Scholar James Cone Presents ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’

March 24, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

With two seminal works, Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone has won recognition as a powerful and important theological voice.

His work provides a reconsideration of Christianity from the perspective of the black community in America.

On March 19, Cone presented The Cross and the Lynching Tree as the keynote speaker at the Fifth Annual Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life at Elmhurst College. As he began his remarks, Cone noted that he gave his first public lecture on black theology at Elmhurst, at the invitation of Theology and Religion Professor Ronald G. Goetz.

The author of several books, Cone said that early in his career, he never thought he could write a book. But “the fire of civil rights and black power was burning deep inside me, and I had to let it out.”

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone’s latest work, was published in 2011. In talking about how and why he came to write the book, he noted that although he researched, thought about it and wrote it over more than 10 years, “I’ve been writing this book my whole life.”

Even now, he said, he always is thinking and talking and writing about “the paradox of the crucifix and the lynching tree”—that African Americans relied on their Christian faith to help them survive and resist “the lynching terror,” yet white people also used faith as justification to suppress and terrorize black people.

That paradox led to “the theological wrestling” that made The Cross and the Lynching Tree the “most painful book” he ever wrote. “I put my whole being into it and I didn’t hold anything back. I’m still writing it, and will not be finished until I draw my last breath.”

James Cone is the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His work, in the words of critic Stanley Kurtz, insists on “an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.”

Professor Cone received a master of divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary and later earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He has received 13 honorary degrees, including the Doctor of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Institut Protestant de Théologie in Paris. He has lectured at more than 1,000 universities and community organizations throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

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