The other scholar-author we are recommending this week, Philip Jenkins, has visited ReadTheSpirit several times over the years. Today, though, we are publishing our first interview with James H. Cone, whose venerable name may seem more suited to scholarly journals and college text books these days.
But, when Cone first leaped onto the stage of American religious life in the mid-1960s, he wasn’t known as a wise old lion of American theology. He was young, brilliant, impassioned and considered by many mainline church leaders to be—dangerous. The New York Times calls Cone “a founding father of black liberation theology.” Other major sources call him “the founding father.” The Times reported recently on the early years of that fiery theological movement in military terms. Fueled by the conviction that God wanted to overturn all systems of oppression—including the dominant white Christian powers of the 1960s—Cone and his colleagues did their best to topple those powers like the hymn of joy Mary sings in the Christmas story. (What is that stirring message from Mary? Here’s N.T. Wright on Mary’s disturbing and inspiring hymn.)
Born August 5, 1938, in Fordyce, Arkansas, Cone grew up in the segregated town of Bearden. His parents were courageous activists for integration and faced the threat of lynching. Inspired by his mother, who was a noted speaker in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cone felt a calling to Methodist ministry. He again encountered racism in Chicago in the 1950s while he was a student at the Methodist-related Garrett seminary just north of the city. He was the only African-American student to earn a doctorate from Garrett in that era. He taught for several years at Adrian College, a Methodist-related school in Michigan. Then, in 1969, he jumped to his most famous role as a theologian teaching students and writing provocative books at Union seminary in New York City.
At 73, he still teaches and writes. But, now, he is eager to link together the many hard-won conclusions that he has drawn in his long career and, as a modern-day prophet, to sum up his central message for this new century. The Cross and the Lynching Tree is an important testament in that effort—and a book that all clergy and small-group teachers should read, if you care about bridging America’s racial divide.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed James H. Cone …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAMES H. CONE
ON ‘THE CROSS AND THE LYNCHING TREE’
CRUMM: I am old enough to remember that, back in your heyday of activism, James H. Cone was considered a dangerous voice in American religion. Are you feeling less dangerous today?
CONE: I don’t know! You’ll have to ask those people who thought I was dangerous back then. I don’t think I’ve ever been dangerous. Unless, that is, one thinks the Christian Gospel is dangerous—then I would be. I am trying as hard as I can to interpret what the Christian Gospel means in American society and American history. That has been my focus and concern through these years because I think so many white Christians and African-American Christians need to be challenged. I feel that, unless we engage the contradiction of white supremacy as it impinges on our life and faith, then we cannot understand what the Christian Gospel is all about.
CRUMM: You played a role in a movement that has made great strides in opening up our country. We just published a new book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, about scores of men and women who took enormous risks to work toward overcoming barriers. From that book, I’m thinking of profiles of people you know, like James Lawson, John Lewis and others.
CONE: Yes, I am part of that community that came of age in the 1960s. I know James Lawson so very well and I know John Lewis, too, and they both have done stellar work in keeping alive the legacy of what the civil rights movement meant. My role is more as an academic than the roles Lawson and Lewis have played, but we are all concerned about justice for all people. We are trying to make the Gospel of justice relevant for us today.
CRUMM: This new book feels like a capstone to your long career.
CONE: The book was 10 years in the making—seven years of research and three years of writing. It was the most painful and difficult book I’ve ever written and yet it was the most liberating of all the books I have written. After I finished this, I found it easier to relate to both blacks and whites. This whole process was like an exorcism that would keep this from defining me after I shared this message.
CRUMM: You’re working hard in this new book to bridge a vast age gap. The heyday of the Ku Klux Klan was the 1920s into the 1930s. Lynching has declined over the last half century. You’re writing to readers, today, who don’t have your first-hand knowledge. In the book, you write that lynching was “like a wild beast that had seized me by the neck, trying to kill me.” That’s not the reality, today, for younger men and women who think of lynching as something they might hear about on PBS or the History Channel.
CONE: Yes, there is a generational challenge. But, unless we are informed by our legacy and know our past, there is no way to understand how we got to be where are today and where we should go in the future. I have been teaching for many years and I encounter people in so many places who are not aware of the experience of lynching. One reason I write is to keep alive the legacy of the African American struggle for justice. We must remember why so many people were willing to sacrifice so much—people like James Lawson and John Lewis and so many others like Ida B. Wells who fought so hard against lynching. That is what keeps me writing—to make sure that we don’t forget.
CRUMM: Whether the history is clearly remembered, or not, you write that this vast experience of lynching still represents “a dormant volcano” in American life.
REMEMBERING EMMETT TILL: A TEEN ENCOUNTERING A TEEN’S DEATH
CONE: That’s right. It never goes away. Just as the Civil War doesn’t go away for American society as a whole, just as 9/11 will not go away for society as a whole, this terror of lynching will stay with us. This particular terror is so very deep down within us as a nation, as a people. It runs through our blood and our history. I lived through the 1940s and 1950s and I was only 17 years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 at the age of 14. Now, most Americans may have forgotten the name of Emmett Till, but this larger memory of lynching still can erupt suddenly among people who may not even realize why they are reacting the way they are. People may have forgotten the specific memories, but the volcano is still there.
CRUMM: Probably the single most disturbing point you raise in your new book is a full-scale indictment of white American Christianity for playing a direct role in supporting the whole era of lynching. Now, obviously most white Christians never attended a lynching, but our whole nation, from the city to state to national government, was run essentially by white Christians. You are bringing a direct indictment against those who would twist and use the Gospel to justify turning a blind eye to such a widespread campaign against millions of black Americans. Am I reading your message correctly?
