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I regularly teach a survey course of US history and I am constantly revamping my content in light of current events. For example, when the great recession hit, the attention to the stock market crash and Great Depression took on a different tone. The role and size of the federal government is a theme that most students question in light of today’s political divisions. The history of police brutality and treatment of African Americans that prompted the more recent Black Lives Matter movement necessitated a greater emphasis on the role of lynching in US history in my teaching.

How do you square the idea of mob justice with a country that proudly asserts individual rights and freedom? How do you get your head around the photographs of people smiling next to a dangling, sometimes mutilated body? How do you understand the men, women, and children present at a lynching? How do you account for the seeming carnival atmosphere in many photographs? Or, at a more basic level, what does it mean that people are preserving an image of lynching with something that cannot be described as anything other than pride?

Between 1880 and 1940, more than 5000 African American men, women and children died at the hands of lynch mobs. White Christians made up many or even most of those lynch mobs. James H. Cone, theologian and founder of black liberation theology, wrote the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree that came out in 2011.  He reflects on the paradox of American Christianity and the cruel violence of lynching and compares the cross and crucifixion of Christ to a first century lynching. In particular, Cone takes 20th century white liberal theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr to task for failing to seriously address racial violence.

While much has been written about Cone, his theology, and the significance of his book on lynching and the cross, I couldn’t help but reflect: How is the cross similar to the lynching tree? How important is suffering and oppression to the Christian faith? What does suffering and oppression look like in American society today?

And yet, Cone also expresses the power of hope among African Americans. The power of reconciliation and forgiveness are also central to the power of the cross.

What does that look like in a season of Lent that is also black history month?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Shannon Jammal-Hollemans says:

    Thank you for this reflection. I think more of us need to be reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and asking these questions of ourselves. I think, particularly, of how some in my denomination (the CRC) expressed that we should not adopt the Belhar Confession because of the line “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged” (article 4). Suffering was a large part of Jesus’ life on earth. If we are following him, it will be part of ours as well.

  • Michael Kugler says:

    My church holds soup suppers each week of Lent, to discuss a Lenten reading. We’ve been reading selections from Cone, and its provocative and challenging. How is reflection and repentance appropriate for a nation’s crimes? Thank you for posting this.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    If you’re looking to better understand the disconnect between mob justice and individual rights in the south, you might start by remembering that those were southern Democrats doing the lynching.

    It might also be worth mentioning that discriminatory gun control laws were used to aid and abet these lynchings and that it was the NRA that strongly opposed the Klan.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      I am not sure what the purpose of your comment is since it offers no insights on the essay, but let me respond to the “revisionist” history that you cite.

      As everyone (well pretty much everyone) knows, the Southern Democrats arose in opposition to the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln following the Civil War. For the next 100 years, those Southern Democrats were the party of institutionalized racism is the southeastern section of our country (or the former Confederacy). Those Southern Democrats were co-opted by the Republican party as part of the Nixon “southern strategy” (which actually started with Barry Goldwater’s campaign). So, if you want to draw a connecting line between the southern Democrats of the lynchings in the south, that line connects directly to the southern Republicans of today. A simply web search turns up any number of articles that describe this change (e. g., One can also follow this transformation by looking at politicians like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Richard Shelby of Alabama that swapped parties from Democratic to Republican.

      Regarding your second statement, there is no evidence to support it. it is a pleasant fiction (who wouldn’t like to go on record as opposing the Klan?) but devoid of fact. I suggest you take a look at and
      If you have any evidence to the contrary, I welcome you to post the source.

      We live in a period in which we struggle to agree on facts. Without agreement on facts, there is no ability to have an informed discussion or to reach positions of common understanding and action. The issue of racism and its effects on our society is real and complex. Finding common ground and ways to address the very real issues is not helped by dragging red herrings through the discussion.

