Lessons from the Fig Tree

A Sermon to Progressive White Christians

“Jesus’ behavior towards the fig tree reminds me of what white guilt and racism look like in my life. How many times have I, as a white person of privilege, cast judgment on another person simply because they didn’t have the same opportunities that I have had? How many times have white people cursed Black and brown communities, like Jesus cursed the fig tree, when they didn’t bear the fruits that we wanted or expected—even though the climate, and the season, has never been ripe for their flourishing?”

The Rev. Heidi Thorsen

Focal Text: Mark 11:12-25

Written Fall 2017; revised April 2021*

Originally Published in FASPE Journal 2017

Note: This is perhaps the only sermon I have ever written, but not preached in a communal context. The sermon was written as a capstone to my participation in FASPE: Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics in 2017. I often find myself returning the image of Jesus cursing the fig tree, as a way of trying to understand and undo the racism that lives inside of me, in spite of my efforts to grow and change. I hope that this image is helpful for other white Christians seeking to undo racism in themselves, and their communities.

Guilt is a strange thing. It may be one of the earliest concepts that we learn as children. We understand guilt as soon as we hear the age-old question, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” But as we grow older, our understanding of guilt becomes more sophisticated. Our legal system tells us that guilt is an objective thing—something that can be proven with the help of witnesses, evidence, and a fair trial. Psychologists elaborate that guilt is a subjective thing—we don’t always know why we experience guilt, but we know what it is when we feel it. As Christians, many of us have been told that we were born guilty, and we have a name for this particular guilt. We call it: original sin. This kind of guilt isn’t something that we earn; it’s something we were born with. Mercifully, our scriptures and religious teachers tell us that guilt is something that can be taken away, expunged through our faith in a higher power, and mediated by the person of Jesus.

Original sin. For me, these words trigger a kind of negative, gut reaction. I don’t want to believe that human beings are by nature evil, instead of good. I don’t want to believe that the tiniest baby is already caught in the clutches of sin. Much of Western Christianity is sin-obsessed. We spend so much time talking about the Fall that we forget to talk about the garden, and the ways that human beings are blessed to be created in God’s own image. We worship the doctrine of original sin, and deny the promise of original goodness.  Having grown up in an evangelical church that focused almost exclusively on the sinfulness of human beings, I then spent the majority of my young adult life seeking alternative ways to understand my faith and my relationship with God. I sought a theology that balanced my experience of human sinfulness with my experience of human goodness. In other words: I was a Christian in recovery, of a theological kind.

I had more or less gotten over the idea of original sin when July 2013 happened. For years I had tuned out the news, but that year I tuned in: Mike Brown, a young, unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by a police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. For the first time in my adult life I was jolted to an awareness of the ways in which racism is still alive and thriving in the United States. For the first time in my life I felt an aching sense of culpability that was distinctly attached to the color of my skin. For the first time in my life I experienced white guilt—and it felt a lot like original sin.

What does it mean to be guilty? Even more so, what does it mean to be born guilty? These are questions that I started to ask with a new kind of urgency. That summer I felt a wave of guilt, suggesting all the ways that I have been complicit in the dehumanization of people of color by simply believing that racism was a thing of the past. That is my wakeup story to the reality of racism, anti-Black bias, and white supremacy. Perhaps you have a story of your own.

I want to hear those stories—and I hope that we will make space to share them, to undo the racism that lives inside of us and support one another. But first, I want to tell another story, about a trip I took to Germany in July 2017 to study, of all things, the Holocaust.

When I think about the concept of original sin throughout history, Nazi Germany is one of the first periods that comes to mind. The Holocaust, for so many people, marks one of the darkest moments in human history. If ever there were a time to abandon the doctrine of original goodness, and cling to the doctrine of original sin, the Holocaust is that moment. The guilt experienced by Germans complicit in Holocaust is, in some ways, a parallel phenomenon to the experience of white guilt. Generations of Germans have had to grapple with the legacy of Nazi atrocities, just as Americans have had to grapple with the legacy of slavery. But it is also important to remember that there is no equivalence between these histories, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates has written. Nazi insignias were almost immediately outlawed in Germany following World War II, while Confederate flags are still raised brazenly throughout the states, flying above government buildings and etched into the stained glass of churches (Coates 2017).

While the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in America are by no means equivalent or interchangeable stories, they are both important touchpoints on matters of human dignity, human responsibility, and guilt. I had the opportunity to explore these connections firsthand that summer, when I travelled to Germany and Poland with a group of eleven other seminarians. Our interfaith group included two rabbis, but was mainly comprised of Christians from different denominations—Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Baptist. Together, we confronted histories of the Holocaust, walking through the streets of Berlin and the dusty rubble of Auschwitz. Together, we considered how the ethical failing of so many people to respond to this crisis (including many Christians), compels us to consider our ethical responsibilities today, as people of faith.

