Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees1

The photograph of the lynching in Marion Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith haunted and then inspired Abel Meeropol to describe the event in verse. His poem, set to music and recorded by Billie Holiday, is a poignant depiction of the “American Holocaust.”

It was 16-year-old James Cameron, accused and strung up with Shipp and Smith and then given a last-minute reprieve, who would found America’s Black Holocaust Museum. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, echoes the poem in his concerted attempt to view the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” Cone’s Theology has been criticized for its too narrow focus and exclusion, but in this time in which Christians seems to be supporting widespread oppression of the poor and oppressed, Cone points us in a definitive direction away from evil.

It may be difficult to place ourselves amidst the crowd at the foot of the lynching tree. Difficult, not in the sense that we can never imagine doing such a thing but precisely because this is near enough that we understand this crowd. Living in Little Dixie here in Missouri, the rebel flag is still proudly displayed, racists abound, and the majority of white Christians are stumped as to why the emphasis should be on black lives. One can here the echo of Caiaphas in the comeback; – rather than “all lives” or “blue lives” how about “Roman lives” or “Pharisee lives” matter – therefore this man must die. It is possible to imagine the sway of the crowd and being caught up in the moment – the blind hatred is too near not to recognize its potential. As Ted Peters has stated it, “What is there about striking out violently and killing others that makes us think we can quell the pangs of anxiety, overcome our frustrations. Relieve our rage, regain a sense of self-worth, and thereby conquer death? Killing others seems to relieve our own fear of being killed.”3 When the crowd turns, in a moment of scapegoating, the cowardice and instinct for survival may be strong – but stronger yet is the blind hatred for this victim who is disrupting our lives, harming our religion, and threatening our nation. Through this “righteous slaughter” we can attain some eternal, universal form of the good.4 “Lynch him so that our nation might be saved! Lynch him so that law and order will return and righteousness be served!”

It may be that we have to equate the two – the lynching tree and the Cross – to recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose.

In a strange twist, “Christian” hatred of the stranger, the refugee, and the oppressed silences the one who exposes the reality of this hatred: “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). While we often sing and theologize about being at the foot of the Cross, our theology is such that the horror of the occasion is mitigated by the imagined fact that God is pulling the strings. We might, in a cavalier fashion, place ourselves at the foot of the cross but the lynching tree does not afford easy association. Cone’s point is that Christians, who so easily stand with the oppressors and cannot identify with the oppressed, have been desensitized by their Christianity. Instead of curing blind hatred this Christianity seems to induce it.

Christianity, with the lynchings of African Americans, the crusades, American slavery, Nazi genocide, oppression of women and minorities, etc, has been implicated in evil. Christians have not just been innocent by-standers but have many times been a force for evil.5 I believe, with Cone, that it is time to begin to definitively identify this false Christianity (which even the Apostle John calls the religion of the Antichrist) and distinguish it from an authentic Christianity. Can we can locate the evil, which is not part of an authentic Christianity? Can Christians identify and rid themselves of evil?

Our theology has so tamed the event of the crucifixion that preachers are forced to go to excruciating lengths to recount the pain of the Cross. No one needs to explain the humiliation and suffering of Shipp and Smith. Details only add to the horror of the photograph: both of the arms of Abram Smith were broken to keep him from trying to free himself; police officers participated in the lynching; there was no rape; none of the crowd were ever convicted of a crime. Even without commentary, the photograph conveys the evil. The lynching tree is a revolting horror from which we would turn away. The Cross, on the other hand, is a common piece of jewelry. Equating the lynching tree and the Cross focuses the attention on the evil and violence. The question is, how does the Cross address the evil of the lynching tree? Cone’s work brings out the specific role of atonement theology in disabling this equation (though he has not, I believe, given a full explanation to this question).

In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction, has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that this is not an equation we normally come to. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 6

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constanitinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate. As I will demonstrate in this series of blogs, Anselm’s “logic” building toward the need for the death of Christ is the logic of those who killed him. God is in one accord with Christ’s executioners. He does not refuse or resist the violence but is the ultimate perpetrator and the one who reinforces or generates its structure.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”7 As I hope to demonstrate in this series, the entire structure of religion and culture is challenged by the Cross of Christ rightly understood.

1 Written by Abel Meeropol.

2 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

3 Ted Peters, Sin and Radical Evil, 41.

4 After extensive interviewing and analysis sociologist Jack Katz concludes that criminals in general and killers in particular seek to embody, “through the practice of ‘righteous slaughter,’ some eternal, universal form of the Good.” The form it typically takes is that of righteous rage to which someone else has to be sacrificed.

5This is not to argue, with the New Atheists, that Christianity and religion are to blame for all evil and violence in the world. 20th Century secularism, Marxism and Fascism, have unleashed a radical evil that outdoes the problematic history of Christianity. What is clear is that the human heart is evil and where Christianity is so perverted so as not to address or confront this evil it has become complicit with evil.

6 J. Denny Weaver. The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 144-145). Kindle Edition.

7Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 101.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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