      • Matt Huisman says:

        Hi Tom – Regarding the NRA and the Klan, I was never so bold as to claim they were founded to fight the KKK. But you can look up Robert F Williams, his story of armed resistance to the lynch mobs and how he appealed to and received support from the NRA:

        Black Lives Matter doesn’t seem especially fact based to me and so the warrant for additional discussions of lynching is questionable. The point I made was a response to the question of how do you square mob justice with a country that proudly asserts individual rights and freedoms. The answer is that you don’t – Jim Crow, gun control laws, etc are inherently leftist tools of controlling people.

        • Tom Ackerman says:

          Hi Matt,

          Perhaps I misunderstood the implication of your statement that “it was the NRA that strongly opposed the Klan”. There is one case in which the NRA supported the formation of a chapter in North Carolina that was related to Klan opposition. That is a far cry from “strongly opposed” and, to my reading of history, is an out-lying example rather than a conscious decision by the NRA to oppose violence towards the southern black population. In any case, the stance of the NRA is not particularly relevant to Rebecca’s article.

          The last two sentences of your reply are much more disconcerting and are what prompts this reply. I think that you and I would both agree that “mob justice” is not justice. So what is the answer to “mob justice”? Is it more guns, more violence, and citizens shooting it out in the street? How would that have played out in the South during the last century? Robert Williams was forced to flee the country in 1961 to avoid arrest by the state of North Carolina. At the same time, the states of Mississippi and Alabama were using state police forces and national guard troops to enforce Jim Crow laws, protect white Southerners and arrest non-violent civil rights protesters. What would have happened if the Selma civil rights marchers had all carried guns? Would that have been a good thing? The answer to mob justice from my perspective is not individuals with guns but the enforcement of fair justice by the government. So to me, your statement about individual rights and freedoms relating to mob justice is a non sequitur. Mob justice denies individual rights and the government is required to respond to ensure equal rights for all. In the absence of good government, society is faced with chaos, violence, and the rule of might – hardly the situation we are looking for.

          In your last sentence, you try to draw some link between Jim Crow laws and “leftists”. I don’t know what you intend to say here but there is no demonstrable connection between them. Jim Crow laws were put in place by Southern whites to limit the political power of non-whites, particularly blacks. Those Southern whites were not “leftists” by any conceivable definition. (The fact that they were part of southern Democrat party of the time does not make them “leftists” – they were reactionary whites trying to maintain their political and economic power by suppressing others.) We live in a pluralistic society in which individual rights are and must be tempered by collective rights of society and the role of government. All personal freedoms come with limits when those freedoms impinge on the freedoms and rights of others. Your statement that “leftists” are somehow intent on controlling people, as opposed to “rightists”, is again at odds with the facts of the world that we live in. I encourage you to think about the complexities of the issue of racism rather than make sweeping assertions that are demonstratively false and, to some extent, offensive.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    It is also worth mentioning that the 3446 (not 5000, according to the NAACP) lynchings over almost a century, while tragic, is multiples less human carnage than inner-city black on black killings every single year.

    I don’t recall any recent essays on The Twelve about black on black murder. But often when there is a mass shooting, usually of white people, an outraged essay gets written. Isn’t that racist? I’m just asking a question…

    In Stalinist Soviet Russia, there was a common phrase along the lines of “At least we don’t lynch black people”. It was propaganda used by Soviets to attack the prosperity of the US and to attempt to cover over the murderous nature of Marxist-Leninism.

    There are similarities to how leftists today use the history of lynchings as propaganda.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Hi Marty – thanks for your comments.
      I may need a little clarification – how am I using the history of lynching as propaganda? I did not make any connections to mass shootings, so I’m a little confused what you mean by outrage of white people after mass shootings. Are you confusing my post with Scott’s post?
      The numbers on actual lynchings vary, of course, by time period and by who is counting. Interestingly, there are a number of whites also lynched. Not as many as African Americans, but still an example of white on white violence. I may or may not address black on black murder in a blog post at some point in the future, but alas, I cannot address all issues of history in a singular blog post, or at least I did not choose to do so here. A good conversation for another time.
      The propaganda in the USSR definitely used the US racial politics of the 1950s and 60s to point to the hypocrisy of freedom and equality, which the US proclaimed as the bedrocks of capitalism in the Cold War against communism. Certainly the human rights violations of the Soviet Union are nothing to minimize either. But it seems like the hypocrisy of both nations is the most galling – saying the are one thing, but doing another in secret or even out in the open.
      How does the historical reality of lynching work as propaganda?

