“Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21.43).
My first taste of the fruit of the Christian tree was during Sunday School, where I learned about the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul introduces the reader to the variety of fruits on the Christian tree: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22, NRSV).
My hope was to find these fruits, characteristics, values, virtues on the tree of the well-planted, rooted, and watered life of the faithful follower of Jesus Christ. With training and maturity, I began to consider what type of fruit others would find on the tree of my life. Would a person find the fruit of the Spirit or the works of the flesh, which include “strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy,” just to name a few?
Upon closer and more ruthless self-examination, I discovered that my tree could bear both the fruits and the works. It would just depend on what side of the bed I woke-up on, who crossed my path, what I heard on the morning news, or what I saw on my social media feed.
The Song of the Century
Abel Meeropol was a Jewish American New York City Public School English teacher, community activist, amateur poet, and composer. Meeropol was living the American Dream and eating apple pie in the Roaring Twenties. Throughout the 1930s, he was haunted by the strange fruit of the American nightmare. As an act of catharsis, Meeropool described the American ordeal in 1937 when he penned these words and set them to music:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
From “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol
Meeropol describes how he was tormented by the strange photograph of the bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hanging from a tree in the local courthouse yard. In the gruesome yet iconic image from August 7th, 1930, the men, women, and children of the lynch mob pose and smile. Apparently, it was not strange to circulate this image of black flesh swinging in the breeze as the postcard of this image became one of the most widely distributed of the 1930s.
Billie Holiday breathed life into Meeropol’s words when she first performed “Strange Fruit” in March 1939. For the next 20 years, Billie Holiday would ask for the lights to be lowered before she breathed “Strange Fruit” as the closing number of her set. Lady Day lived in a strange and segregated society where she could enter the backdoor as a performer but not the front door as a patron. Her rendition of the song was a form of nonviolent direct action for which she paid the ultimate price. She died tragically in police custody on July 17th, 1959, while handcuffed to a hospital bed. She was an early casualty of the war on drugs. In 1999, “Strange Fruit” was named the most influential song of the 20th century by Time Magazine.
Same Fruit New Tree
How do we express the strange sadness, anger, fear, and shame the history of oppression has forced upon so many but particularly people of African ancestry. Music artist Hasan Green has revived Meeropol and Holiday’s classic by breathing fresh words to capture the 2020 edition of the American nightmare in his rendition of “Strange Fruit:”
O My brother can’t you see
Strange fruit this is a new day of slavery
Strange fruit no longer hang from popular trees
But strange fruit we are now lying in the street
“Strange Fruit” by Hasan Green
The Civil Rights Movement commenced after the lynching of Emmitt Till. The Black Lives Matter Movement was launched after the murder of Trayvon Martin, fueled by the killing of Michael Brown, and globalized by the final pleas of George Floyd. With more questions than answers into his death, George Floyd’s family requested an independent autopsy before Mr. Floyd’s funeral. The medical examiner’s results contradicted that of the local officials. The examiner determined that asphyxiation, killing by deprivation of oxygen, due to back and neck compressions, was the cause of death.
Recent scholarship on ancient Rome reveals that the cause of death by crucifixion was not nail piercing but asphyxiation. In Matthew 27, the reader encounters Jesus nailed to the cross. An innocent man between two bandits, the just between the unjust. With the weight of his body deflating his lungs, “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last” (Matthew 27.50).
A Vision for the Movement
The Christian Movement started not when Jesus took his final breath, but when he shared his most important teaching. When Jesus ascends the mount to teach, he has a massive and diverse crowd of followers, who have both heard his words and experienced his power. Jesus’s movement was one of religious, social, and political nonviolent confrontation and change. Jesus was on a divine assignment to make things on earth as they were in heaven.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demonstrated what I have called Clarity of Vision Impacting Destiny. We know Jesus’s vision as the Beatitudes. This descriptor is a derivative of the Latin term “beati” which means the happy, fortunate, blessed person. For Jesus, the “blessed” person enjoys the benefits that extend from God. Here’s Jesus’s vision for his followers.
The poor in spirit enjoy the benefits of the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn enjoy the benefits of being comforted.
The meek enjoy the benefits of inheriting the earth.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness enjoy the benefits of being filled.
The merciful enjoy the benefits of receiving mercy.
The pure in heart enjoy the benefits of seeing God.
The peacemakers enjoy the benefits of being called children of God.
Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake enjoy the benefits of having the kingdom of heaven.
Adapted from The Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5.3-12
With the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges his followers to be an orchard of these strange fruits of the kingdom. To be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for justice, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be a peacemaker, and to be persecuted for righteousness sake in the 21st century is to be faithful to the gospel message while strange against the status quo.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus of Nazareth, who was scourged, crucified, and resurrected, is the Christ. The bad news is that God’s reign on the earth will be accomplished through his descendants. Yes, we who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ are entrusted with expanding God’s territory. As NT Wright says, “the agenda of the kingdom and of blessings is not what God does to you but what God does through you.”
What will you allow God to do through the tree of your life? Will you allow God to produce a harvest of the fruit of the Spirit? Will others be blessed through your witness as an orchard of the Beatitudes? How can the Beatitudes be the virtues that guide your sense of personal responsibility and social action? The alternative is the works of the flesh and the status of those disinherited from the kingdom.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…” When God speaks to the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament, He often issues this reminder or some variation thereof. I was somewhere deep into an inductive course studying the Old Testament when I realized that God seemed almost obsessive in His reminders to the Israelites of their former slave status and His deliverance. In fact, God starts to remind His people of these things just forty years after they happened in Moses’ instructions to the people in Deuteronomy. “Why is God so repetitive?” I asked myself. Why are the people prone to forget such an important event in their own history?
Recency bias is a term that I first became aware of as someone who follows sports; it is also commonly used in investing and even politics. Recency bias is simply the act of remembering the most recent occurrences more favorably than historic ones, and giving added weight to the things that happened most recently. The things of our most recent memory displace those that are from years ago. It seems as though God had to continually remind the Israelites of their deliverance from Egypt, because even the ancients suffered from recency bias. There were many acts built into the culture and religious practices of the Jewish people that were designed to remind the people of God’s goodness and faithfulness to His people. For this same reason we as Christians practice communion—as Jesus commanded, “do this in remembrance of me.” We must even be reminded periodically of the foundational aspects of our faith.
As I was preparing to write this, the phrase “a history of forgetting” came into my head. I wasn’t sure where I had heard it before. A quick Google search produced a couple of books titled with this same phrase. This saying is brilliant in it’s contradiction and it’s accuracy. We as humans forget. We even forget things of great significance. Forgetting is built into our history. We forget and often repeat the mistakes of our collective past. We need reminders. It is why we preserve all manner of things to connect us to the past. To answer the oft asked question, “how did we get here?”
2020 and the first half of 2021 have produced much that we would like to forget, and that we likely will soon forget. We, at least in the US, have seemed to turn the corner in many ways on the crisis that has consumed a year and a half. Some have lost much, much more than others. There will be trauma and grief that may not completely subside in their lifetime for those who have lost the most. For some, life will quickly return to some semblance of normalcy and 2020-21 will soon be mostly forgotten. We will move on and our memories will be short.
The narrative of the Old Testament is about a God who is faithful to his forgetful people. In the brightest and darkest days of the history of Israel, God was consistent. He was faithful. He was always with his people. It was why He gave them the tabernacle, and later the temple—reminders of His continuous presence with His people. God has been with us, His people now, throughout our lives, even our 2020-21. Do not forget. Find ways to remember how He delivered you through this difficult time. Take time for remembrance, it is a good thing.