James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Sad to hear that James Cone died yesterday. He was the founder of modern Black Liberation Theology. He showed how black theology identifies less with Christ’s death as payment for sin, but rather with Jesus as a black man who is humiliated, tortured and lynched.

Ever since I was pointed toward one of his books, The Cross & the Lynching Tree, I’ve been thinking a lot about why we, the white western church at least, preferred Penal Substitutionary Atonement as our primary view of the cross for the last 800 years. Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is presented by the western church as THE atonement theory, where Jesus “took the punishment that we deserved, death, and because justice was met and the debt of sin was paid, God forgive, and thus we were atoned in the sight of God.” This definition is usually also presented as literal history rather than one lens among many found in scripture, and always at the cost of other perspectives of the cross found in scripture: if you ask most people here in white western churches what the cross was about, they’ll respond with PSA.

But if scripture offers numerous lenses and metaphors to help us understand the cross - why do we feel we should choose just one and ignore the others? Which ones are true? All of the ones found in scripture are true in some way! But more importantly, why did we choose PSA above the others? There was a part of me that hoped we chose to elevate PSA above the other views for good, objective, and purely theological reasons but it seems our historical and cultural location has played a big part in that selection.

James Cone demonstrated that PSA serves the needs of oppressors (think historical bloody conquest, putting to death natives and looting their treasure, stealing their lands, think genocide, think slave trading and slave holding, think lynching and the oppression of black people in the US, think racism both yesterday and still today) because in that view not only does the cross erase the history of oppressors and slave drivers, it also soothes their consciences and says they’re right with God so they never have to genuinely confront who they have become and then, importantly, allows them to maintain their position of power. This last point is really significant - the west today is built upon the conquests and slaves of yesterday - we’ve benefitted enormously from past evil - we’re not guilty of the sins of the past, but we wash our hands like Pilate when we refuse to consider the position of power we inherited in the world that came off of the back of conquest, colonisation, slave-driving and corrupt trade. Not only does the white west benefit from the past, but the conquests are still happening (Iraq, Afghanistan et al), and the slaves are kept out of sight in sweat shops, and poorer nations are kept in trade deals they can never pay back. Is it any wonder then that the white western church identifies most with the forgiven murderers at the cross? Exoneration and an erased past is what we think we need more than anything so it’s what we first see in the cross, hence PSA, but James Cone asserts that black liberation theology identifies more with the lynched Jesus on the cross, the ones on the receiving end of corrupt power: Jesus on the lynching tree in solidarity with the black men and women that hung from their lynching tree, and by extension if I may, Jesus murdered in solidarity with every murdered native, Jesus’ life stolen in solidarity with every slave stolen from their own country, Jesus in solidarity with with the recipient of every act of corrupt power.

This led me to realising that, I think, as individuals we’ve similarly chosen to arbitrarily elevate PSA, an atonement theory, (rather than a liberation theory, or the much-maligned exemplar view, or any of the others) because we feel that we need atonement more than we need liberating, or transforming. PSA meets our needs so very well: when we feel guilty because of our sin, PSA erases our history, it takes away the feelings of guilt and it leaves us with a clean slate. But what PSA doesn’t do is confront who we’ve become because it assumes that we’ve already come face to face with who we are, and that we are horrified by what we see and that was what brought us to the cross. Without that horror of who we have become, PSA, is used to simply erase our history, to pay no heed to those who suffer because of what we’ve done, to not worry about the actual consequences of our sin, and to sooth our consciences so long as we try a bit harder next time, and we never truly change: If we’re forgiven, but not transformed, then we’re not really saved. Yes, we’re saved from divine punishment of course, but we can never escape the hell that is being our own selfish, horrific selves for eternity (imagine that !?) unless the cross brings about transformation. But because PSA isn’t scripture’s whole message about the cross, it says nothing about transformation, it doesn’t need to. But it does meet our selfish needs perfectly and there really is no genuine challenge to change and be transformed because we can just theoretically continue this cycle of sin and forgiveness until we’ve finished on this planet, and both we and creation would be all the worse for it. This is why PSA should not be presented in isolation from the rest of scripture’s dialogue about the cross. To be clear, I consider PSA to be good, and unquestionably scriptural, but it must be seen as one part of a larger whole, not as the complete picture as it usually presented, and not as literal history either, but rather a lens that squeezes the cross into judicial framing to help us grasp it in simple terms.

We must always remember that PSA is just one lens among many found in scripture, and that by ignoring other lenses in scripture, and other voices like James Cone’s, our understanding of the cross is all the poorer for it. I’m thankful for James Cone’s voice and message.