03/19/2013 11:13 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

A Story Worth Telling at a Time Like This

The black theologian James H. Cone ripped me open and laid me bare, not with a knife but with his book, "The Cross and the Lynching Tree." And what he exposed was my own personal story of faith connecting -- or failing to connect -- to the issue of race.

At a time like this, when a black man has won a second term as president of the United States, triggering widespread calls from some, including many who profess religious faith, to "take back our country," and calls from others to secede from the Union... a time like this, when broad efforts are underway to undermine key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965... a time like this, when a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States can claim that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides for "racial entitlement"... a time like this, my story may be an important story to tell, if only because it is, I suspect, so common.

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Cone writes that "nothing, absolutely nothing, was uglier than lynching in all of its many forms: hanging, burning, beating, dragging, and shooting--as well as torture, mutilation, and especially castration. And yet so many were blind, deaf, and dumb."

Those "many" of whom Cone writes were largely white Christians who, between 1880 and 1940, "lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet those 'Christians' did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions."

For much of my life, I, too, was deaf, dumb and blind, not only to the lynching tree but to the myriad forms of oppression that the lynching tree represented.

As a kid growing up, I failed to discern much of anything about the lives of black people, even though I grew up in Texas where blacks lived in every hamlet, every town and every city.

In Dallas, where I spent my childhood from age 6 to 10, I would see them from time to time, especially the women, standing on street corners, dressed in their freshly pressed gray or white dresses. I realize now that those women were waiting for buses to take them to the homes of white people where they served as nannies or cleaning women.

To my white, 8-year-old eyes, those black women all looked alike, and I often wondered how anyone could tell them apart. I realize now that they all looked alike only because I always saw them from a considerable distance -- from the windows of our family car which sometimes passed through their neighborhoods, but never stopped. As a result, I never got close enough even to discern their features, much less to hear their stories or even to know their names.

That failure to see would define my relation to African American people for years to come.

I attended a Christian college in Arkansas from 1961 to 1965, just a few hundred miles from many of the greatest struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, but somehow sailed through life, almost wholly unaware of the great moral struggles that defined that period.

Malcolm X was murdered on my birthday, Feb. 21, during my senior year in college, 1965. I'm not sure I even knew who Malcolm was.

My ignorance of the lynching tree was matched only by my ignorance of the reality that stood at the center of the faith I claimed to profess: the cross of Christ.

Cone writes that when he was a child in Arkansas, the black preachers "preached about Jesus' death more than any other theme because they saw in Jesus' suffering and persecution a parallel to their own encounter with slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree."

But in the white Christian world of my youth, we heard precious little about the cross of Christ. Because we read the Bible through the lens of white privilege, we minimized the cross and imagined instead that hard work could bring salvation in the same way it could bring success.

The question that haunts me now is: How could I have been so blind?

And a comparable question cries from the blood-soaked ground of the lynching tree: What allowed so many white Christians -- people just like me -- to have eyes that did not see and ears that did not hear and who therefore ignored black suffering altogether?

The answer to those questions emerges in the judgment that so many blacks over so many years of American history have made regarding the Christian religion in white America. And their near-unanimous verdict has been this: the religion that has dominated this country has never been the Christian faith.

In 1829, David Walker asked, "Have not the Americans the Bible in their hands?" His rhetorical answer was unequivocal: "Surely they do." But to the question, "Do they believe it?" his answer was equally clear: "Surely they do not."

Sixteen years later, Frederick Douglass lamented that "between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference ... Indeed," he said, "I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity."

In 1963, Martin Luther King wrote of the churches in the American South that "on sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their spires pointing heavenward ... [and] over and over again I have found myself asking: 'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?"

And now Cone himself has written that "white conservative Christianity's blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its religion, and white liberal Christians' silence about lynching placed both of them outside of Christian identity."

Those black leaders were onto something important, for the ethical failures of the white church in America have long been rooted in a profoundly skewed theology.

While the cross for blacks -- as Cone rightly notes -- "placed God ... in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured," white American Christians often connect the cross chiefly to the world to come and therefore fail to see its implications for human suffering in the here and now.

Likewise, while black Christians have typically grasped the connection between the cross and the public square, white American Christians often turn the Christian faith into a strictly private affair and understand the Gospel only in terms of "Jesus and me."

And that is why, as a white kid in Texas, I learned right away that the great moral issues were drinking, smoking and dancing. Questions of systemic social injustice like segregation or racial oppression never registered on our radar screens as issues that should compel our attention.

Finally, in light of the verdict of countless black Christians that the dominant religion of whites in the United States is not the Christian faith, but something else, what is that something else? Put another way, if for many whites the Christian religion pertains chiefly to the sweet by and by, what religion connects those people to the real world in the here and now -- the world in which all of us must live?

I have long believed that the religion of many white American Christians has little to do with biblical faith, little to do with the cross of Christ and even less to do with the lynching tree, but much to do with what I call "the great American myths."

Five myths often drive the American Christian imagination: the myth of the chosen nation, selected by God for a special mission in the world; the myth of nature's nation, living out those self-evident truths that reflect God's own design; the myth of the millennial nation, ushering in the golden age for all the earth; the myth of the innocent nation that fights the powers of evil but never gets blood on its hands; and finally, the myth of the Christian nation -- the very claim that so many blacks have rejected. I explore those myths at far more length in my book, "Myths America Lives By."

Like many other white school children in this country, I grew up believing those myths, and more than anything else, those are the myths that rendered me deaf, dumb and blind on the question of race.

If those who believe those myths are right -- that we live in a nation in sync with God's will for all humankind, a nation that God has called to redeem the world, and a nation that battles evil but that always preserves its innocence -- then there is no need for the cross in this present life, or even in the life to come, for the nation has become our savior. In such a nation, the cross can only be an illusion.

And since the lynching tree so completely contradicts the myth of the innocent American nation, many white Americans -- including many white Christians -- will regard the story of that tree as an overblown fabrication that they do not wish to hear.

Richard T. Hughes is the author of 'Myths America Lives By' (Illinois 2003).