By Kim Redigan, a teacher, organizer and author in Detroit, Michigan
*This is the 13th installation of a year-long series of posts from contributors all over North America each answering the question, “How would you define radical discipleship?” We will be posting responses regularly on Mondays during 2019.
There was an April day in a small West Bank town when a group of us serving on a peace team witnessed ancient olive trees ripped from the ground by a confluence of machines and the military – an act of violence that literally drove us to our knees in grief.
Years later, I danced among the olive groves in a small village in Greece with my great-aunt Demetra where ancestral trees brought me home to myself, awakening something deep down inside that speaks truth older than history. The same brilliant Mediterranean sun throbbing against a canvas of brilliant blue, the same terraced hills that undulate like patterned green blankets rolled out by Mother Earth, the same brown ground that feels solid and familiar under the feet.
But the trees! Such different fates. Making all the difference in the world.
So, what do trees in Palestine and Greece have to do with radical discipleship? For me, everything. The trees matter because it’s all about the roots. How we tear them out. How we tend them. How we see them . . . or not.
The etymology of the word radical goes back to the Latin radix which means “root.” Later, this idea was expanded to mean “having roots, going to the beginning, essential.” To be radical then is at the heart of all authentic religion and the discipleship journey. What is religion if not a search for home, a longing for that which matters, an acquiescence to painful and healing pruning that bears great fruit.
This search for home is perhaps the most common archetypal story that threads through human history. From Odysseus to E.T., humanity’s mantra echoes through the ages, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Back to our roots, back to what is essential, back to Source. Back home. This is the theme that runs through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation where, from beginning to end, trees are central to salvation history.
By salvation, I do not mean the exclusivist, fundamentalist “Are you saved?” understanding of the word; but rather, something closer to the Greek soteria which suggests being preserved from destruction and danger on the journey home after having been away.
And how far from our humanity we have strayed! How unrooted and violent we have become as we have pitched our tents on the faraway shores of injustice and oppression and hatred, estranged from our own hearts, strangers to our own souls, ungrounded with root systems that are shallow and superficial and in search of sustenance.
We are divorced from our environment, immersed in a bread and circus culture of celebrity and sports, numbed by technology, eating the slop from the pigs and calling it good. We are facing global destruction created in our own careless and dominating image. We are far from home.
We lack the solidness, simplicity, beauty, and graciousness of those ancient trees mourned and celebrated in Palestine and Greece. Trees that throughout history and scripture have stood as silent sentries, witness bearers to the full range of human experience. Fruit trees that have been lovingly named and nurtured. Poplar trees used by good church-going folks to lynch their black neighbors on warm Sunday afternoons. Wide-armed trees that delight in offering cool respite to the tired traveler. Thick-trunked trees felled in their prime by corporations looking for profits.
Trees that will teach us if only we will listen.
To be a radical disciple for me means silently sitting at the feet of the trees in my life in order to learn what it means to stand still and grow deep roots without running away from home when what I am up against feels overwhelming. It means resisting the impulse to retreat into numbing addictions or mindless activism when my anger or sense powerlessness overcome me. It means letting the soil of my heart be composted by both grief and gratitude.
When rage overcomes me because of the poisoned water in Flint, the PFAS contamination around the state, and the denial of affordable water to families in Detroit, I have to remember that there is a life-giving tree of life ringed by crystal clean water that heals the nations (Rev. 22:2) – a tree that calls us home to our Source, our community, ourselves. A tree under whose welcoming canopy we root ourselves in justice, join hands, and sing ourselves home in the word of the Civil Rights song:
We shall not, we shall not be moved/We shall not, we shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water/We shall not be moved.