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James Cone’s Gospel of the Penniless, Jobless, Marginalized and Despised
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree are separated by nearly two thousand years,” James Cone writes in his new book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” “One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.”
So begins James Cone, perhaps the most important contemporary theologian in America, who has spent a lifetime pointing out the hypocrisy and mendacity of the white church and white-dominated society while lifting up and exalting the voices of the oppressed. He writes out of his experience as an African-American growing up in segregated Arkansas and his close association with the Black Power movement. But what is more important is that he writes out of a deep religious conviction, one I share, that the true power of the Christian gospel is its unambiguous call for liberation from forces of oppression and for a fierce and uncompromising condemnation of all who oppress.
Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes on behalf of all those whom the Salvadoran theologian and martyr Ignacio Ellacuría called “the crucified peoples of history.” He writes for the forgotten and abused, the marginalized and the despised. He writes for those who are penniless, jobless, landless and without political or social power. He writes for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender. He writes for undocumented farmworkers toiling in misery in the nation’s agricultural fields. He writes for Muslims who live under the terror of war and empire in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he writes for us. He understands that until white Americans can see the cross and the lynching tree together, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black-body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
“In the deepest sense, I’ve been writing this book all my life,” he said of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” when we spoke recently. “I put my whole being into it. And did not hold anything back. I didn’t choose to write it. It chose me.
“I started reading about lynching, and reading about the historical situation of the crosses in Rome in the time of Jesus, and then my question was how did African-Americans survive and resist the lynching terror. How did they do it? [Nearly 5,000 African-American men, women and children were lynched in the United States between 1880 and 1940.] To live every day under the terror of death. I grew up in Arkansas. I know something about that. I watched my mother and father deal with that. But the moment I read about it, historically, I had to ask, how did they survive, how did they keep their sanity in the midst of that terror? And I discovered it was the cross. It was their faith in that cross, that if God was with Jesus, God must be with us, because we’re up on the cross too. And then the other question was, how could white Christians, who say they believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them, how could they then turn around and put blacks on crosses and crucify them just like the Romans crucified Jesus? That was an amazing paradox to me. Here African-Americans used faith to survive and resist, and fight, while whites used faith in order to terrorize black people. Two communities. Both Christian. Living in the same faith. Whites did lynchings on church grounds. How could they do it? That’s where [my] passion came from. That’s where the paradox came from. That’s where the wrestling came from.
“Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin,” he said. “Taking our place, they say, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave his life as a ransom for many. The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation. Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, the symbol of salvation has been detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings, the crucified people of history. The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the cost of discipleship, it has become a form of cheap grace, an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.”
Cone’s chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, the most important Christian social ethicist of the 20th century and a theologian whose work Cone teaches, exposes Niebuhr’s blindness to and tacit complicity in white oppression. Slavery, segregation and the terror of lynching have little or no place in the theological reflections of Niebuhr or any other white theologian. Niebuhr, as Cone points out, had little empathy for those subjugated by white colonialists. Niebuhr claimed that North America was a “virgin continent when the Anglo-Saxons came, with a few Indians in a primitive state of culture.” He saw America as being elected by God for the expansion of empire and, as Cone points out, “he wrote about Arabs of Palestine and people of color in the Third World in a similar manner, offering moral justification for colonialism.”
Cone reprints a radio dialogue between Niebuhr and writer James Baldwin that took place after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. Niebuhr, who spoke in the language of moderation that infuriated figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Baldwin, was disarmed by Baldwin’s eloquence and fire.
The only people in this country at the moment who believe either in Christianity or in the country are the most despised minority in it. … It is ironical … the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here … should be at this moment … the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other. None of the descendants of Europe seem to be able to do, or have taken it on themselves to do, what Negros are now trying to do. And this is not a chauvinistic or racial outlook. It probably has something to do with the nature of life itself. It forces you, in any extremity, any extreme, to discover what you really live by, whereas most Americans have been for so long, so safe and so sleepy, that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by. I think they really think it may be Coca-Cola.
