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Two Most Potent Symbols in African-American Culture

By James H. Cone

Orbis Books, 28.00, 172 pages

James H. Cone is a prominent professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. His most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is by far the most intimate book Cone has written: one part biography, one part genealogy, and one part theology. This book ties together, in the words of the author, the two most powerful symbols in the history of not just African-Americans, but all Americans. For hundreds of years, it was these two symbols – one representing salvation and freedom, the other horror, terror, and death – that have been central to the United States.

“To understand what the cross means in America, we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history – that ‘strange and bitter crop’ that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through ‘God on the Cross.'”

Cone’s purpose for the book, one which he meets admirably, is to bring these two symbols together and to end the silence that has reigned in this country on the topic of lynching, and how the horror of lynching can be made meaningful through the redeeming power of the cross of Christianity. The Cross and the Lynching Tree is not only a powerful work of theology, but a comprehensive look at the history of lynching in the United States and how it has shaped and impacted African-American society, culture, and art. This is a powerful personal testimony.

Reviewed By Jonathon Howard

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