The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Postmodernism, and the Suffering of Christ in John Caputo's Lecture

By Anthony Maranise

On Tuesday, February 2, 2017, the Christian Brothers University community was graced by the presence of the eminent philosopher, Dr. John Caputo, who delivered a lecture entitled, “The Cross & the Lynching Tree and a Postmodern Postscript.” His lecture hinged significantly on the work of Black Liberation Theologian James Cone, author of The Cross & the Lynching Tree. Throughout his lecture, Caputo applied the philosophical hermeneutics of postmodernism to Jesus’ identification with the ostracized, marginalized, and forgotten in our society—an argument that Cone constructs in the pages of his book as well.

Caputo’s lecture began with a general overview of postmodern theory stated in the form of a question: Do the critiques of the moderns [in philosophy] go far enough to indicate progress rather than regression? To answer this question in context, Caputo provides a brief synopsis of both Liberation Theology and Black Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology focuses on God’s preferential option for the marginalized; His standing in solidarity with them. Black Liberation Theology offers a view of God’s solidarity with the hardships experienced by black persons, particularly in an American context. He then goes on to explain that his application of postmodern deconstruction would be performed through the lens of the African-American hermeneutic of Black Liberation Theology, especially since the influential book at the heart of his lecture was written by a Black Liberation theologian.

In his “unpacking” or deconstruction of the symbolism of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Caputo explained the importance of recognizing the literal Scriptural references which speak of being “hung from a tree” (cf. Deuteronomy 21:22, Acts 10:39, Galatians 3:13) and then went on to emphasize the potential ambiguity of the Cross in Christian tradition. Noting that the Cross is “the central symbol of Christianity,” Caputo emphasized that while the lynching tree is the central symbol of African-American suffering, it is particularly relevant to African-American men, who were lynched at a far greater rate than African-American women.

From there, Caputo pivoted to the work of Womanist theologian Delores Williams, to emphasize another symbol that relates more explicitly to the experiences of African-American women. Since mostly African-American men were lynched, African American women, according to Williams, may identify more with the “Mamie-figure;” that is, the trope of an African-American woman who usually served as surrogates or stand-ins for white caregivers such as mothers for their children. This also included “standing-in” by suffering at the hands of lustful slave owners who raped and/or sexually-abused African-American women when their wives were away or left them feeling “unfulfilled.”

To introduce the importance of symbolic discourse, Caputo prefaced this portion of his lecture with two key points:

  1. Symbols are always more than mere “stand-ins” or signs for something else; they are representative of things with unconditional, irreducible value.
  2. We ought never to confuse the symbol with that to which it points (the signified).

After mentioning these two critically important points, he went on to explain Williams’ question about whether or not Jesus’ ultimate role was that of a surrogate. Theologically, this seems consistent with Christian teachings. If a surrogate is a stand-in, then Jesus, who was a stand-in for the punishment facing all humanity because of its sinfulness, was, in fact, a surrogate and in this way, African-American women can also identify with Him, and He with them. Caputo concluded his lecture by drawing a poignant parallel between Christ and all African-Americans. Christ, being Truth Himself, who after having “spoken Truth to power,” was executed by the reigning powers of his day. African-Americans, who through the decades have also stood and spoken for truth, have been executed for such a stance. 

We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Caputo before his address. Below is a video of that conversation: 

Anthony Maranise serves as editor for The Galleon and is with the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies program at CBU.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 3:25 PM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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