Jesus Was Lynched
Posted on Dec 23, 2011
By Mel White
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree”
For more than 40 years I’ve been moved and provoked by the writings of James Cone, Union Seminary’s distinguished professor of systematic theology. While reading his newest book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” however, I felt grief and anger on a whole new scale. I felt grief for the nearly 5,000 African-American men, women and children who were lynched between 1880 and 1940, and anger that during that 60-year holocaust, white preachers, evangelists and theologians didn’t even notice. No author has ever made me more ashamed to be a white American Christian and at the same time no author has ever given me a more dramatic example of the sustaining power of the cross.
All my life I had been taught that the cross was at the heart of my Christian faith. It has been a long time since I was deeply moved by it. “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” helped me experience the cross on a far more visceral level. Cone says it simply: Jesus was lynched. He makes the connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of African-Americans. He explains why understanding that connection is vital to understanding the meaning of the cross:
During his decades of research, Cone found, incredibly, no sermons, lectures, books or articles by white preachers, evangelists or theologians linking what happened on the cross to what happened on the lynching tree—not even when lynching was at its peak.
Cone is particularly saddened that Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential theologian and ethicist of the 20th century, “failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time.” Cone, who is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas, is rightfully aggrieved when he describes the silence of Christian leaders during and after the lynching years. “To reflect on this failure,” Cone warns, “is to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African-Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination.”
Story after heartbreaking story, Cone walks us through those tragic and shameful years when thousands of black Americans were dragged from their homes and families, raped, tortured, disemboweled, castrated, burned and/or hanged by white Americans. Often those same white Americans were quoting Scripture while silhouetted by flaming crosses. Here are just two of the stories Cone tells to illustrate the horror of the lynching tree:
In 1918, when a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., couldn’t find Haynes Turner (who was guilty of nothing more than being black) the sheriff arrested his wife instead. Mary Turner was eight months pregnant. When she insisted that her husband was innocent, she was “stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.”
In 1955, Emmett Louis “Bo” Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago, was kidnapped from his grandparents’ Mississippi home because (or so the rumor went) he had dared to whistle at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white woman, and moments later said “Bye, baby” as she left a local store. At 2 a.m. Bryant’s husband and his half-brother dragged Till to a barn where one of the boy’s eyes was gouged out. He was tortured, beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, tied to a heavy gin fan and dropped into the Tallahatchie River. The two men were arrested, tried and found not guilty of the crime.
Cone documents in grim detail the unimaginable mental and physical suffering black Americans experienced during those lynching years. But instead of giving up on God, those who suffered embraced their Christian faith with new zeal. Cone turns to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help us understand how great suffering, paradoxically, can lead to even greater faith. In his “darkest hours” during the Montgomery bus boycott, King’s own experience of suffering lead him to conclude that we do not know what we truly believe or what our theology is worth until “our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair” or “we are victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation.” Cone summarizes the mystery of faith that grew stronger during the lynching years:
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” also explores the connection between faith and art, through the music, poetry and prose of those who suffered. Cone asks: “How did ordinary blacks, like my mother and father, survive the lynching atrocity and still keep together their families, their communities and not lose their sanity?” He answers that question simply: “Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”
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