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Politics of Scripture

True Vines and True Branches

If Jesus is a vine, can we really accept a theology which permits us to sit back and take without contributing anything ourselves?

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

John 15:1-8 (NRSVue)

The power of agricultural metaphors lies in their timelessness, as well as – paradoxically, perhaps – their “rootedness” in specific landscapes and contexts. When Jesus states that he is a vine, cared for and cultivated by God the vinegrower, I can immediately envision what he is referring to: a grape vine looks the same as it has for millenia. Also, I am still dealing with the frustration of arguing with an English ivy over control of my yard. In this way, these metaphors are evergreen – pun intended!

The health of agriculture metaphors reflects their roots: as vines need fresh water, plenty of energy from the sun, and non-toxic soil in which to root, vine metaphors require a constant flow of new imagination and energy to bring forth the powerfully poetic fruit which they are capable of budding. This is especially true for John 15, where the metaphor involves vines, plants famous for their capacity to overcome any boundaries you seek to impose on them, and infamous for their tendency to burst any box in which you imprison them.

I’ve most often encountered Christians engaging with the metaphor of Jesus as vine in a way that seeks to domesticate its wildness and tame its unruliness, a comforting metaphor of a loving Jesus who channels divine energy in one direction: into the lives of Christians alone, from Jesus the vine out to the human branches. In this vision, Jesus is the one true vine, who asks that we live only and exclusively through him, and only through the specific vision of Jesus present in a particular expression of Christianity. Conveniently, of course, this is often whichever expression the person explaining the metaphor hails from.

This exclusivist vision gives license to a Christianity that sees value only in specific forms, on specific branches, and allows Christians in these communities to view this situation as divinely ordained – as normal, as built into the structure of the world, as vines themselves. It is then the shortest possible stroll to every other fruit of Christian exclusivism, especially the destructively acidic harvest of Christian nationalism, where Christianity is so tiny it can fit neatly within the anemic cornucopia of a white supremacist political program. Is this result really what the world of this metaphor looks like?!

Actually…no, not in the slightest: it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Vines are extraordinarily tenacious, as anyone who has wrestled with a patch of honeysuckle can attest. As soon as you are absolutely certain that you have finally cleared all vines from a patch of ground – especially the roots – you should prepare yourself for the inevitable peek of yet another runner snaking along the ground. This is due to the extensive root systems of many vines, where the roots are both deep and broad, requiring a massive amount of effort to extract.

This is also due to the fact that vines can be unbelievably hungry for expansion and growth, leading to some of the most incredible aspects of vines: their ability to grow long, segmented stem pieces that shoot out along the ground, climb damn near everything, and even curl around the smallest outcropping or branch. Just like a climber scaling a wall for the first time, vines will push stabilizing segments into whatever surface they are crawling along. Once the vines have reached a sunny patch, they will then pour energy into growing clusters of leaves to take advantage.

Lest we forget, vines are as dependent on the sun as virtually every other plant on the planet: there’s a reason that vines work so hard to push their leaves to the most advantageous location possible. The process of photosynthesis – the biological process where light energy is converted by the plant into the chemical energy which sustains the life of the plant – depends on a complex interdependent relationship amongst all parts of the plant: where energy and resources flow from root to stems to branches and leaves, yes, but also from leaves back to root. 

The unidirectional nature of Jesus the true vine, feeding the energy of God to an entirely dependent humanity, might make theological sense (in some contexts), but it certainly makes very little biological sense.

Once the vine has reached this stage, if left unchecked, it will begin to starve whatever life it happens to have climbed, its dense canopy of leaves grasping every particle of light possible, leaving little – if any – to reach whatever tree, grass, or bush the vine happens to be using for support. This is neither gentle nor painless: vines can absolutely conquer entire hillsides, fields, and even highway overpasses. Just look up photos of kudzu vines in the American South, and you will immediately understand what I am describing.

