaps we can also use it to quench the violence to begin with. I think it’s important for those reading this not to mistake this as a call for white saviors but rather as a call for white women to cease (knowingly or unknowingly) inciting violence and to work against it. I think of it as the Bible says – take the log out of our own eyes first.

This book also includes some very meaningful explorations of the blues and Gospel music, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s theology. It ends with a call to address continued issues, especially as seen through the prison system. As a white woman who grew up rural poor with a large local issue when I was in high school being whether or not to bring in a prison as a source of jobs to an economically depressed area, I viewed this as yet another reason to address efforts toward our incredibly problematic private prison industrial complex in the US.

Through private prisons and the “war against drugs,” whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America.

(loc 97%)

This clearly was a meaningful read for me, and I can easily see what an important read it is for my fellow white US Americans. It does not give easy answers for what to do, but it demonstrates how white supremacy hurts everyone and leaves one with an urge to be part of the change for good.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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