The most powerful aspect of that trip, by far, was that we were not encouraged to identify, primarily, with the victims—which is often the case in young adult education programs and museums dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. Instead, we were told to imagine ourselves as the perpetrators.

It is almost unnatural to do this. We don’t want to see ourselves as the “bad guys,” the guilty ones. We would much rather ourselves as the heroes in the story. And if we can’t be the heroes, at least let us be the victims. Let us be the ones whom history regards with charity, sympathy, and a certain degree of awe for having survived so much.

Despite this natural resistance, I committed myself to the task at hand and walked through the gates of Auschwitz with heaviness in my heart. I told myself: I did this. Or, if I didn’t do this, I certainly could have done it. I could have been caught in this web of power that led many people to profit from the eviction of their Jewish neighbors, buying up cheap furniture and working blindly for the war effort. Or even worse, I could have been the one to denounce my neighbor. I could have been the one to type up their death certificate, sitting in a cushy office in a Polish town just miles away from the internment camps.

As I walked along the abandoned railroad that carried thousands of Jews to Auschwitz; as I walked around the ruins of gas chambers, and meadows that bear the traces of human remains; I found myself turning to my faith for some kind of solace—some way to understand. But the first prayer that came to my mind was a prayer of confession. In the silence of my heart I repeated, over and over again, the confession that we say each Sunday as part of our liturgy in the Episcopal Church:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

For better and for worse, our churches are in the business of managing guilt. In some ways I’m really glad that this is the case. I look forward to the confession every Sunday, not because I enjoy being reminded of my guilt but because I need to be reminded of the ways that I am hurting God and other people around me. In the confession we balance out the doctrine of original goodness with the doctrine of original sin. We are invited to see ourselves as we truly are, the good parts and the bad.

Sometimes I wonder whether confession alone is good enough. Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher and chronicler of Nazi trials after the Holocaust, speaks to this insufficiency. “Where all are guilty, no one is,” she states, “confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing” (Arendt 1963, 163).

As members of so-called progressive churches—Episcopal, Lutheran, PCUSA, UCC, and others—we are no strangers to the concept of corporate confession. We are also not strangers to the terminology of white guilt. We decorate our churches with progressive slogans, peace poles, and rainbow flags. We march in protests and host food pantries. We walk the walk, and talk the talk. But is our collective confession enough? Is our social activism enough? Perhaps we’ve spent so much time trying to be like Jesus that we always see ourselves as either the victim, or the hero. But we struggle to see ourselves in that third category, a category that we certainly would never put on Jesus as a label. We struggle to see ourselves as the perpetrators. This, in a nutshell, is the problem of progressive white guilt: we may be able to articulate some degree of wrongdoing in the past, but we so often fail to own up to the ways that we continue to participate in, and benefit from, white supremacy.

Perhaps matters would be different—perhaps we would know what to do—if we felt like Jesus could relate to us in this most perverse experience of white guilt. This, after all, is the heart of incarnational theology: the idea that Jesus is right here with us. The idea that Jesus became human as we are human, and understands our struggles in a way that no one else can. So the question remains: can this incarnational God join us in the very real, painful, and confusing experience of whiteness?

Before I go on, I have to say that the very idea of identifying Jesus with the perpetrators—with the oppressors instead of the oppressed—is a difficult and perhaps even foolish thing to do. The Jesus that we know from the Gospels is a person who walked, first and foremost, with those who were oppressed. He was friends with the sick, the disabled, children, Samaritans, and Jews who were beaten down by the Roman Empire. But it’s also true that Jesus associated with those who were higher up in systems of power. Jesus befriended centurions and tax collectors. I have to believe that if Jesus cared about a tax collector for the Roman Empire, then Jesus cares about people who are tangled up in other systems of oppression. Jesus cares about white people who are trying to grapple with their whiteness. Jesus cares about you and me.

But I don’t just want to know that Jesus cares about people like me. I want to know that Jesus understands people like me, in a deep incarnational way. I want to know whether Jesus understands what it feels like to wield the power of a perpetrator. Looking to the Bible, I found it: the story I needed to hear as a white person in 2017 (and, still, today). It’s a strange little anecdote, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark (though I’ll focus more on Mark from here on out). It is the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

Christians struggle with this story. It just feels so out of character. The day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in the days preceding his death and sacrifice, Jesus is walking down the road in Bethany and he’s hungry. Fortunately, he sees a fig tree in leaf not too far away. He bends down to pick the fruit, but finds that there’s nothing on the bush—which is not surprising, given that the writer of the story tells us that it was not the season for figs. Jesus curses the fig tree, saying aloud, so his disciples can hear it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” Then they walk on their merry way.

