“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”John 15:1-8 (NRSV)
Early in the year 2021, thousands of farmers in India protested against global capitalism opposing the proposed legislations put forward by the national government, and gained international attention exposing the agrarian crisis in India. P. Sainath, a renowned journalist and a scholar on rural India, described the current agricultural crisis in five words, “hijack of agriculture by corporations.” He notes the process by which it is being done in five words too, “predatory commercialisation of the countryside.” And in another five words he described the outcome, “biggest displacement in our history.” Though they constitute the world’s largest population of surviving small farmers, Indian peasants’ lives have been jeopardized by neo-liberal globalisation and legislation. The suicide rate among Indian farmers has skyrocketed, due to the debts incurred on their crops, while at the same time, the agrarian crisis is exposing the climate change crisis and its impacts on food sovereignty on our planet today.
Against the backdrop of the growing agrarian crisis, I read John 15:1–8 with a subaltern hermeneutic, offering a counter-hegemonic reading, contesting the episteme of privilege, power and domination, which is a reading from below and a reading from the margins. Subalternity deconstructs texts that portray political difference, arriving towards transformation rather than understanding of the texts only. In that spirit, I offer two subaltern insights into this text.
In John 15:1, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Jesus picks the common, agrarian images of his times and conveys the meaning of his being and be-coming, relevant for his public sphere. Inverting the anthropomorphism that has become a norm, where human-being becomes the centre and human traits are attributed to the rest of God’s creation, Jesus’ usage of the image of a vine and his claim to be the “true vine” are ways of contesting the domination of humanity over the rest of the creation. When Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” he de-anthropomorphises the imagery, dismantles the hierarchy of humans above the rest of the creation, and offers an ecological perspective on his life and mission, emphasising his kith and kin relationship with the creation. Out of the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus that John has recorded in his Gospel, six are not anthropomorphic in nature, and at least four are from the ecological worldview: I am the bread, the light, the door (doors to the sheep pen were either made of stone or wooden fence), and the vine. If Jesus’ being and be-coming are defined in ecological perspectives, with life at the heart of it, the calling for the disciples of Jesus today is to widen our horizons from our narrow anthropomorphic worldviews and embrace and engage the ecology of God’s creation, striving for a greener and healthier planet today.
Jesus nowhere mentions, “I am the strong tower,” or “I am the mighty warrior,” or even “I am the new Moses.” Rather, Jesus identifies himself using the images of everyday life, for Jesus always has identified with the simple, weak, and vulnerable in the creation, demonstrating his preferential option for those on the margins. Therefore, a de-anthropomorphic reading of the texts and contexts helps us to bring creation and its life to the forefront and in the aforementioned contexts helps us to understand the struggles of the farmers in India and elsewhere in the world, where life, bio-diversity, agri-culture, and sharing of food takes the centre stage, rather than financial profit and hijacking by corporations. It therefore becomes a theological necessity for followers of Jesus Christ, the true vine, to stand in solidarity with the struggles of the farmers who are fighting for the life of the creation.
The second subaltern hermeneutic from this reading is the “de-transcendental divine,” where Jesus says that his Father is the “vine grower.” If Jesus explains himself with de-anthropomorphic imagery as the true vine, his understanding of God is a de-transcendental divine. God is a gardener, who works as the farmer in the vineyard and toils day in and day out to bring in a good yield of the grape crop. What is the ground on which Jesus the true vine grows? This is where I think that God, who Jesus explains as the farmer, offers to be that ground where Jesus the true vine sprouts and grows with branches and grapes. The aforementioned two subaltern hermeneutics are not mutually exclusive, rather they are interdependent upon one another. The de-transcendental divine is on the one hand the farmer, and on the other hand the ground, the space in which Jesus the true vine grows as a creeper out of that ground. God the farmer is not yet another anthropomorphic image. Rather, God is the ground, the soil, the being out of whom the true vine shoots up.
Here I would prefer to read Father as Parent, including both father and mother, for the farmers in my locality in India are not gendered to be male farmers only but include both men and women, working as landless farmers. The Parent represents the farmers today and their struggles, because as a Parent, God truly understands their pain and sufferings. So, God the farmer becomes the focus of this text. The Greek word translated “vinegrower” by the NRSV is georgos, which can also be translated “husbandman,” “tiller of the soil,” or even “farmer.” In my native home language (Telugu), this term is translated, Vyavasayakudu, that is, an “agricultural farmer.” If I were to use an even more colloquial Telugu term, the saying of Jesus could be translated, “my Father is a Rythu (a simple farmer).” Today most of the Dalits, who are born outside of the caste system, are the Rythus and have been the worst victims of globalisation, because they work as landless labourers and live at the mercy of the landlords.
