I have an axiom when I preach: “If it’s true out there, it’s true in here.” What’s true at the cosmic level is true at the socio-political level is true at the interpersonal level is true at the intrapersonal level – and vice-versa, all the way up.
For example, when I am charged to unlearn Whiteness and dismantle White supremacy, that entails active reflection on the ways in which White supremacy culture has formed my individual psyche and understanding. It also means interpersonal action: challenging racism when it comes up in conversation with friends or family members, cultivating friendships with people of other racial experiences, encountering art and media created by people of color. It also means working to end structural and systemic racism: following people of color’s lead in activist and institutional settings, working in solidarity with oppressed communities for just housing policies and an end to police terror, voting for candidates who stand up for racial justice. And finally, I'm called to do all this, not just as a political act, but also as a religious one, a recognition of our mutual interdependence and an expression of trust in the One who makes us all. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
If it’s true out there, it’s true in here.
I bring this up because, when I hear John the Baptist today, declaring that “every tree […] that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” and that the One who is coming “will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire,” it’s a little, uh… hellish. (Matthew 3:10-12) It’s uncomfortable reading for an Advent Sunday dedicated to peace in many churches. John’s words also ring pretty judgmental and dualistic. My experience of God is that if (S)he doesn’t "save" everyone, then (S)He is no God at all, but a demon whom we have made in our image and to whom we have ascribed divinity. That is to say, an idol.
Faced with a biblical text that appears to contradict my lived experience of God (which honestly happens a lot with this beautiful, infuriating book), it’s helpful for me to approach John's proclamation on some of those other levels I just mentioned.
Let’s take John's image of the tree thrown onto the fire I remember, growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the smell of pine-smoke drifting through the air on many a December day. Our ultra-long, ultra-snowy winters are an ideal time for the Forest Service to do controlled burns. If you look at old photographs of the Hills, from the time of the first illegal incursions by White settlers, the hills are far less wooded than they are now. That’s because forest fires regularly swept through them in a natural, generative cycle of growth and burning. We still get forest fires; but now that the Hills have been settled, active forest management is crucial to keeping the balance.
That jives with my time in the redwood forests of Northern California, where I often marveled at real-life instances of Isaiah’s “Root of Jesse” (11:1): baby redwoods sprouting up from fire-ravaged stumps. Actually, this is one of the best ways for new redwoods to grow. To quote a KQED story on the subject: “Redwoods have extensive underground root systems, which are impervious to trifling things like lumberjacks’ axes and fire. Trees that grow from stumps grow quickly and have a good chance of success, because the trees are automatically connected to a large root system.” The new sapling, the “fruit worthy of repentance,” (Matthew 3:8), can only get a foothold because the old, dead tree with the axe at its root (3:10) has been thrown into the fire.
It jives well, too, with my own interior life. In order to grow, I’ve often had to clear out the “deadwood” of my expectations, my insecurities, my habitual egoic defense-mechanisms. (This is funny, because my hometown is Deadwood, SD. Get it???) Lately, this has meant embracing a life in which my value is not commensurate with what I produce, and in which I’m more open to asking and receiving help from others. It’s a real trip for my ego, shaped as it is by the individualistic idols of late-stage capitalism.
Always though, when I want to follow my true calling, I’ve had to let go of the patterns that no longer serve me, from anxious rumination to creative self-doubt to White male privilege. In order to cultivate deep relationships--romantic, platonic, familial, you name it--I’ve had to let go of my need to be right, my compulsion to fix, my fear of failure and rejection. Now there’s a hellish process! Allowing my old, unhelpful ideas about myself, my life, and my world to get cut down and consumed by fire, so that something new and tender can grow in their place…
Yet not everything will be lost or forgotten - indeed, nothing that truly matters will be. Like a redwood, my roots remain, connecting me to my deepest truth and to what my colleague Nikira Hernandez-Evans refers to as the “Wood-Wide Web,” that complex, symbiotic ecology that makes forests possible in the first place. Moreover, the soil that comes in the wake of a forest fire is particularly rich and full of nutrients. Rather than being left to rot, all hollowed out by mountain pine beetles, the wood of what Richard Rohr would call my "False Self" becomes fuel for the fire. It feels apocalyptic when it’s happening—probably because, in a very real way, it is!— but really the flames are creating conditions for new life to flourish.
If it’s true out there, it’s true in here.
Surely, John’s words ring true to the collective sin of White supremacy. You need only look around to see how threatening the holy fire of repentance and reparation is to White America’s collective ego. That horrifying video of a migrant teenager expiring in a U.S. border detention center, for instance... perhaps John's righteous fury is the only reasonable response. In his brilliant Cotton Patch Gospel, Christian anti-racist pioneer Clarence Jordan updates Matthew 3:9 just so. The New Revised Standard Version gives us this: "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." Here's the Cotton Patch Gospel: “And don’t think that you can feed yourselves that ‘we-good-white-people’ stuff, because I’m tell you that if God wants to he can make white folks out of this pile of rocks.”
If we’re to move beyond egocentrism and supremacism, working for Isaiah’s “peaceable kingdom” (11:1-10) and living in balance with ourselves and each other and the cosmos and the God of it all, a little winnowing is necessary - or maybe a lot. John’s call to repentance—turn away from your egoic idols! connect to your roots as the Beloved of God! do justie! love mercy! walk humbly!—is the name of the game. We are called to stop clinging to our deadwood, so that canGod transmute it into heat, and light, and rich dark soil where Life begins again.
'Cos the promise is this: whatever comes after, it will be worth the burning.
By way of a closing prayer, I offer a poem, “On Growth”:
In the mountain woods where
I was made, I learned early
that what overgrows, burns.
It’s not a judgment, just nature
doing what nature does, and
the smell of pine smoke. And
I wonder what tangle there is
in me, needing wildfire and
release. And in you? And in us?
(Poem © 2019 by Tom Emanuel)