The next day is a big one for Jesus. Now here’s a story we are all familiar with: Jesus walks into the temple in Jerusalem, only to find it crowded with merchants and money changers. Jesus, advocate for justice that he is, flips over the tables, boldly proclaims that the people have turned their house of prayer into a den of robbers, then walks clear out of the city. It’s a mic drop kind of moment.

The next day Jesus and the disciples are strolling along, and they happen to pass by the same fig tree from the day before. This time, the disciples notice that the fig tree has withered away to its roots. Jesus provides a brief, if confusing, lesson about this outcome. He says, “whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive,” and then elaborates with a seemingly non sequitur teaching about forgiving each other. And then: the story is over. That’s all we hear about the fig tree in the gospel of Mark.

Now you can understand why this story might be a little bit disconcerting to Christians. We generally don’t like to think of our Lord and Savior as the kind of person who would curse a fig tree to wither and die, purely out of spite. For this reason, scores of Biblical commentators have sought to explain away the complications of this story. Some commentators have gone a horticultural route, explaining that the fig tree actually should have been in fruit based on the Biblical chronology, or explaining that the tree would have shown evidence as to whether or not it could bear fruit in the future. Other commentators focus on Jesus’ teachings following the disciples’ discovery of the withered tree, emphasizing that this is a story about the amazing things that people can do through prayer. Of course, this still fails to explain why Jesus would pray for such a destructive thing in the first place.

As a modern reader, peering through the lens of centuries of criticism and historical detail, I believe this story is here for a reason. I believe this story is here to show us that Jesus—yes, even Jesus—wielded the power to inflict unnecessary harm on other living beings. Jesus doesn’t go so far as to make the truly sinful mistakes that we as humans do, in the harm that we inflict on one another. Nevertheless, Jesus models a kind of selfish behavior that we are all too capable of falling into when we stand in positions of power and privilege.

Most importantly, Jesus’ behavior towards the fig tree reminds me of what white guilt and racism look like in my life. How many times have I, as a white person of privilege, cast judgment on another person simply because they didn’t have the same opportunities that I have had? How many times have white people cursed Black and brown communities, like Jesus cursed the fig tree, when they didn’t bear the fruits that we wanted or expected—even though the climate, and the season, has never been ripe for their flourishing? And furthermore, how many times have white people indulged this kind of prejudice only to walk into the temple the next day, flipping tables? We rest on the laurels of a few social justice moments—that one time we walked in a march, the handful of times we posted on Facebook—but we don’t examine ourselves for the kinds of subtle racist attitudes and actions that we commit each day. We are not always the victims or the heroes of the story. We are the perpetrators.

When I read the story of the fig tree today, I hear God’s voice calling out to me over the centuries saying that I need to come clean about the truth that I have just as much ability to do harm, as I have to do good. I remember what it felt like to walk through the streets of Berlin and Auschwitz, and to feel this truth firsthand. And while I don’t always know what the best next step is for me to confront the sin of racism in my life, I know that I cannot continue to walk in my faith until I face the harm that I have inflicted on others.

One thing that amazes me about the story of Jesus and the fig tree is that Jesus doesn’t simply brush off Peter, when Peter notices the fig tree on the road back to Bethany. Instead, Jesus looks at the action that he has done, and he makes a lesson out of it. Now I have to admit that Jesus’ lesson to the disciples about the fig tree is still pretty enigmatic to me, and to many commentators. Nevertheless, Jesus doesn’t pretend that nothing has happened. Instead, Jesus looks at the withered fig tree and engages the disciples in a conversation. I think this is a reminder to us to do the same—to face the impact of our actions, to recognize our power to do harm, to resolve to act differently in the future.

There is no absolution in the world that can absolve white people of their whiteness. This is a frightening reality, but it’s true. It is true because racism is not an individual sin, and as soon as we seek forgiveness and repentance racism will rear its ugly head in this world, and we will be complicit in it. But I urge you to never tire of confessing. Never tire of humbling yourself and recognizing the evil that other people have had to put up with at your expense. Never tire of being vulnerable when your stories of striving and failure can bring us a little closer to the kingdom that God has promised.

I want to conclude this sermon with the words of absolution given after our confession, in the Episcopal Church. I hope you will hear this, not as a gesture of comfort but as a call to action. Remember, in the silence that follows, there is more work and healing to be done. There is so much more to be done. Let us pray:

Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.

Works Referenced

Arendt, Hanna. Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Lost Cause Rides Again.” The Atlantic, August 4, 2017. www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/08/no-confederate/535512/

*This sermon was edited in April 2021. The content is the same as when it was published in 2017, though there are subtle changes in language that reflect a growing self-awarness of racial identity over time. I’m sure that there are parts I will want to edit again in another four years, recognizing that the work of undoing racism is a process. Change is a good thing.

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