The Cross and the Lynching Tree
One of the most significant ways to gain a better understanding of Christ and the perseverance of African Americans is to study the Negro spirituals and Negro literature. “As long as African American’s could sing and play the blues, they had some hope that one day their humanity would be acknowledged (13),” says Cone. These songs provided an avenue for discovering Christ in a more holistic way while simultaneously providing a justification for an unearned suffering—ultimately edifying the African American community’s faith. For the African American community, they believed that God was present with them in their afflictions just as he was present with Christ during his lynching. This theology of suffering is best exemplified in the following lyrics taking from a Negro spiritual,
Poor little Jesus boy, made him be born in a manger.
World treated him so mean,
Treats me mean too… (22)
Cone also explains that for the African American, the biblical account of Jacob having his name changed is tantamount to understanding their suffering and struggling as a people of God. Once again it is appropriate to examine the lyrics of a Negro spiritual,
I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
And He told me I would go hungry if He changed my name
But I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
So I told Him I would be alright, and the world would hate me
That I would go hungry if He changed my name (25).
Cone claims that, “The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered (22).” It was through this symbol, the cross, that they were able to interpret their own experiences which Cone interprets to be eerily analogues to the passion of Christ. “Suffering always poses the deepest test of faith, radically challenging its authenticity and meaning. No rational explanation can soothe the pain of an aching heart and troubled mind (69),” avers Cone.
Black faith developed as a result of the African American community constantly wrestling with the question of God. It was their attempt to “make sense out of their senseless situations, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible (125).” White theology attempted to discredit Blacks humanity and suffering which resulted in the African American community asserting that God indeed has a preferential option for the disinherited which is evident in the person of Jesus as he associated himself with the oppressed (119). It is for this reason that the cross and the lynching tree have become synonymous with one another within Black literary history. White theology has nothing to offer in this regard and Cone echoes this claim asserting, “White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its religion, and White liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both of them outside of Christian identity… There was no way a community could support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing in word and deed the one who was lynched by Rome (133).”
In conclusion, I must say I resonate with the postmodern who asserts that god is dead. But allow me to nuance this statement to a certain degree by claiming further that it is a particular god that is dead—and possibly was never even alive in the first place—this god is a god who sympathized with a pseudo-Christian theology that supported the lynching of innocent image bearers. This is not the Christ of the Bible as Cone successfully demonstrates throughout his critique. Despite this being the case, certain theologies have replaced the God of the oppressed with a god who favors the oppressor. This has lead Langston Hughes to lament in his poem Goodbye Christ,
They ghosted you up a swell story, too
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now.
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you too many