Theologian of survival – James H. Cone

James H. Cone has been referred to as a ‘theologian of survival’ because his suffering as a black person has become a root experience that alters his conception of God. This is someone I’ve only recently come across – through Chine MacDonald’s work. It’s true that many others on the ‘outside’ – whether through gender, sexuality, colour, ethnicity or physical and mental challenges will also have altered their conception of God from their own experiences, but in this post I want to concentrate on Cone’s eye-opening work (for me a white liberal) on black theology as found in his book ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’.

James H. Cone

He writes about the deep similarity between the cross on which Jesus was crucified [‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree’ Acts 10:39] and the trees on which nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is:

‘The quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy’.

Cone writes that the suffering of black people is too deep for words and how the suffering did not end with emancipation but rather the violence and subjugation took on a different form. The lynching era was between 1880-1940, an extra-legal punishment sanctioned by the community and a very public event attracting many spectators. And yet as Cone quotes:

‘Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective memory’.

‘The more black people struggled against white supremacy, the more they found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered.’ They came to know, as one historian put it ‘at the deepest level … what it was like to be crucified … And more: that there were some things in this world that are worth being crucified for’. Cone understands that in the same way that Jesus did not deserve his suffering, black people understood that nor did they, so faith became the one thing that white people could not take away or control. The power of Jesus’ cross gave a powerful identity:

‘Black people “stretched their hands to God”, because they had nowhere else to turn. Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history…The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross – a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows…. The cross places God in the midst of the crucified people … who are hung, shot, burned and tortured.’

The struggle remains to reconcile faith in God’s justice with the persistence of black suffering, and Cone sees that part of that struggle gave birth to the black freedom movement.