November 30, 2017 (LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Between 1880 and 1940, nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched in the United States. In response, African American Christians turned to their religion and to the cross of Jesus as a symbol of suffering but also of profound hope. Despite these violent killings and the centrality of the cross in Christian communities, the lynching tree did not occupy any space in the American theological imagination.
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011), renowned theologian James H. Cone passionately conjoins the provocative images of the first-century cross and the twentieth-century lynching tree.
“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching,” said Cone. “Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
The book earned Cone the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, jointly with the University of Louisville, awards the $100,000 prize to honor and publicize creative and significant insights into the relationship between human beings and the divine. The award also recognizes ways in which this relationship may inspire or empower human beings to attain wholeness, integrity, or meaning, either individually or in community.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree received the 2012 Nautilus Silver Award in Religion/Spirituality-Western Traditions. It was an Amazon.com #1 best seller in religion in February 2012. Naming it one of the top religion books of 2011, Huffington Post editors said: “One of the great theologians of the late 20th century, Cone forces us to look hard at suffering, oppression and, ultimately, redemption.”
Known as the founder of black liberation theology, Cone is the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Cone is among the five Grawemeyer Award winners being named this week. The University of Louisville presents the prizes annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education, and presents a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The 2018 winners will present free lectures about their award-winning ideas when they visit Louisville in April to accept their $100,000 prizes.