CONE: Yes, you are reading that exactly right. There are two questions I had in mind when I began to write this book. One is to ask how African Americans could survive nearly 100 years of lynching terror. And if you stretch this question back through slavery you’re talking about nearly three and a half centuries of terror. And, this was terror at the deepest level. That’s why I titled this book the way I did. We are talking here about white Christians who enslaved African Americans, white Christians who lynched them. In the South, when a lynching took place, as many as 20,000 people would gather together and churches would let out in order to attend lynchings and celebrate this violence they were committing against black people. Several lynchings actually occurred on church grounds. Many Christians saw no conflict between the violence they inflicted on the African-American community and their Christian identity and mission. In fact, many white people saw lynching as a part of their Christian duty.
That’s the second question that concerns me: How could white Christians worship a crucified savior and then turn around and crucify black people in their communities? I want white Christians to ask: How could we have done that? And then, I want them to ask: What forms of lynching are we continuing today? If we don’t remember the past, we will continue to lynch people in new ways. I think the criminal justice system today is itself a modern form of lynching. Americans incarcerate black people at a rate higher than any other group of people. The rest of the world is aware of the injustices in our criminal justice system. Most other countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. And, in this country, we disproportionately use that penalty against African Americans. One of the reasons we do it is because we want to control the black population in the same way that the Romans wanted to control the Jewish population in the first century. I want our churches to think about all of this.
CRUMM: I’m guessing that many of our readers will be shocked by what they are reading today, partly because many people may not be aware of how popular lynching was in the South. People actually posed for photographs at these scenes. They were so proud of what they had done that many of these photographs were turned into picture postcards that were used to promote their towns. In the first part of our coverage of your book, we will publish some images from these post cards, showing just a few of the men and women who appeared in them. One of the most shocking things to me is that, usually, these folks were dressed in their Sunday clothes. Men wore ties, for example. Kids wore their Sunday School clothes.
CONE: Yes, that’s right. There was nothing strange, in that era, about white Americans engaging in lynching. These post cards were a way of bragging about what they were doing. Sometimes, when a lynching was about to take place, the news went out over local radio stations. In some cases, the black person was held for days so a big crowd could form. There are cases where 10,000 to 20,000 people gathered. They often called it a barbecue, because their favorite process was to lynch and also burn the victim to torture the person as long as they could. Women and children sometimes came along with the men for the occasion. Lynchings usually were held on Sundays, and local churches would turn out to attend. Ministers actually would announce this from the pulpit.
CRUMM: One fascinating bit of news is that people, today, still are trying to document the names of all 5,000 victims. Many still are not known and researchers are trying to uncover all of their names.
CONE: There are several projects trying to find all those names. I think it’s important so that the identity of all the victims finally will be known. This new book is part of this effort to give voice to the victims. I am trying to figure out how African-American men, women and their families could find meaning in life, while enduring a situation of such extreme fear and suffering.
ROBERT JOHNSON, SINGING THE BLUES AND READING THE PSALMS
CRUMM: Well, in your book, one of the spiritual coping mechanisms you describe is hymns and Psalms. You’re not alone in making this point and, of course, African-American Christians were not alone in recognizing the timeless power of Psalms. There is a famous preface to the book of Psalms written by U2’s Bono in which Bono describes the life of the Blues musician Robert Johnson who sang, “There’s a Hellhound on my Trail.” The Pslams were much like that song by Johnson—crying out to God from the depths.
CONE: In this book, I’m interested in the spiritual and psychological survival of black people in that era. Bluesmen like Johnson were one source of that survival—surviving through song. There were two ways that African Americans managed to survive spiritually and psychologically. One was through religion and all the songs and preaching and other ways that faith gave them strength. The message of the African-American church was that their lives truly did have meaning, even if the rest of society sought to deny it. The other way was through the Blues. The Blues emerge about the same time as lynching and in places like Mississippi and Arkansas and Alabama and Georgia—places where lynching was common. These musicians saw the terror emerge and were able to give voice to humanity, even in the midst of the terror, through their music. So, yes, when you read Robert Johnson’s lyrics, it is like reading the Psalms. This is the language of people living in agony and despair, yet refusing to let their condition be the last word about their humanity. Robert Johnson is a great model of how people living in these very difficult situations can refuse to allow their agony and fear to consume them.
THE FUTURE: LIBERATION FOR—RECONCILIATION?
CRUMM: What do you hope people will do after reading your book?
CONE: I hope people will keep trying to cross racial boundaries. Unless we learn how to do that, we won’t be able to build an America that really is of one people. I deeply believe in liberation for reconciliation. I want people to take the message of this book and apply it to their lives. If you don’t know your past, you will repeat it, maybe in a different way, but the past will continue to separate people. To this day, the church is still the most separated body in this nation. I want to break down that barrier. I want to say: “American Christians, tear down this wall of segregation and separation.”
The Gospel is meant to bring people together and to realize that we are one people who God has created. Yes, this book deals with violence and the pain of the lynching tree, but it also deals with the cross, which is God’s way of taking our surffering so that we no longer have to be defined by that suffering. I believe that we can go through this lynching tree, through this cross, and come together as one people.
Care to read more on meeting violence with peace?
Nationally known peace activist (and World Sabbath co-founder) Rod Reinhart writes about his own pilgrimage from a life of faith and action on behalf of peace—to working arm in arm with returned U.S. military veterans. This is especially important as winter arrives across our hemisphere.
Want to find peace in your reading—and group discussions—this winter?
Consider learning about Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.