Sunday, April 29, 2018

In Memory of James Cone: "The Conspicuous Absence of the Lynching Tree in American Theological Discourse and Preaching Is Profoundly Revealing"

The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha—should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus' death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus' cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the "lynching era," between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these "Christians" did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

~ James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011), pp. 30-31.


Since I was born and reared in Arkansas, a lynching state, it is not easy for me to talk about this subject with white theologians. Lynching was a black atrocity that defined, along with Jim Crow segregation, America’s race relations following the Civil War and throughout much of the twentieth century. Whites do not want to talk about lynching, because they would rather forget that part of their heritage. Blacks do not like to talk about lynching either, but no matter how hard we try to keep it buried deep in our consciousness, often something happens unexpectedly that reminds us that lynching is not a thing of the past, but is still present today in many different forms. Lynching is a flagrant example of the exercise of white supremacy, whether extra-legal or legal.

~ James H. Cone, "Wrestling with The Cross and the Lynching Tree," Theology Today 70,2  (July 2013), p. 220.

Huge crowds often turned out: 10,000 to watch Henry Smith, 17, tortured and burned on a 10ft-high stage in Paris, Texas, in 1893; 20,000 at the burning alive of Willy Brown in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919. Such was the communal complicity that sometimes entire white communities would attend – to a man, woman and child. . . . 
The classic image of the lynch crowd is of a mob of "white trash", the unrestrained and uneducated dregs of society who knew no better. Incorrect. 
As [Ida B.] Wells's research revealed, [Sam] Hose's death was actively instigated by many of white society's most upstanding Christian leaders: the banker who urged his customers to "make an example of Sam", the manager of one of the largest mills who called for a burning, the governor of Georgia who refused to stop it, the local newspaper that advertised it and egged on its readers. 
They tied Hose to a sapling and laid kindling at his feet. As the flames began to lick, first they cut off his left ear, then his right. Next they cut the skin off his face, hacked off his fingers, slashed his legs, and opened up his stomach to pull out his entrails. They did so slowly, meticulously, so as to ensure that he remained conscious throughout. 
Then they poured oil on the fire and watched him burn. The crowd, which included many women and children, looked as though it was having great fun. The only disappointment, as Wells’s investigation noted, was that the black man declined to give the participants the pleasure of hearing him beg for mercy. He never once cried out. His only utterance was a quiet groan: "Oh, Lord Jesus," he said. 
When it was all over, children and adults scrabbled among his remains for relics to be later cherished or sold, including his charred liver and bones.


~ Vincent Vinikas, "Thirteen Dead at Saint Charles," in Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, ed. Guy Lancaster (Fayetteville: Univ. of AR Press, 2018), pp. 106-7.


~ Ibid., p. 121.

The painting at the head of the posting is Charles Wilbert White's "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep," from the Crystal Bridges Musuem of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. I shared information about it in this previous posting. As that previous posting notes, White painted this work to commemorate and pay tribute to the mothers and sisters and wives who have historically shared the suffering and tragedy as men in their families have been lynched.

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