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Hi Rebecca,

        Thank you for your response. I have answered most of your questions in my response to Steve below.

        I suppose I should state for the record that I am anti-lynching. It was a black spot on our history. But, it has been almost 40 years since the last documented lynching took place (other than the attempted high-tech lynching of Clarence Thomas by Joe Biden and company).

        You seem to indicate a moral equivalence between the US and the USSR in that both countries didn’t live up to their ideals. Let me posit to you a question: whose ideals are superior, the US with limited government and free market capitalism or the centrally planned Marxist societies like the USSR?

        • Rebecca Koerselman says:

          I am curious what you mean in your statement that it was 40 years ago since the last lynching took place.
          If something is far enough in the rear view mirror, does that mean it no longer matters? or no longer effects us today?

          I don’t know if I would say ‘moral equivalence.’ But I would say neither country lived up to their ideals. As for whose ideals are superior, I cannot say that either. This is the puzzle of governance: what is the best way to govern? As theoretical systems, both have merit and both have flaws. But theories and ideals are not reality. In reality, both systems have problems. I would say that the communism of the USSR wasn’t exactly practiced the way communism was envisioned, though an inherent problem of a communist system is its application. The ideas of limited government and free market capitalism have been around longer, but even just in the short history of the United States, those 2 ideas have undergone significant revisions and changes.
          There is certainly evidence of evil in regimes that oppress people. But there is also evil in a society that chooses to oppress people.

          • Marty Wondaal says:


            I will respond this evening. But I’ll don’t understand your last two sentences. Typo?

          • Marty Wondaal says:


            Regarding lynching, let me once again, for the record, state that I am in no way pro-lynching. It is bad, bad, bad. If you think I am a supporter of lynching, please know that I am not. I am 100% categorically opposed to lynching anyone, under any circumstances. In fact, I almost feel like outlawing rope altogether, just to signal my opposition to anything tangential to lynching. I am not advocating outlawing trees, however, because I am pro-trees, except for weeping willows.

            But, to be serious, my answer to your two initial questions is: Exactly, relatively speaking. Why not be encouraged that virtually nobody has been lynched in the last half-century? The challenges facing the black community today are much more real and urgent than that.

            I’m not saying that lynching should be forgotten or swept under the rug. It should be remembered as another example of how a culture of fallen people failed to live up to the ideals to which we aspire. I have every confidence that your profession will maintain that history.

            Which brings me to the second half of your response. If I understand you correctly (and I try desperately to avoid making straw-man arguments), you cannot say that the ideals of our US Constitution are superior to the ideals of Marxism. Perhaps it is my choice of the word “ideals” that is causing some confusion. So, let me ask you a related question: Which model of human governance is superior – limited, representative government as exemplified in the US Constitution, or any version of Marxism that has either been implemented or even imagined?

            The US Constitution, in my opinion, in the apotheosis of human governance based in Western Civilization. While not flawless in either design nor implementation, it has produced more human flourishing than any other system.

            The Marxist worldview, on the other hand, is the opposite. It denies human nature (particularly a Reformed view of human nature) and, everywhere implemented, results in abattoirs and human suffering.

            I realize we have gone a bit far from your original topic, but, to be honest, I am quite astonished that, as a professor at a Christian College, you seem to be unable to distinguish or discriminate between the two worldviews.

            I look forward to your response.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. What especially struck me was your comment about the carnival atmosphere at lynchings. Can’t help but remind me of the mockery and cruel banter at Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t know, or especially care, if the crowds were Democrats or Republicans, but assume they considered themselves Christians. How they did not see the awful parallels with the crucifixion is beyond me. Lord, have mercy on our blind spots.

