Now too, the axe is laid to the root of the trees, so every tree which does not bring forth good fruit
is hewn down and cast into the fire.
People have been aware of social inequity for a long time, and have been working on the problem-which
does not seem to have gone away. The prologue of the Law Code of Hammurabi, written almost four
thousand years ago, states as one of the purposes of the Code, "that the strong may not oppress the
weak." A century ago, when electricity was an astounding novelty, there seems to have been a pervasive
expectation that technological progress was going to bring an end to poverty. The new century was
going to be one of peace and plenty.
A hundred years later, the mood has changed, but some of the assumptions may not have changed all that
much. We may have lost our trust in technology, but there is still a tendency to construe the problem
primarily in economic terms and therefore to look for financial solutions. There are hints that things
are not that simple. Oddly enough, at the moment the gap between rich and poor seems to have widened,
and in many cities the rate of violent crime has gone down. In the midst of the early optimism of
perestroika, one Russian sounded a cautionary note: "Every time we change the system, it seems as
though the bad guys are first in line again."
A recent article in the Portland Press Herald points out that the Gospels do not portray a Christ with
a strong economic or political agenda. If you tried to reconstruct the New Testament on the basis of
current Christian activism, it says,
You would probably conclude that Christ and His followers spent a lot of time forming coalitions,
networking among the politically powerful and writing laws; that in order to advance His "social
agenda," Christ demanded political access, influence and a "place at the table" . . . .
This is not, of course, what we actually find. But lest it be thought that the lack of political
activism reflects a lack of concern about injustice, the article also points out that
The focal point of Christ's ministry-the object of most of His energies and affections-were the
downtrodden, social outcasts, the powerless.
We might add that he did pay some attention to people in positions of power, and that most of what he
had to say to or about them was highly critical. If we look at the criticism, though, it seems more
personal than political. The outward righteousness of the Pharisees is conceded. It is the inner
character that is at fault.
This provides a suggestive context for the statement of John the Baptist, "Now is the axe laid to the
root of the trees." It is an image that still works. We still talk about getting to the root of a
problem. It implies that other approaches deal only with symptoms, and that the problem will not go
away until its causes are unmasked and dealt with. In another image, we talk about "Band-Aid"
We need to be careful at this point, though. Band-Aids are very useful things. Have you ever put one
on a cut and said, "But that's only a Band-Aid"? As long as we recognize that this is not a cure, that
it is simply something that helps healing take place, as long as we recognize that the healing itself
happens at a far deeper level, we can simply use them for what they are good for.
Isaiah not only used the image of the root, he told us what he meant by it. When he said, ". . . their
root shall be like rottenness, and their blossom shall go up like dust . . . ," he was talking about
people "who are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight . . . who justify the wicked for
a reward . . ." One of the principal diseases that attacks the root of the trees is self-importance.
When I was in graduate school in the early sixties, one of the departmental secretaries went to a
civil rights gathering at which some of the bigger names were present. She came back almost in tears.
She had gone up to one of the more prominent individuals (I do not know which one) and asked what she
could do to help, and said he had looked at her as though she were utterly insignificant and had no
right to be taking up the time of important people like himself. How much harm could be done to all
the sincere folk by this kind of corruption at the core!
The spiritual disease of self-importance is not confined to the upper levels of society. No one seems
to be immune, including bus drivers, sales clerks, police officers, and the clergy. Conversely, there
seems to be no class in which all members are incurable. In all social circles there are delightfully
unassuming individuals, individuals for whom self-forgetfulness seems to have become habitual.
These are the people, I would suggest, who are most truly exempt from the "isms" that top the social
agenda. These are the individuals who are least susceptible to economic greed or racism or sexism or
homophobia, who are virtually incapable of domestic violence. These are also the people who do not
threaten others, who do not awaken the fears that prompt acts of violence and greed in others. They
are the people who are equally willing to give or to receive as the occasion demands, to ask or to
answer, to listen or to talk, to hold or to let go. They are not driven by their needs, so they are
free to respond appropriately.
It is wholly appropriate for Christians to be concerned with the state of the world around them, and
it is at least understandable for them to look to Scripture for support for their agendas. It does not
take much research to find an abundance of passages calling for justice-"that the strong may not
oppress the weak." It is harder, apparently, to look to Scripture to find its agenda, to step back
from our own best convictions about what needs to be done.
As one example of the difficulty, one of the classic calls for social justice included a statement
about standing "with the oppressed and against the oppressor." This does not reconcile easily with the
Gospel commands to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It does not sit
comfortably with the basic principle that we ourselves are forgiven as we forgive those who wrong us.
Long before the Gospels, at a time when Israel was not only oppressed but actually exiled and in
captivity, Ezekiel gave voice to the divine policy:
" Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die," says the Lord God, "and not
that he should turn from his ways and live?"
Injustice is self-perpetuating as long as we cannot move beyond our own wounded feelings, as long as
we think of justice in terms of evening the score. The subtle liability of the focus on human or civil
rights is the way it can encourage all of us-not just the oppressed-to look first of all at what we
think we deserve, and self-importance will always tell us that we deserve more than we are getting.
Perhaps if we were to look harder at the Gospel message, we would find it talking less about human
rights and more about human responsibilities. The parable of the talents seems to be saying very
clearly that what matters is not how much we have but what we do with what we have.
The harder we try to find the root of the trees, though, to unmask the deepest causes of the social
evils that beset us, the more we move into a realm where the results are not immediate or obvious,
away from the events that make the headlines. There are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, and there is
probably no Nobel Peace Prize in store.
By the same token, though, we do not have to go to El Salvador or Bosnia to find the roots. They are,
as Jesus said, in our own households. Deuteronomy tells us that the commandment is not far off, not up
in heaven or across the sea, that the word is very near, in our mouths and in our hearts, and it is
there because that is where it is most of all needed.
Again, this does not mean that we are unconcerned with what is happening in other parts of the world.
If we start on that course, the circle of our love contracts more and more until finally we care only
about those things that directly affect us. The call of the Gospels is rather to reject any notion
that we are the good guys, the enlightened ones, the ones with the solutions to the problems. It is to
recognize that the roots of injustice reach into our own hearts, that no matter how concerned we are
with the speck in our brother's eye, we do not know what we are talking about if we have not noticed
the timber that blocks our own vision.
The church is wonderfully placed to engage in this effort to get to the root of the problem. The
effort is a long-term one-the church has been around for a long time, and shows an extraordinary
ability to survive. The effort requires an ongoing community of affection and understanding, of
patience and forgiveness, and the church recognizes this as part of its mission. Above all, the effort
requires a light and a strength that we cannot claim as our own, but which the church recognizes as
the light of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is the also task for which we as individuals have been designed and created. Whether we look to
Genesis for the assurance that we have been created in the image and likeness of God or to the Gospels
for the command to love each other as we are loved by our Lord, the message is the same. True humanity
is not our default setting-it is the goal to which we are called.