There were many theological giants in the 20th century. But no list is complete without James H. Cone — the father of Black Liberation Theology. For decades, Cone, with Barth-like audacity, fought against (white) theological academia, denouncing their racist theological-red-lining — which is declaring what is or isn’t acceptable. Cone instead advocates for different sources and methodologies for theology: black experience and religious experiences, especially the blues and the gospels. Drawing from these, Cone does not have, in my opinion, starkly different theological conclusions: God loves justice, and Jesus is the savior of humanity from injustice, sin, and corruption. What’s remarkable about critics is that they overlook these foundational similarities.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is the culmination of Cone’s life-long tenure. It is also his boldest attempt to face his greatest fear, and America’s worst form of racism: the lynching tree. Cone has intentionally avoided the lynching tree, precisely because of its horror. How can any American theologian make sense of it? Indeed, many have avoided it, like Reinhold Niebuhr. But for Cone, as a black theologian and an American Christian, the lynching tree is unavoidable and unremovable, just like the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is not a work of atonement — if atonement is about how Jesus saves humanity from injustice, sin, and corruption. Instead, Cone connects what should have been connected for any socially-aware American theologian pre-1980s: how the lynching tree bears unmistakable resemblance to the cross. Cone brings the horrors of the forgotten lynching tree to the fore, rebukes Reinhold Niebuhr for his negligence, honors Martin Luther King Jr. and the brave African American women who bore justice forward, and celebrates Black literature and arts that testify against the lynching tree.
Cone is a beautiful writer; he writes with such passion and clarity, which are rare marks of modern academic theologians. I, along with many others, grieve the loss of such a giant. Indeed, he has made another way to speak about God and man.