    • Marty Wondaal says:


      Thank you for lamenting to God for my blind spots. And Matt’s (he’s got real big ones). But, if you read some of the previous posts, you would see that we would prefer a more direct approach: call us out for what you see as our sins. I give you my word, I will earnestly examine myself for both sins of commission and omission.

      As far as parallels between the cross and the lynching tree, I agree with you that they both show man’s inhumanity to man. Romans vs. Jews, blacks vs. whites, Hutus vs. Tutsis, Marxist vs. everyone else. And yes, there’s always a crowd (mob) around to cheer on the depravity.

      But the story of Jesus and His crucifixion is singular and unique. His guiltless sacrifice was for all of humanity, regardless of any other identity. His Kingdom was now available to all who believe in Him. We are all invited to become sons and daughters of the King,
      regardless of our station in life or any other claims we may have of significance.

      What Cone and other leftists like him do, however, is very different. They see people not as individuals, but as aggrieved minority groups. The history of late 19th and early 20th century lynching is used as a tool to further their cause. So is police brutality, incarceration statistics, and (now popular) real estate practices of the 1940’s and 50’s. There is injustice in all these issues, but they are used as battering rams to achieve a political goal, and the ideology behind it is not Christian, it is simply power for its own sake. Black Liberation Theology, in particular, is a direct ideological descendant of Marxism, which has no use for Christianity, once it gains power. And group identity politics metastasizes into tribal/ethnic warfare and always ends in tragedy.

      So I confess I have a sensitivity (blind spot?) when people reference lynching. To me, it’s kind of a “tell” to where a person is really coming from. Lynching was a tragic episode in our history, but that’s where it remains. Inner-city nihilistic violence and genocidal abortion are the real tragedies affecting African American today.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Marty brings up a very good point here regarding addressing the actual/real/present problems affecting African Americans versus endless replaying/relitigating of history. In addition to the twin problems of abortion and inner-city lawlessness we can add the multi-faceted problem of fatherlessness/unwed motherhood. Interestingly, these problems and how to help alleviate them are not very popular topics in CRC/RCA circles, particularly with the social justice crowd. Doing so would endanger the well-groomed concept that certain sectors of American society are singularly oppressed or victimized, incapable of moral choices, mere pawns. Fully 57.6% of black versus 20.7% of white children are living absent their biological fathers. When was the last time you saw this inequity highlighted here (or anywhere)? Do we devalue the humanity and moral agency of African Americans so much that we allow ourselves to believe this is simply the product of the all-powerful “systems” or “structures” that we hear so much about these days? Statistically we know what this epidemic results in, but you will find scant evidence in CRC/RCA circles of a desire to honestly examine these problems and propose solutions. I cannot imagine the depth of insult in being told that I am incapable of making moral choices because history. How dehumanizing it must be to be cast as an unwitting pawn or victim with no free will or moral agency. How sad that the church has become so complicit in amplifying this damaging message.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Clarification regarding Matt’s blind spots:

    I played basketball with him. He very seldom passed the ball to me, even when I was wide open.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Marty, and others, you take me as more antagonistic than I am. I was not bemoaning Matt’s or anyone else’s blind spots—other than my own. I know I have them, but that’s the thing with blind spots. It’s tough to find your own.

    But since you want me to be candid and direct, here goes! Really, you want to adopt a tone of “Hey, lynching wasn’t really that big of deal!”?? “Talking about the incredible suffering and injustice done to others should just be dismissed as just left-wing propaganda?” It is always wise to tell others who suffer that they should now move on and let it go. Try it with someone grieving in your congregation. Way to be sensitive and caring!!

