BY RANDALL STEPHENS
On Sunday night, November 25th, James Cone appeared as a guest on Bill Moyers’ Journal. Cone discussed his work on race and religion in America and offered a provocative account of lynching as a type of crucifixion. I turned back the pages in my mind to Donald Mathews’ challenging article “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice” that appeared in the Journal of Southern Religion vol 3 (2000). (More recently, Ed Blum has analyzed these connections in W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, 2007). Cone’s comments on the subject were powerful:
BILL MOYERS: That old Billie Holiday number that--that we played, Strange Fruit-"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 tree." I mean, nobody sings that anymore. You don't hear it. But, yet, that is deep in our DNA, is it not?
JAMES CONE: Yes, it's deep. Because lynching is so deep. And that song is about lynching. It's about black bodies hanging on trees. And that's deep in the American experience. . . . The lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that's why the cross and the lynching tree belong together. That's why I have to talk about the lynching tree. Because Christians can't understand what's going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree with black bodies hanging there.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JAMES CONE: Because the Christian Gospel is a transvaluation of values. Something you cannot anticipate in this world, in this history. But, it empowers the powerless. It is-- what do you mean by power in the powerless? That's what God is. Power in the powerless.
Lynching is, says Cone, something that Americans must come to terms with. It will help “break our silence on race in American history.” Cone looks back to Reinhold Niebuhr’s timely classic, The Irony of American History. That book still allows Americans to understand that they are, in fact, not innocent.
JAMES CONE: The core of it is, is helping America get over its innocence. Helping America to see itself through the eyes of people from the bottom. And you see, America likes to think of itself as innocent. And we are not. No human being is innocent.
Of course, that’s exactly why Niebuhr appealed to C. Vann Woodward, who incorporated some of Niebuhr’s ideas into his essay “The Irony of Southern History,” a piece that still resonates. Niebuhr, too, is no less relevant today. Niebuhr’s legacy, like that of Winston Churchill, is claimed by both conservatives and liberals.
I can think of little that sheds light on the many ironies of American history and American religious history more starkly than the subject of lynching.