The Intersection of Theology and Lynching Tree in the African-American Tradition

By: Maya Freeman
This article originally appeared in the blog, Blaque Rhetoric

After reading James Cone’s The Cross and The Lynching Tree, I realized that this book not only allowed me to further my education on African American history, but it also allowed me to enter scholarly discussions on the topics of the theological significance of the Lynching Tree as it pertains to the African American community, and as it relates to the images of Jesus Christ and the cross.  While I agree that “the cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross” (Cone 18), I believe that another point requires an even greateer level of emphasis: “black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy.” Since so many white Americans believe that blacks are out of their place when they speak out on things such as slavery, segregation, and lynching, they should try “looking at the terror they inflicted on their own black population … then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others” (Cone 19).

Though many Americans understand the crimes of lynching as largely antiquated, the definition and context is grossly misunderstood. In the words of James Cone, one of this view’s main proponents, lynching in a sense is still continued today.  In an interview with spokesman Bill Moyers, from the Journal, he calls it “legal lynching” in reference to black crime. While conversations about the historical American experience are held, blacks, whites and all other Americans must remember lynching in order to understand the true meaning.

Photos: Multiple Sources

In recent discussions on the theological significance of the Lynching Tree as it pertains to the African American community, a controversial issue has been the symbolic connections between “the universal symbol of Christian faith and the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America” (Cone 13). Being from Arkansas, as was James Cone, I am able to relate to the practices in rural black churches as they are still done today.  As preachers begin to reiterate the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross and the salvation accomplished in doing so, the “passion and energy of the preacher increases … and the congregation responds with outbursts of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah.'”

“People shout, clap their hands, and stomp their feet” in the same way whites did when African Americans were lynched. In comparison, blacks and whites showed this type of emotion in relation to joy for what had been done — Christ’s suffrage (black’s emotion) and what was being done — lynching (white’s emotion) (Cone 15).

Based on The Cross and the Lynching Tree and prior knowledge of crucifixion, similarities between the two include their publicity and forms of power by a dominant group. Both practices were typified and examples of social control. The cross represents hope beyond tragedy for the Christian faith, and as a symbol of this faith, the cross is transformed in the process. Artistic representation is valued by Cone as a source for theological reflection.  He argues that churches do not speak about lynching’s, but they’re represented through paintings, music and literature.

“The memory of disfigured black bodies ‘swinging in the southern breeze’ is so painful that they, too, try to keep these horrors buried deep down in their conscience.  Likewise, lynching through white Americans eyes was ‘an unspeakable crime’ one in which ‘most would prefer to forget’” (Cone 14).


Maya Freeman is a junior studying English for Corporate Communications at Christian Brothers University

Posted by Josh Colfer at 12:10 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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