    As for black-on-black violence or the tragically high rate of African-American children growing up without fathers, it is not good, really not good. At the same time, these are old tropes that basically equal—“Let’s change the subject off of something that points a finger at me, and instead point it at others,” a version of “You say that I have problems, that I have some responsibilities? Well, they have even bigger problems than me and let’s lecture them about responsibility instead!” And those who trot out these concerns never seem very concerned to do anything about them except to point them out.

    As a white person, in a largely white Christian denomination, on a blog where nearly all the bloggers and readers are white, owning and wrestling with our racism and our blighted history is just more honest and more of a priority than trying to tell the African-American community about their problems and how they should fix them.

    It isn’t exactly apples-to-apples, but I think of Jesus’s words about specks in others’ eyes and planks in my own. Many, many years ago, when I was critical of apartheid ruled South Africa, people would say “What about the Soviet gulags?” Today when I am critical of the Israeli occupation, I hear “Do you know about the human rights record of many Arab countries?” Yes, I do. It is atrocious. But I need to speak primarily to my sphere of influence, to those that are more-or-less my allies, to the injustices that I bear some responsibility for, to the situations that make me uncomfortable. I’m trying to get the junk out of my eyes before I go pointing out the junk in others’ eyes.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Steve. I’m not sure if you are including me in the “others”, but since I responsed to Marty’s post, I’ll assume you’ve included me in at least some of your response. I’ll let Marty speak for himself as to what he did or did not say. Since this is the way that my mind works, I’ll respond in points:
      1. I never stated or insinuated that lynching wasn’t really a big deal.
      2. I never dismissed suffering and injustice as left-wing propaganda.
      3. I never told others who suffer that they should move and let it go.
      4. To dismiss the real suffering and injustice suffered by others as a trope is not particularly becoming. You may simply want to wave your hand and make such topics off limits, but you have no such power. I’m talking about honest discussion about real problems that doesn’t seem to be allowed in our circles, and you’ve nicely demonstrated how such conversation is limited. The fact that you interpret these issues being raised as simply wanting to lecture others about their problems is about as ungracious an approach as you possibly could take. It is just as ungracious to accuse others of having no desire to do anything other than point out the problems, when you have no reason to reach that conclusion. It seems you are only allowing yourself to have altruistic intentions. What was that you said about log and speck?
      5. To assume that lynchings are somehow indicative of your racism is interesting. I don’t reach the same conclusion as you do. Am allowed to express that belief, or is their only one acceptable narrative.
      6. Just how much historical navel gazing is enough? When we have self-flagellated over past white sins for the millionth time, will we then know that we have finally achieved absolution? We are constantly told that we need to have a “conversation” about race and history, about slavery and injustice. Yet, we have the “conversation” continually, as if on a hamster wheel. The idea that we are mainly “white” and just need to focus on “white” problems lest we be accused of telling others how they should fix their problems is not very New Testament. The New Testament that I read forgives, keeps no record of wrongs, unites instead of divides, breaks down cultural and ethnic barriers instead of reinforcing them at every turn, spurs one another on toward good works, and judges unrighteous ness to be so.
      7. If you cannot see the untold damage being done to African-Americans by propagating the lie that their struggles are the result of forces outside of themselves and that they are not moral agents before God, responsible for their choices, then you are fooling yourself. Pointing out this damage and decrying the church’s complicity in it is not out of bounds.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    Thanks for this article, Rebecca. I am very encouraged to know that you are studying and teaching on this topic, so central to reckoning with our history and for imagining healthy changes in our future as US citizens. I encourage Matt and Marty to start reading Black scholars and writer from Chicago on these topics, especially as it pertains to the news stories yesterday related to school closings in Englewood. Matt and Marty, your comments show serious gaps in your breadth of reading on this general topic and I exhort you to show a greater spirit of respect and turn your hearts to listening and learning about the 2018 suffering caused by ongoing systems of white supremacy and racism. Your minimizations of lynching violence and the Movement for Black Lives are serious obstacles to your bringing wisdom to the table on these discussion. Listen some more, not only to Rebecca and her expertise, but also to the Black people who have intimate experience and decades of scholarship on these issues, people like Jenn M. Jackson, Eve Ewing, Mikki Kendall are a few options to look into as Chicago voices. Bree Newsome, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Stacey Patton are other writers who have wisdom for us to learn on these issues.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks, Jessica.

