The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Posted By 
Mon, 06/04/2018 - 11:15pm

Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, June 3, 2018

             Jesus was lynched. To hear that word applied to Jesus is shocking, first because the cross has been sanitized in our imagination and turned into a religious symbol. We don’t often think of it as an act of mob violence supported by government and religious authorities. But second, I think it is shocking to hear that Jesus was lynched because it makes you wonder why such an obvious way to describe what happened to Jesus has never been used in American churches. Twice in the book of Acts, the apostolic preachers say that Jesus was “hanged on a tree,” and Paul takes the old law that says anyone hanging on a tree is cursed to make the point that Jesus bore the curse for us. But it never crossed our minds that Jesus was like “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

When the black theologian James Cone died recently, I was moved to read his last book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree [Orbis, 2011], in which he points out that no white theologians or preachers, and almost no black ones, made a comparison between what happened to Jesus and what happened to at least 4,000 black men, women, and children. Once you juxtapose those two images in your mind—once you see the man hanging on the old rugged cross next to a man hanging from a regular tree for everyone to gawk at—it’s hard not to see lynchings as 19th and 20th century crucifixions. I think the juxtaposition deepens our reflections on the cross.

            Cone points out the similarities between the two ways of killing:

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

            We like to think that if we were in Jerusalem, we would have stood up for Jesus, but the truth is it’s not bloody likely. And we like to think that if we were in the South in the period 1882-1968 when lynchings occurred, we would have tried to stop them, but honestly, how likely is that? The church people of the day were all in favor of stringing victims up rather than arresting them, in the name of preserving the purity of the white race—and its power. The elected officials saw it as a way to maintain order while providing a kind of entertainment. You could read thousands of sermons, or thousands of newspapers, without finding one condemning lynching.

            Before Emancipation, these things did not happen because every black person was someone’s property. Slaves were valuable, and it was very rare that someone killed his own slave. For a brief period after the Civil War, blacks were given political power in the Reconstruction. But soon all that was rolled back, and whites blamed blacks for all they had lost, and became paranoid about an uprising by blacks against them. Here’s a description by James Cone:

By the 1890s, lynching fever gripped the South, spreading like cholera, as white communities made blacks their primary target, and torture their focus. Burning the black victim slowly for hours was the chief method of torture. Lynching became a white media spectacle, in which prominent newspapers, like the Atlanta Constitution, announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims. Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims—burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs. Postcards were made from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold for ten to twenty-five cents to members of the crowd, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like this: “This is the barbeque we had last night. [17] 

A man named James Allen began several years ago collecting those postcards and other photographs; he published them in a book and did a touring exhibit of them at a number of museums. You can see them online at his web site They are horrific. Because there was so much deliberate torture, the photos are even more disturbing than the ones you see in Holocaust memorials. These were public events, family events, not carried out by soldiers or in secret.

            One reporter from a black magazine (The Crisis) reported from Tennessee in 1915:

Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching. People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling from the end of a rope…Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest selling the postcard showing a photograph of the lynched Negro. Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools, the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man. [Cone, 1]

We hear in the scriptures about people passing by Jesus on the cross, mocking him, taunting him to save himself. Crowds have always been cruel. But for me at least, the thought of modern people who might well be fourth cousins of mine, thinking nothing of torturing and killing black people to keep them in line raises a question of whether these white people were even human. And of course they were Christians—most of them Baptists hanging Baptists—and they used this method with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus, but they did not see any irony or contradiction of their Christian faith in their actions.

And no one in the white church spoke out about it—not the leaders of the Northern Baptists, not Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the social gospel, not Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian and public intellectual. Just silence. At the March on Washington in 1963, one of the speakers was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Germany. He said:

When I was a rabbi in the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime…the most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent and most distasteful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem is silence. [Cone, 55]

No blacks were lynched in New England, so we can pat ourselves on the back in Rhode Island. But for the most part, white New Englanders were silent.

            Not all the victims of lynching were men. I want to share one last horrifying account from Cone’s book.

When a mob in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1918, failed to find Sidney Johnson, accused of murdering his boss, Hampton Smith, they decided to lynch another back man, Haynes Turner, who was known to dislike Smith. Turner’s wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, protested vehemently and vowed to seek justice for her husband’s lynching. The sheriff, in turn, arrested her and then gave her up to the mob. In the presence of a crowd that included women and children, Mary Turner 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. [Cone,120]

That was a hundred years ago, but black people see their current experience with white police officers and prison guards as part of a long story that includes long periods of slavery and lynching. If you lived in Valdosta and this happened to your kin, every time there was a police shooting you’d think to yourself “Here we go again.” So many people learned from slavery and lynching that all white Christians are fake Christians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk that it’s amazing they still hold onto Jesus.

            When blacks looked at the cross in the light of the lynching tree, they saw two things: First, that Jesus endured what we endure still, and second, that God in Christ identified with the lowly, dying a slave’s death, and won a victory over death and evil in the resurrection. It was the women singing those old spirituals at home that shaped the spirituality of the black church. Womanist theologian Shawn Copeland wrote about those spirituals—arguing against those who think that the message of the cross is bad because it just teaches you to put up with injustice:

If the makers of the spirituals gloried in the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, the enslaved Africans sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion. The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. The enslaved Africans sang because they saw the results of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world. [Cone, 150-151]

            If we come to this table with the terrible image of the lynching tree in our minds it may restore for us what they used to call the “terrible beauty” of the cross. The cross is a sign of the awfulness of human beings—especially religious ones and political ones. We can do unspeakable evil in the name of law and order. The cross means that God knew that from before he sent his son into this world, and that Christ deliberately became a slave on a cross, bearing all the shame and pain of public torture. When we eat and drink reminders of what Jesus endured, we cannot defend our hearts from the knowledge that the kind of things that happened to Jesus continue to happen, here and in many nations of the world.

            Some of the victims of lynching cried out to Jesus and some asked “My God, why have you forsaken me”—which one musician called “the greatest blues line ever.” But the black church and the black community concluded that God is still present with his people in suffering—in fact, especially in suffering. Near the end of his book, James Cone reflects on this:

Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified body of Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus.