Knowing a Tree by its Fruit

“Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” So what exactly do they reflect? What do any of our words or actions reflect, if not who we are? My question is sincere, and though the latest Trump flap may be a catalyst for my putting pen to paper, it reflects observations far broader than this man or this political season, as I find the words of “apology” above to be an increasingly common phenomenon, the defense du jour being that it’s not what’s in the heart.

But where did this idea come from that outward manifestations of misogyny, or racism, or homophobia, or [fill in the blank], are somehow less grievous if they’re not really what’s “in your heart”?

A classic illustration of this idea played out in one of Paul Ryan’s numerous attempts to do the two-step in order to toe the party line despite his distaste for his party’s candidate. Ryan criticized Trump’s suggestion that a federal judge was not qualified to do his job because of his ethnicity, saying it was a “textbook” example of racism (which it is). But when pressed in an interview the next day, he walked back the comments and stopped short of calling Trump a “racist” on the grounds that “I don’t know what’s in his heart.”

And thus another unwarranted pass is issued to all manner of vile words and deeds because, after all, no one can really know what’s in a heart. If that’s who the person really is, deep down.

And I understand Ryan’s reluctance to call someone a “racist” in an age where that has become an individually directed epithet with serious gravity. But how, too, did that come to be in the first place? It’s only to our shame that we re-focus our attention on the heart of the offender at all, rather than solving for the negative outcomes afflicting their victims. If certain words, actions, or policies result in disparate negative outcomes for one group, whether it be women, minorities, or otherwise, the damage is done. How and why are the intentions, or the condition of the perpetrator’s heart, relevant?

I don’t believe it was always this way. Sticking with the dreaded R-word as the example for the moment, keep in mind that “racism” was once used in more systemic terms, and in the civil rights era highlighted outward manifestations of injustices for which we were corporately accountable. Although a highly charged word even then, it prompted conversation and debate as to changes we needed to make (and exposed resistance to those changes) at a societal level. One might have described certain rules, laws, societal norms, as “racist” based on the disparate outcomes they dealt to one race vs. another. Those who resisted changing those norms may or may not have been overt “racists,” but that was secondary (as exhibit A, take MLK’s comments on the white moderate).

But now that the term “racist” conveys a more personal character attack, it serves only to shut down conversation, prompting the predictable recoil: “I am not a racist; how dare you presume to know what’s in my heart!” This change in meaning toward a more individual condemnation (even if warranted) is a disappointment, and ultimately does a disservice to usage of a term that should otherwise prompt reflection on how we ought to correct the injustices that produce disparate outcomes.

There seems to be a correlation to this with trends in Western Christianity that have over-emphasized individual salvation, personal relationship with God, and the importance of having Jesus “in your heart,” at the expense of the more corporate work of the church to seek justice and do the things that actually build the kingdom of heaven Jesus described, things the church has done in centuries prior. There is more to unpack there theologically than I have the space to devote in this post, but I bring it up because this concept of a hall pass based on good intentions, or what’s in the heart, is not biblical. When two sons were asked by their father to work in the vineyard, good intentions didn’t win the day, but rather the action to do the father’s will (Mat. 21:28-31). The condition of the heart matters, but we are told we will know a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45).

I could go on, but for my less religiously inclined friends, let me appeal to a pop-culture reference from Batman. When Bruce Wayne’s playboy antics are raising eyebrows, he says to his friend Rachel, “All this… it’s not me. It’s not who I really am.” And her reply, “Bruce… it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”

Let’s start a new trend. Instead of defending our own honor by portraying our outward failings as the exception to the rule of an otherwise hidden and virtuous inner life, let’s hold ourselves to a higher bar and ask what we can actually do to love our neighbor practically. I think we’ll find ourselves freed from the self-absorbed obsession of thought, and burden of explanation, over “who we really are.”

3 thoughts on “Knowing a Tree by its Fruit

  1. Clay your thoughts on individualism vs corporate are spot on. For nearly 1800 of the 2000 years of Christianity the focus was always on the corporate good. In fact in many instances it was not until the last 60 or so years the focus has turned to individualism. That is indeed an unfortunate turn. I would argue (aka discuss) in Seminary with my evangelical brothers and sisters that their idea of salvation does not exist if you are alone on a desert island. But if you are alone on a desert island you can’t necessarily harm another. So we can’t hold the individual solely responsible for the words they are allowed to say without asking ourselves why did we allow them to be said? What did we do to make a society/culture that allowed this to propagate?
    How will WE (corporate not royal) change this so it is on earth as it is in heaven?

  2. Pingback: TakeAKnee Part 4: The Legitimacy of the Cause | Synaptic Mosaic

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