If Jesus is the true crop, then the disciples are the branches, and God is the farmer, the ground, the soil, the carer, and the nurturer. When Jesus speaks about God as Rythu, the farmer, he unsettles the image of God from all the colonial trappings of the conception of God as omnipotent. Instead, God is a farmer, tilling the soil and toiling for the yield of the crop. A subaltern hermeneutic unsettles the divine from “transcendental” notions and locates God as “de-transcendental divine,” as Rythu, the farmer.
In Western theological thought, God-talk found its fecundity within the paradigms and parameters of transcendentality. God has always been understood as the transcendental other. But Dalit theology, in the context of a postcolonial turn towards materiality, shifts towards a “de-transcendentalized sacred” epistemological position. With this shift, Dalit theology envisages an immanent God who is intrinsically connected to matter/flesh.
In such a context, Y.T. Vinayaraj argues in his book, Intercessions, that transcendence is not totally rejected, but it is not at all an experience of the “beyond.” In the context of postcoloniality, echoing A.P. Nirmal’s understanding of Dalitness as Christianness, for Vinayaraj, God is a Dalit God, and such a Dalit God is an enmattered God, in which the becoming of the Dalit body is re-envisaged within. Dalit God is an enwombed God, out of whom the fluidity of life flows. The dichotomy between transcendence and immanence is denied and tangled towards an open materialism and open immanence, where the understanding of God oscillates towards the immanent image, in this given text, as the farmer.
In that immanent turn, Agamben (a contemporary Italian philosopher) argues that messianic time does not stand for a particular point of time in which the world will be transformed. Messianic time is neither the future, nor the past, nor the end of time, but rather the time of the end. So, alluding to Agamben, Vinayaraj observes that a messianic God is a God who happens in the present unfulfilled promises, and such a God, is not a God with a future orientation. He further says,
“For Agamben, the cross of Jesus Christ becomes the fulcrum of theo-politics where we see a weak God who relinquishes sovereignty and power. It is a weak God who embodies the politics of the marginalized and the excluded. It is not an identifying God who comes from beyond and incarnate; rather, it is a God who ‘inter-carnates’ as the inherent potentiality to challenge the practice of exclusion within the political process of becoming.”Vinayaraj 2015, 142–143
Such a shift towards immanentality in theology, situates God as Rythu, the farmer, the ground, who would ‘rapture’ from within the communities of subalterns to challenge domination and hegemony of exclusion in the society. This shift evolves a totally new language for God-talk, situating and locating the divine among and within the margins, the subalterns, and therefore God as the Rythu, the farmer offering hope to the subaltern communities in our quest for justice.
God as Rythu, the farmer, therefore, as a de-transcendental divine can be found in the creation narratives in Genesis, if read with farmers’ eyes. For me, when the earth was without form and was void, when there was darkness hovering on the waters, God the Rythu, the farmer tilled the soil of darkness, giving a form to earth, and yielded a fruit, which he called “light.” God the Rythu then created the skies, separating them from the waters for rains, and worked hard on the land to divide the waters into seas and the dry land into earth, where it brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seeds, and trees bearing fruits. God the Rythu then created the seasons, which play an important role in farming, and the sun and moon, which help the plants for photosynthesis. God the Rythu then created life in the waters, and waters to be the life to the farm; then the birds and the animal-kind that are interdependent on the farm for their living. God the Rythu then created humankind to be the kith and kin to the earth, by taking care of the earth and its yield.
God the Rythu, the farmer, identifies with all the farmers today, echoing their calls for justice, demanding that life be at the centre of all of God’s creation. God, the Rythu had the best knowledge in terms of farming and created so meticulously the interdependence of earth-waters-plants-animals-humans. As God created the first human in God’s image, God made Adam from Adamah, to take up God’s work, to till and keep the land (Gen 2:15) as a farmer. And later Cain, the first human child to be born according to the biblical narrative, had to follow his father’s line of work to cultivate and till the land as a farmer. In other biblical passages like Isaiah 5, God as the farmer is again brought to light. Also in the New Testament, Jesus several times used the field, seeds, vineyard, farmers, and fruits as imagery in many of his parables and messages. Jesus himself is described as the first-fruit of resurrection, which was the act of God the Rythu, the farmer.
Subaltern hermeneutics offers two insights in this text, a “de-anthropomorphic” reading and “de-transcendental divine” reading. These readings offer hope to the subaltern communities in their journey of faith today and challenge all readers to seek partnerships with the creation, for Jesus is the crop, the vine, the rice, the carrots, the spinach, the sugar cane, the apples, etc. Our role is to care for the creation around us, repenting of our hegemony and domination. With the farmers in the streets, demanding justice, God the Rythu stands in solidarity. Likewise, the church is called to join with God the Rythu, the farmer, working alongside farmers for justice and life. For if I were to summarize the political theology of John 15:1 in just ten words, they would be: “The God of Jesus, the true vine, is the farmer.”