“If Niebuhr could ignore it, there must be something defective in that faith itself,” Cone said. “If it weren’t defective, then they wouldn’t put black people on crosses. Niebuhr wouldn’t have been silent about it. I look around and see the same thing happening today in the prison industrial complex. You can lynch people by more than just hanging them on the tree. You can incarcerate them. How long will this terror last? I’m Christian. Suffering gives rise to faith. It helps you deal with it. But at the same time, suffering contradicts the faith that it gave rise to. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I can’t give up with the wrestling.”
Cone wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. But Barth, he admits, never moved him deeply. Cone found his inspiration in the black church, along with writers such as Baldwin, Albert Camus and Richard Wright, as well as the great blues artists of his youth. These artists and writers, not the white theologians, he said, gave him “a sense of awe.” He saw that “for most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance.” It was religion and the blues that “offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.” In the words of great poets and writers, in the verses of the great blues singers and in the thunderous services of the black church, not in the words of white theologians, Cone discovered those who were able to confront the bleak circumstances of their lives and yet defy fate and suffering to make the most of what little life had offered them. He had through these connections found his own voice, one that was powerfully expressed in his first work, the 1969 manifesto “Black Theology & Black Power.” Cone understood that “when people do not want to be themselves, but somebody else, that is utter despair.” And he knew that his faith “was the one thing white people could not control or take away.”
He quotes the bluesman Robert Johnson:
I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’,
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin’ me,
There’s a hellhound on my trail.
“I wanted to go back to study literature and get a Ph.D. in that at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and do it with Nathan Scott [who was then teaching theology and literature at the University of Chicago],” he said. “But the freedom movement was too urgent. I said to myself, ‘You have a Ph.D., if you ain’t got nothing to say now, you ain’t never going to have anything to say.’ I’ve never taught a course on Barth.
“I like people who talk about the real, concrete world,” he said. “And unless I can feel it in my gut, in my being, I can’t say it. The poor help me to say it. The literary people help me to say it—Baldwin is my favorite. Martin King is the next. Malcolm is the third element of my trinity. The poets give me energy. Theologians talk about things removed, way out there. They talk to each other. They give each other degrees. The real world is not there. So that is why I turn to the poets. They talk to the people.
“Being Christian is like being black,” Cone said. “It’s a paradox. You grow up. You wonder why they treat you like that. And yet at the same time my mother and daddy told me ‘don’t hate like they hate. If you do, you will self-destruct. Hate only kills the hater, not the hated.’ It was their faith that gave them the resources to transcend the brutality and see the real beauty. It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery how African-Americans, after two and half centuries of slavery, another century of lynching and Jim Crow segregation, still come out loving white people. Now, most white people don’t think I love them, but I do. They always feel strange when I say that. You see, the deeper the love, the more the passion, especially when the one you love hurt you. Your brothers and sisters, and yet they treat you like the enemy. The paradox is, is that in spite of all that, African-Americans are the only people who’ve never organized to take down this nation. We have fought. We have given our lives. No matter what they do to us, we still come out whole. Still searching for meaning. I think the resources for that are in the culture and in the religion that is associated with that. That faith and that culture, it was the blues of the spiritual; that faith and that culture gives African-Americans a sense that they are not what white people say they are.”