      As a larger comment on the comments displayed here, I think it may also be worth asking the role of personal sin and systematic or institutional sin in all of this. When we encounter sin like lynching, for example, is this the problem of individual sinners? or is this an institutional sin?
      There are many who believe that everything boils down to individual holiness or individual sin. Your reaction and choices and actions are your responsibility. But that often overlooks systems of oppression. Others can place too strong an emphasis on institutional or systematic sin. Both are worthy of consideration and dismissing either side is particularly shortsighted.

    • Marty Wondaal says:


      Thank you for those reading suggestions. I will take them in the gracious manner they were given. Right now, however, I am slogging my way through The Brothers Karamazov for the third time and I still get new insights into the human condition. I’m a slow reader, so it may be awhile. But I highly recommend Dostoyevsky,
      he is one heck of a dead white male.

      Please see my posts above where I clearly state my aversion to lynching. I don’t minimize the tragedy of lynching, I just think that there are more urgent issues affecting the black community that Christians should be speaking out on and helping to end.

      For instance, recently Planned Parenthood rather quietly opened up a facility in Flossmoor, Illinois, where they perform abortions. Flossmoor is in the heart of the south suburbs of Chicago (near where I live and work), and is an area that, over the last 25 years, has seen a demographic transformation to a majority African American population.

      Why do you think Planned Parenthood opened in that community?

      How many black babies (or, in the creepy vernacular of Ta-nahisi Coates, black bodies) will be aborted there every year?

      Any Christian who lives in that area and can’t identify the evil nature of what Planned Parenthood is doing should check their human privilege.

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    Hi Marty,
    I appreciate your commentary. I do, however, like weeping willow trees, so I’m not sure where that leaves us (terrible pun intended) 🙂
    While I may tend to agree that a democratic system is better than a Marxist one, I cannot deny that I find much of Marxist ideology interesting and intriguing, as a form of governance. Even more, I am interested in understanding the millions of people who found communism much more compelling than capitalism. I don’t presume that everyone thinks just like me. I am not God. Therefore, I will be wrong about a great many things. So I am far more interested in understanding viewpoints that differ from my own instead of judging or dismissing those viewpoints.

    I think our Constitution is pretty clever and a good form of governance, despite its flaws. But I don’t know that I could say it has produced the most human flourishing in all of history. Who flourishes? how many flourish? in what ways? and for how long? I cannot see the future – I can only study the past. Rome made a pretty good go of a republic (and for much longer than the US). And then it fell apart.
    Kingdoms rise and fall. But God’s kingdom is different. It is precisely because I am a Christian and a professor of history that I take ideas and people and the past seriously. What is wrong with taking the ideas and the implementation of communism seriously? Does that lessen my faith?

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Is there a particular example of Marxism in practice that you admire?

      • Rebecca Koerselman says:

        I wouldn’t use the term ‘admire’ – I would say ‘interested’: the theory of class conflict as the engine of social change

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Is there a better example of Marxism that you could point me to? The implementation side of communism is the difficult part for most of us. We can understand why it would be theoretically attractive to some.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Would you say that you more interested in class conflict as an agent of change or in communism as a solution? In other words, why is the communism part necessary?

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Also, to be clear: Marxism is a theory. Communism is an application of Marxism, and, not a very accurate implementation of Marxism.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    The Communist Manifesto was written by….

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    And the difference between Marxism and communism is…

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Ok… I understand the theory vs. practice dichotomy. But what value is there to a theory that cannot be successfully put into practice without killing millions? The theory that Marx wrote denies human nature in concept and kills human beings in practice. There isn’t much of an upside.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    …but your earlier pun was almost funny. Which is high praise for a pun.

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