I have a love-hate relationship with my raspberry bushes. Every year they spring up from the ground full of the promise of fresh berries and the taste of summer, and every year they.just.spread…everywhere. And, so, by fall, every year, they have taken over so much garden space that I am overcome by a desire to prune with abandon. Actually, “Prune” is too gentle a word. I hack and chop them back as if in a blind rage. I almost always over-prune. And, every year, they’re back.
So it is that when I hear mention of pruning in the gospels, I get a bit skittish. My image of pruning is not the healthiest, most productive image. The language of pruning here sounds, to my ears, a little threatening – the pending judgment of a wrathful God. It feels like we are in danger of being cut down, at any moment. But, if we are honest, many of us are already feeling cut off or cut down by the world. Each day brings from the Middle East more bad news of mass executions of the most gruesome kind. In Nepal another devastating earthquake has swallowed thousands of lives and destroyed homes and left behind a people struggling to pick up the pieces. And here at home we are barraged with the stories of the continued killing by law enforcement officers of unarmed men and women from within the black community. We hear too of police being murdered in the streets, of angry protests, riots, and looting. There are moments when it feels not only like pruning, but like the world is already ablaze, the branches already cast into the fire.
So it is when we look at the world, it can shape how we hear the words of our faith, and you wouldn’t be blamed this morning if what you heard was unbridled wrath and pending judgment. God is sorting out the good and the bad. The withered and fruitless branches he has cut off and thrown into the fire to burn. And when we hear this, we might ask ourselves – so am I a good branch?
But, the question is actually flawed, stemming as it most likely does, from a popular point of view that paints the world in clear categories of black and white – good and bad. As Desmond Tutu writes in The Book of Forgiving, “I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behavior.” To think of people as fitting into either category of good or evil is a relatively low anthropology, and it is, quite frankly, bad theology. It denies the truth of our faith which says that when God created us, he declared his work “Good”. To claim that we could somehow undo or unmake that which the Creator has made, is a fundamentally unchristian claim. For it is God who makes us and God who names us – beloved and good. Which isn’t to deny the existence of evil in the world, but rather to see evil for what it is, and in the light of God’s claims on us.
Writing in response to the recent spike in violent crime in Los Angeles, Jesuit priest, activist, and advocate for youth in the criminal system, Fr. Greg Boyle recently tackled the issue of crime and policing in an OpEd for the LA Times entitled “The problem with good guys vs. bad guys policing”. Fr. Boyle’s primary ministry is with Homeboy Industries a program he founded that works directly with at risk youth, gang members, and the recently incarcerated, helping them to find a path out of crime and into new life. He writes:
“No sentence gets spoken more at Homeboy Industries than this one: ‘This is the longest I’ve ever been out.’ It is a refrain uttered by formerly gang-involved and ‘serious and violent’ felons, in government parlance. These are not the ‘nons,’ the nonviolent and nonserious offenders, but those who are most likely to endanger public safety. Unless, of course, they can find a healing place of hope.”
For Boyle, the problem of policing in America is a fundamental misunderstanding of what he calls the language of crime. He argues that if we continue to see crime as the language of bad guys, then we will always answer with violence. When a suspect runs or resists they are shot. Such a misunderstanding, he says, of the language of crime, puts a criminal in every dark alley in every rough neighborhood. But, in his neighborhood, the one where Homeboy Industries is doing the work of helping violent offenders find redemption and reconciliation, he says people understand that the language of crime is the language of the broken, the oppressed, and those who have, for one reason or another have been traumatized. And this is not to turn a blind eye on crime or tacitly or explicitly approve of destructive behavior – his community, Boyle writes, knows “that a kid who’s acting out has endured unspeakable violence and is an enormously complex human being. They are reverent in the face of what he has suffered. They are able to stand in awe at what he’s carried, rather than in judgment at how he’s carried it. They know what language violence is speaking.”
From this perspective, crime is not a law enforcement issue, it is a community issue. And, herein we are drawn back to the gospel again. Unless we can see that each of us is a branch connected and rooted one to another, we will not be able to adequately address the complex and complicated issues of our world – we will not be able to look pain and brokenness square in the face and respond in love.
Like many of you, I was taken this week by one of the farewell acts on the Late Show with David Letterman. You might have caught it – a week from this past Thursday, Tracy Chapman sang Stand By Me, the well known ballad by Ben E. King, made all the more poignant by Kings death this Thursday. The song, in the midst of a world being torn in two by violence and disaster, seemed a plea for connection and solidarity with one another. When the night has come and the land is dark, when all hope seems to be lost, stand by me. If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountain should crumble to the sea – if the world would come apart at the seams, stand by me.
The song echoes with the words of our gospel this morning, not a threat of punishment, but a promise of abiding love and solidarity. If we stay rooted in Jesus, connected to the life source of our being, and in his community, the body of Christ, the promise is not only that we will find our life, but that we will find limitless possibility in his name. We are claimed by the love of Christ and his promise is to abide in us, to never leave us or forsake us. And in that claim we are bound and connected one to another, that we might stand together, built up in the knowledge and love of the one who first made us, who called us good, and in his name we might bear fruit that would change the world. The kind of fruit that might, as Fr. Boyle reports, “heal its damaged members and lead the serious and violent offenders to celebrate: ‘This is the longest I’ve ever been out.’”