In this 2007 interview with PBS’ Bill Moyers, James Cone argues that the lynching of African-Americans throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was an almost literal crucifixion because “the cross was a first century lynching.” Lynching, like the crucifixion, was a public execution in which the victim was humiliated, mocked, mutilated, tortured, and, in many cases, stripped naked. Also, like crucifixions, lynchings served as an instrument of control used by the powerful against the less powerful, intended not just to punish the individual victim, but also to warn, terrorize, and ultimately control the larger group to which the particular victim belonged.
In this resemblance, the cross and the lynching tree interpret one another, as “the lynching tree can liberate the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians” while “the cross can redeem the lynching tree,” by bestowing “upon lynched black bodies an eschatological meaning for their ultimate existence.” It is important for Christians to understand what the cross means not only in the abstract, but also in their own socio-historical context, since this is the context in which they must be disciples. According to Cone, “to understand what the cross means in America, we need to take a good long look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history.” When we take this good long look, it becomes obvious that “when we encounter the crucified Christ today, he is a humiliated black Christ, a lynched black body.” The whiteness of Jesus—and it matters not whether this whiteness is consciously perceived—prevents white Christianity from achieving what the Afro-Christianity of early America achieved—namely the making of Jesus more than an idea. Thus, a white Jesus is a Jesus who suffers largely in the abstract because in America whiteness does not suffer, as whiteness serves to protect and shield from suffering.
In recognizing black people as among the “crucified peoples” of U.S. history, then, the church must also recognize the way in white people have been their crucifiers. This is perhaps one of the reasons why white Christians living in the United States have largely failed to recognize the similarities between the cross and the lynching tree.
As we begin to think about a Jesus who is black–not just in skin but in social consequences, we must think not just about a black American slave or even the lynched bodies of black Americans during Jim Crow, rather, our challenge is to see Jesus as black not just yesterday, but today as well. Thus the recognition of the connection between the cross and the lynching tree ought to serve not as the end point, but as the launching point for a completely re-configured understanding of discipleship. James Cone argues that the most explicit manifestation of the on-going crucifixion of black people in the United States occurs in the justice system as “the white-black incarceration gap has grown rapidly in the past quarter-century, jumping from 1 for 5 in 1985 to about 1 for 8 today” (Wacquant, 43). This disparity is demonstrated even more clearly by the fact that “the lifelong cumulative probability of ‘doing time’ in a state or federal penitentiary based on the imprisonment rates of the early 90s is 4% for whites, 16% for Latinos, and a staggering 29% for blacks” (Wacquant, 43).