White boys like me mostly didn’t know what Bob Dylan was singing about when “Desolation Row” first came out on “Highway 61 Revisited.” James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree tells us it was about lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle where people took pictures and made postcards out of them.
Cone goes on to argue that the lynching tree was a series of grisly re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus. He also demonstrates on how very difficult it has been and still is for Americans to see this truth. Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the greatest American theologian was, in spite of his social concerns, blind to this reality. Even black people have had trouble seeing this connection, though Cone shows how some black women, especially Ida B. Wells articulated it powerfully. He contrasts Niebuhr and all white liberals with Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line.
The dynamics of lynching as analyzed by Cone provide powerful confirmation of the theory of collective violence of René Girard. (See my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Girard argues that perpetrators instinctively fail to see what they are going. Cone shows us this truth in a powerful manner.
Dylan goes on to sing that “the circus is in town” and then catalogs Western Civilization turned topsy-turvy, suggesting that lynching does this, thanks to the “blind commissioner.”
Cone is right about whites’ blindness to this truth, but Dylan did write “The Ballad of Emmett Tell” in 1963, telling the story in stark terms, though without any Christian reference except to complains that the human race has fallen “down so god-awful low.” Then there is Mark Twain who wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom,” calling lynching for what it was and clearly discussing the human mimesis just as Girard was to do half a century later.
Cone’s book is written calmly, even gently. There is no mincing of words, yet the words are somehow full of forgiveness. The forgiveness in Cone’s words, the forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus, should be enough to undermine our trust in ourselves and our ability to see what we are doing. We must repent not only of lynching, but of our collective hatred of enemies today.