Cone sees the cross as “a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.” This idea, he points out, is absurd to the intellect, “yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk.” The crucified Christ, for those who are crucified themselves, manifests “God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the ‘troubles of the world,’ no matter how great and painful their suffering.” Cone elucidates this paradox, what he calls “this absurd claim of faith,” by pointing out that to cling to this absurdity was possible only when one was shorn of power, when one was unable to be proud and mighty, when one understood that he was not called by God to rule over others. “The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”
“It’s like love,” he said. “It’s something you cannot articulate. It’s self-evident in its own living. And I’ve seen it among many black Christians who struggle, particularly in the civil rights movement. They know they’re going to die. They know they’re not going to win in the obvious way of winning. But they have to do what they gonna do because the reality that they encounter in that spiritual moment, that reality is more powerful than the opposition, than that which contradicts it. People respond to what empowers them inside. It makes them know they are somebody when the world treats them as nobody. When you can do that, when you can act out of that spirit, then you know there is a reality that is much bigger than you. And that’s, that’s what black religion bears witness to in all of its flaws. It bears witness to a reality that empowers people to do that which seems impossible. I grew up with that. I really don’t ever remember wishing I was white. I may have, but I really don’t remember. It’s because the reality of my own community was so strong, that that was more important than the material things I saw out there. Their [African-Americans’] music, their preaching, their loving, their dancing—everything was much more interesting.
“How do a people know that they are not what the world says they are when they have so few social, economic and political reasons in order to claim that humanity?” he asked. “So few political resources. So few economic, educational resources to articulate the humanity. How do they still claim, and be able to see something more than what the world says about them? I think it’s in that culture and it’s in the faith that is inseparable from that culture. That’s why I call the blues secular spirituals. They are a kind of resource, a cultural and mysterious resource that enables a people to express their humanity even though they don’t have many resources intellectually and otherwise to express it. Baldwin only finished high school. Wright only the ninth grade. But he still had his say. And B.B. King never got out of grade school. And Louis Armstrong hardly went to school at all. Now, I said to myself, if Louis could blow a trumpet like that, forget it, I’m gonna write theology the way Louis Armstrong blows that trumpet. I want to reach down for those resources that enable people to express themselves when the world says that you have nothing to say.
“People who resist create hope and love of humanity,” he said. “The civil rights was a mass movement, but a movement defined by love. You always have both sides. You have bad faith and good faith. I like to write about the good faith. I like to write about faith that resists. I like to write about faith that empowers. I like to write about faith that enables people to look another in the eye and tell ’em what you think. I remember growing up in Arkansas. There were a lot of masks. I wore a mask in Arkansas as a child, not in my own community but when I went down to the white people’s town. I knew what they could do to you. But I kept saying to myself, ‘One of these days I’m gonna say what I think to white people and make up for lost time,’ and so the last 40-something years that’s what I been doing. I write to encourage African-Americans to have that inner resource in order to have your say and to say it as clearly, as forcefully, and as truthfully as you can. Not all would be able to do that ’cause white people have a lot of power.
“Now white churches are empty Christ churches,” he said. “They ain’t the real thing. They just lovin’ each other. That’s all, that’s all that is: socializin’ with each other, that’s what they do most of the time. You seldom go to a church that has any diversity to it. Now how can that be Christian? God was in Christ reconciling the world unto God’s self. Well, it’s in white churches that God and Christ separated us from white people. That’s what they say. And I’m sayin’ as long as you are silent and say nothin’ about it, as Reinhold Niebuhr did, say nothin’, you are just as guilty as the one who hung him on the tree because you were silent just like Peter. Now if you are silent, you are guilty. If you are gonna worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy. It will make you end up on that tree. And so in this sense, I just want to say that we have to take seriously the faith or else we will be the opposite of what it means.
“My momma and daddy did not have my opportunity, so when I write and speak, I try to write and speak for them,” he said. “They not here. They never had a chance to stand before white people and tell ’em what they think. I gotta do it somehow. I try to do that all over the world. I think of Lucy Cone and Charlie Cone, and of all the other Lucy Cones and Charlie Cones that’s out there who cannot speak. I think of them. I don’t think of myself, I think of them. It deepens my spirituality. It gives me something to hold on to, that I can feel and touch. It’s a very spiritual experience, because you are doin’ something for people you love who cannot and will never have a chance to speak in a context like this. So, why do I need to speak for myself? I need to speak for them. If you feel passion in my voice, you feel energy in this text, that’s because I was thinkin’ of Lucy and Charlie, my daddy, and my mama. And as long as I do that, I’ll stay on the right track.”
This article was originally posted on Truthdig.