James H. Cone
Photo: Tom Zubac
For more than 40 years, James H. Cone has been the world's leading African-American theologian. In 1969, he launched his career with the groundbreaking book Black Theology and Black Power, framing the distinctive theology of the black church and linking it to other Christian liberation theologies. His 13th book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is his most personal. In it, he takes us to the root of a peculiarly American form of terror, lynching, and its implications for how Americans understand themselves and the world. Writer Susan Reed talks with James H. Cone, Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Q: You've written extensively about theology and the black church. What drew you to the subject of lynching?
A: Lynching was the most horrible, the most despicable, the most shameful, the most painful thing that the African-American community experienced in its history. It was what most people in the community in which I grew up, Bearden, Arkansas, did not want to talk about. The pain of remembering, the vision of black bodies dangling from southern trees surrounded by jeering white mobs is almost too excruciating to recall.

Q: Can you explain why people don't want to talk about it?
A: Lynching exposed black people's most painful vulnerability, at the deepest level. You're a man and you can't protect your wife; you're a mother and you can't protect your children. On some level, they knew that anybody in the white community could arbitrarily make them an object of that horrible, terrible death.

Q: How did it feel, researching and writing about lynching?
A: This is the most painful book I've ever written, and at the same time, it's the most liberating. It's particularly personal. It takes me back to my first memories of hearing the gospel, as well as back to my primal memories of terror and violence that were part of the reality of growing up in the Jim Crow South.

Q: Was lynching a peculiarly southern practice?
A: No, it wasn't. Lynching began during the Revolutionary War in America. Its name comes from Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter who headed an irregular court that rounded up suspected Loyalists, supporters of the British, and conducted summary trials and sentences, including whipping and property seizure. Later, lynching started being used out on the western frontiers, where laws hadn't yet been extended. Communities used it as an extra-legal way to punish offences like wife beating and cattle rustling. These were things that threatened the core values of the community. Lynching could mean hanging, but it could also mean beating, dragging or banishment.

Q: When did lynching start in the South?
A: In 1887, after the Civil War, federal soldiers were withdrawn from the South. During Reconstruction, you had about 4 million free black people in the South. They were supposed to get the right to vote and the right to hire labor. But whites were not about to permit that. Lynching arose in order to control the black population, to exclude them from the political process, to keep them from voting and to force them to go back to work, on white people's terms. It was control through terror, and you strike terror not by killing a high number but by terrifying the population.

Q: What forms did lynching take?
A: In its heyday, the 1870s through the 1950s, up to 20,000 people would gather, coming from far and wide, to watch a lynching. In the 1890s, "lynching fever" gripped the South. Newspapers like The Atlanta Constitution would announce the place, date and time of expected hangings and burnings of black victims. They were called barbecues. It was a ritual celebration of white supremacy. Women and children were given the first opportunity to participate in the torture, to cut off a finger or a hand. Most black victims were burned. And they would burn them slowly, for a long time, then hang them from a tree. Southerners developed the art of torture, and they would get a certain kind of pleasure out of watching it. Sometimes, people were even lynched on church grounds. Lynchings were photographed, and postcards were made from the photograph, to be sent to friends.
Q: What were lynching victims accused of?
A: It could be anything. See, the object of lynching was not to get the victim. It didn't matter whether the victim was guilty or innocent. What they needed to do was to show black people their place, which was subservient to white supremacy. One reason they used to conduct this extra-legal act was to say that the black male population was a danger to the purity of the white race. So the raping of white women by black men was a claim that was often made. They said they needed lynching in order to control the black population and protect their women. But in actual fact, very few black men were ever accused of raping white women.

Q: Did you ever feel the terror of lynching as a child?
A: Arkansas, where I grew up, was a lynching state. Bearden was a small black community, and it was a pretty safe community because it was isolated; seldom did any white person come into it. Lynching was a part of our reality. My mother talked about it; my parents talked about it. My father was once threatened with lynching.

Q: For what?
A: He filed a lawsuit, along with two other black men, to integrate the public schools or to make them equal. When the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision came down, the community in Bearden was really shocked, because they knew at that moment that they were exposed to the possibility of integration in the schools. Whites in the area pressured my father and the other two men to take their names off the suit. The other two did, but my father refused. And that's why he was threatened with lynching. My father had only a sixth-grade education, but he was a smart man. It took a lot of courage for him to stand up and refuse to take his name off that lawsuit. It was a frightening thing.

Q: Did you feel safe or unsafe as a child?
A: See, we were safe when we were in our black community. I didn't grow up with a lot of fear of something happening to me. White people didn't come into the community, but my dad had to go outside the community to work. He was self-employed because he refused to work in the white-owned sawmill in town. He told me, "You can't work for white people and be a human being." He was a woodcutter. He was his own boss, and he hustled. He had to travel a lot in his pickup truck. Every night, he'd come home about 7 o'clock. Any time he wasn't home, we started worrying, because he was outside the community.

White people, for whatever arbitrary reason, could make a joke of you. They could harm you. You could not grow up in the South and not know that. It created a profound anxiety in any black family when one of its members was outside the community, exposed to the possibility of terror from white people. So when my father didn't come home at a certain time, we would be watching out the window, hoping that the next car lights would be his.

Q: You make a connection between lynching and crucifixion in Roman times.
A: Well, the Romans reserved the particularly horrifying act of crucifixion for the poor and for insurrectionists who opposed the Roman government. It was a horrible and shameful death, comparable to the way lynching functioned in America. It struck terror in the population.

Q: What was the theological question that interested you about lynching?
A: I wanted to ask the question, How did black people survive slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the lynching terrors? That was my key question: How did they survive intellectually, emotionally, and still raise their children like my mother and father did? I grew up a happy little boy. So my question was, How could my father, my parents and all the other black parents, live in such terror and at the same time communicate such deep and profound love to their children?

Q: What did you discover?
A: I discovered that it was their faith that enabled them to survive. Christianity became the religion that black people turned to in order to survive and resist lynching. It was their faith that gave them, the courage, the possibility of survival and resistance and redemption.

But there's also a paradox: How could white people take that same Christian faith and use it to justify white supremacy and the lynching of black people? How could they take the story of Jesus, the same one black people used to survive, and use it to inflict terror on black people? Until Americans can identify Christ with a "recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

Q: What's the answer?
A: There's this terrible hurt that separates blacks and whites. The cross and the lynching tree need each other. The lynching tree has to understand what the cross really means: Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin. Taking our place, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave "his life a ransom for many." We are now justified by God's grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

And the cross needs the lynching tree. Christianity has been transformed into a harmless, nonoffensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the cost of discipleship, it has become a form of cheap grace, an easy way to salvation that doesn't force us to confront the power of Christ's message and mission. Even in this country, it cannot become detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings. Ultimately, the cross has the power to heal the hurt that the lynching tree has caused.

Q: You make a connection between the lynching tree and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. How?
A: Yes, that was part of the reason that I wanted to write this book. The terror of 9/11 affected all of us, whites, blacks, everyone. But it seems that many whites, in a very real sense, experienced for perhaps the first time what it means to be exposed to arbitrary violence, about which you can do nothing. That's terror. It didn't have to do so much with the number of people who were killed on 9/11; of course, it's important to know that nearly 3,000 people lost their lives. But the experience of arbitrary violence is shattering.

Q: What was the point you wanted to make?
A: What I wanted to say is "Look, white Americans, if you take a look at your own history, you can see that you inflicted the same kind of terror on your own black population. If you can understand that terror, you may be able to understand the terror that is being inflicted on you. Terror is terror."

Q: Is there a lesson in this?
A: I think by looking at the African-American experience of lynching, we can come together as a people, not only in America but in the world. We must have empathy, not just for the terror we experience but also for the terror that we inflict on other people.

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