The Parable of the Hollow Tree

Eastern Oregon

When I was a kid, I used to love climbing trees, it was one of my favorite things to do. On one particular afternoon when I was about 11, I was down the street from my house hiking in a wooded area with a bunch of trees and tall grass. I remember there was this one specific tree with a low branch that looked easy enough to jump up, grab, and climb. However, when I ended up grabbing the branch in mid jump, I was greeted with the loud crack like thunder as the branch snapped and completely ripped a large side off of the tree. Both the branch and myself hit the ground with a significant force as the air was violently sucked out of my lungs. I was lucky the branch fell in front of me and not on top of me because it was extremely heavy and I was alone out there. I could have found myself in my very own rendition of 127 hours.

As I slowly got up off the ground with a groan, I was shocked to see that the tree was almost completely hollow. It wasn’t dead…yet. It still has some leaves on all of the branches, but it was barely strong enough to sustain its own weight. All it took was about 135lbs of my weight at the time to completely deface the tree. It seemed pretty obvious that this tree was on its last leg. It was probably termites or something, but at the time I had no idea how it happened or how such a thing was even possible. I remember the confusion I had as I brushed the dirt off of my cargo shorts. How on earth did this tree get completely hollowed out?

So a little backstory is required here. A couple years ago, I used to be in a Facebook forum with a decent number of other Protestant Christian ministers of varying different denominations and belief systems. From fundamentalists to universalists, the diversity was noticeable. There were times of rabid disagreement, blow ups, and the occasional troublemaker that would be removed from the group, but for the most part, everyone was united by this core belief in Christ and this desire to make his love known to the world. There were many beautiful moments where people found a common ground with each other despite gigantic disagreements elsewhere theologically. Calvinists, Armenians, Preterists, Post-Tribs, and occasionally there would be an emergent guy asking the “Rob Bell questions” that would often stir the pot. The forum was a journey for everyone and eventually it settled down and activity ceased. Everyone reached what appeared to be their destination of belief and there are only so many times you can discuss if baptism is necessary for salvation before you start to desire to pull your hair out. Eventually, the discussions there ceased completely

On Sunday, I stumbled upon a thread where many of these very same Christians were discussing James Fields, the man accused of driving his car into a crowd of protesters that ended up injuring 19 and killing 1. It was a discussion regarding the guilt of the driver, explanations for how, and, or why he wasn’t at fault. A link was eventually posted to an Allen West page pushing a 4Chan /pol/ theory alleging that the driver was driving slow until a protester hit the car with a bat which caused the driver to fear for his life. Of course, the video attached is edited to mute the sound of the screeching tires and engine accelerating as found in the raw video. I read on another post somewhere, but i didn’t manage to get a screenshot, “If you don’t want to get hit, get out of the road”, despite the fact that the road was closed the next block up prior to the protest. The sheer moral disconnect on display sent chills down my spine. I was reminded that a few months ago, I’ve seen memes of cars driving through protests on highways were met with laughter in the comments like “They better not be in front of me ha”. Fox News and The Daily Caller used to have articles advocating for cars to violently drive through protesters. As you would expect after this weekend, both of those posts were removed after the death of Heather Heyer.

This gave me pause, and it made me question myself. I’m not one to stand in the courtyard and cry for crucifixion. I believe in our justice system and long for justice for all, I believe James Fields deserves a fair trial trial by a jury of his peers. Now it is one thing to try and remain neutral, but to try and justify the act is another far more disgusting thing entirely. Eventually, the conversations I found myself in on Facebook began to widen in scope to include the Charlottesville protest as a whole. Who’s responsible for this whole thing? Franklin Graham, who has over 5 million followers and has a significant influence over American Evangelicalism decided to weigh in.

Franklin Graham Facebook Post

Franklin offers a bold suggestion, blame should instead be assigned to the city council, city politicians, mayor, or even governor. Really? I can think of no easier time of knowing who to assign blame than the swastika flag waving Nazis that are marching in the street starting the protest.

Franklin touched on how long the statue has been there, clearly a subtle endorsement that the confederate memorial should stay there, thus leading into yet another conversation with people about its justification. The response I received was quite harsh. “Erasing history”, “ISIS does the same”, Orwellian”, “un-American”, and “similar to destroying Mt. Rushmore”, are just some of the lines thrown at me. Any conversation about the confederacy will naturally lead back to the Civil War. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I spent a few hours on Tuesday butting heads with people who were not just defending the memorial, but the confederacy itself. Just a couple of the arguments I heard are,

“The vast majority of confederates were not slave owners.”

“These monuments aren’t connected to racism or white supremacy.”

“African Americans fought for the confederacy too.”

“The Civil War wasn’t over slavery, but state rights.”

And don’t forget the most repugnant, reprehensible one.

“Black people were better off as slaves in America rather than back in Africa.”

I’m not going to debunk these myths here, that’ll be another post for another time. However, it was at this moment that I felt like I was on my back again staring back up at that hollow tree. How on earth did this happen? How did we get to a point where almost unlimited excuses are given for the perpetrator, but no one even considers the victims? It seems I have found myself in a culture that I clearly don’t fit in. It seems to everyone around me that the least of these only considered when it fits their politics, every…single…time. Does the blood of Heather Heyer not cry out like Abel’s did? Does the blood of millions killed under the Nazi flags waved in history not cry out? Does the blood of those lynched in the name of White Supremacy not cry out like Abel’s did?

Instead, more devotion is given to defend an inanimate statue of concrete and iron, more time is spent sanitizing the confederacy which was quite clearly founded upon slavery, and more work is put in to defend a President clearly comfortable with the support of those reprehensible people.

I’m reminded time and time again over the last couple years when others’ blood would cry out. Philando Castile, Eric Garner, 12 year old Tamir Rice, and so many others. The average response from these people was always the same…bumbling justification or just crickets and shrugs. It still blows my mind that many of these Christians are willing to paint the entire Black Lives Matter movement with a broad brush…but somehow white supremacists and people literally waving swastika flags are given the benefit of nuance. Perhaps this is what Moses felt like when he came down from the Mount Sinai and found everyone worshiping a golden calf. As of this writing, 7 CEOs have now resigned from Trump’s Manufacturing Council due to his comments on Charlottesville, but not a single pastor has resigned from his Evangelical Advisory Council.

Like the tree I tried to climb as a kid, much of American Christianity appeared full of life at first, but at the core, it’s dead and rotten. Now I know that American Christianity is not a monolith. There are much smaller organizations and denominations that have separated themselves from this larger group for these very reasons. But for the mainstream evangelicals, the termites of politics has burrowed in and now there is no going back. In my opinion, such a reform is impossible. If a pastor tries to correct course, those corrupted people will just leave and go to the church down the street that agrees with them. Greg Boyd lost about a thousand people in his church when he preached a sermon series with the intent of freeing the church from the claws of partisan politics. Now if that church down the street tries to correct course too, well then those same rotten people will start their own church. I know this because some of the racist arguments I heard over the past few days were from people who did just that.

It’s only a matter of time until the the leaves fall, the rest of the tree collapses, and the wood of mainstream American Evangelicalism fully disintegrates into the soil. One can only hope that in the future, something better will eventually grow in its place.