The Cross and the Lynching Tree
By Rev. Keith Turman | 2022-04-22 | 4 min read
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” -Acts 10:39
The annual cross walk was scheduled to begin around 11:00 a.m. on Good Friday, and my job was to get the cross to the First Presbyterian Church on time. All year long the old cross lives under the ramp to our sanctuary—anxiously waiting for me to wrestle it through the ramp posts, drag it through our front yard, and load it into the back of my pickup truck.
The event begins in the parking lot of First Presbyterian and ends on the front steps of First Methodist. All along the way, the cross is dragged by Baptists and Episcopalians, Catholics and Presbyterians, and sometimes a Methodist will give it a go. Scriptures are read and prayers are prayed. Robert Prince, the pastor at First Baptist Church, told me the cross lives at First United Methodist Church because the whole thing began in the mind of John Christy, a former pastor of FUMC.
Becky Brown imagined an even more ecumenical and racially inclusive event, so she invited Haywood County’s African American pastors, and proposed that we all read James Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. We were all invited to lunch and a book discussion afterwards.
Early morning on Good Friday, I was still reading the book, my soul growing increasingly disturbed.
In the introduction, Cone writes: “An unspeakable crime, [lynching] is a memory that most white Americans would prefer to forget. For African Americans the memory of disfigured black bodies ‘swinging in the southern breeze’ is so painful that they, too, try to keep these horrors buried deep down in their consciousness, until, like a dormant volcano, they erupt uncontrollably, causing profound agony and pain.” As I tightened the straps to secure the cross, Cone’s words were ringing in my ears: “The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the ‘lynching era,’ between 1880-1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions” (30-31).
Before delivering the cross, I ran back into my office to grab a face mask. I like to have one in my back pocket just in case. I grabbed my fancy United Methodist one out of the desk drawer. The logo screamed at me. When Jim Correll learned about our plan to read this book for Good Friday, he shared the following story: “In 1980, I was serving a 2-point charge in Lancaster County, South Carolina. One of the churches was in a very small town. They had a relatively new education building with a large, windowless brick wall facing the street. They decided to install the cross and flame logo on the wall and affirm their identity in the UMC. Several months later, I was talking with a Black gentleman in the community who told me that several of the Black folks in town no longer wanted to walk by the church. They thought the symbol marked a meeting place for the KKK.” I tossed my mask back into the drawer. I probably wouldn’t need it anyway.
Reading James Cone’s book made this year’s cross walk profoundly different for me. I was especially aware of our all-white, often-joyful, group. I was surprised at how uncomfortable I felt during the prayer—standing next to a police officer and his gun. As we followed the police escort’s flashing lights down Main Street, dragging the cross that lives under our care, I wrestled to understand why we were even doing this. I wasn’t really surprised that my Black friends chose to stay home.
James Cone says that “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, ‘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’” (22).
I’m glad the cross lives at our place. It is my best hope for transformation.