What are vines, therefore? Extraordinarily tenacious organisms capable of overcoming powerful obstacles, with solar panels for leaves that facilitate a complex interplay of interdependent relationships within the plant itself, inextricably embedded into their entire surrounding environment, rooted in ecosystems of often dizzying complexity. In other words, when you take the vine metaphor at its word, the traditional interpretation described above is not only embarrassing in its simplicity, but absolutely false to a laughable degree. Let’s revisit the passage with actual vines in mind.

Jesus begins the passage in 15:1 with the declarative confidence so often present in John’s gospel: “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” These roles establish an unexpected relationship between Jesus and God the Parent, where the Parent acts, and Jesus is acted upon. This isn’t a relationship of absolute dependence, however. Vines can survive without any intentional intervention from any external actor – again, anyone who has ever tangled with a vine that simply refuses to be tamed can attest to the truth of this.

This also isn’t a hierarchical relationship. Jesus the vine consents to pruning, recognising that a relationship of reciprocity exists between vine and vinegrower. The vinegrower helps the vine thrive as much as it can by pruning away the literal dead weight. The vine helps the vinegrower by producing as much fruit as it can. Fruiting only happens when a plant is healthy enough, so in a very real sense the health of the vine – and thus its capacity to fruit – depends on the grower. This is perichoresis – the non-hierarchical, interdependent dance of the Trinity – viewed through an ecotheological lens.

If hierarchy and absolute dependence aren’t present in the Divine interrelationship, therefore, what about the relationship between Jesus (vine) and humanity (branches)? A simple reading of 15:3-7 might indicate that the branches are entirely dependent upon the vine for the energy and nutrients necessary to exist and to fruit. This is true: branches separated from the energy flowing throughout the entire vine will never be capable of producing fruit – let alone survive – and will inevitably die, dry up, and be gathered together for the fire. (It should be noted, however, that this reading ignores the time-honoured practice of growing new plants from cuttings, a practice which Jesus would almost certainly have been aware of.)

Yet, there’s this pesky verb which keeps emerging, and which complicates this reading: abide. In this context, abide connotes living with, or residing with (and within), another. This echoes John 14:20, where Jesus sketches out a complex interdependence: Jesus lives in the Parent and humanity, while humanity lives in Jesus. Unspoken, perhaps, is another implication: if Jesus lives in the Parent and also with humanity, then humanity could be said to live in the Parent, while the Parent also lives with humanity.

Again, this speaks powerfully of a paradoxical interrelationship between Divine and Human, one that actually reflects the true interrelationship between leaf, branch, stem, and root – where the entire plant must work together in order to survive and, hopefully, thrive. Unsurprisingly, this is the actual reality of vines. This is also the reality of the creation, where each and every atom of the creation is bound together in a complex, interdependent web of relationships, a harmony of life built into the very fabric of the world. While this passage is rooted within the Christian tradition, this vision of an interdependent creation is recognised across the human religious landscape, speaking to the power of its truth.

In other words, this bounty requires active human participation in their relationship with the Divine. Of course, the Divine existed just fine before human existence, whereas if we take Jesus at his word, humanity is absolutely dependent upon the Divine energy to give life. Shouldn’t we take Jesus at his entire word, though, and not just the parts that serve our desire to rest in the comforting bosom of a hierarchical authoritarian structure: one where the Divine gives and we just receive, commands and we simply obey?

What about our responsibility to other branches? If Jesus is a vine, can we really accept a theology which permits us to sit back and take without contributing anything ourselves? Can we permit other branches to die due to sickness, poverty, or our blithe neglect? A vine thrives when all of its branches thrive; if Jesus is a vine, then doesn’t that require that we all work, as hard as we can, to ensure that every single branch thrives? If Jesus is a vine, then every part of the entire vine must recognise itself as a part of a whole vine, and do all it can to contribute to the whole. From the perspective of actual vines, therefore, couldn’t it be said that those who rest certain in their own goodness as Christians, ignoring the rest of the vine, are in actuality the dead branches –  the ones gathered for the fire?

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