Walter Brueggemann: Trees: Signals of Hope and Defiance
This is an unabashed commendation of a book. The book by Franck Prevot is entitled Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees (2015). This children’s book, with its winsome art work, tells the story of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who learned from her mother that “a tree is worth more than its wood.” As she grew up she became aware that her people were deprived of much of their land for agriculture. She saw the devastation of the forests as her country gained independence from Britain. In the face of all the deforestation, her mother taught her:
A tree is a treasure that provides shade, fruit, pure air, and nesting places for birds, and that pulses with the vitality of life. Trees are hideouts for insects and provide inspiration for poets. A tree is a little bit of the future (21).
In response to the destruction of deforestation that she could observe, Maathai organized the Green Belt Movement to encourage villagers to plant many, many trees. She encountered much opposition from business interests and from the authoritarian government of Daniel arap Moi. She was imprisoned by the government for her oppositional stance, but slowly she is able to gain public support for her democratic vision of society. Her great courage led not only to many trees, but to the flourishing of democracy in her home country of Kenya. It is clear that her story is one that our children and grandchildren urgently need to hear, a story of courage in devotion to the wellbeing of the earth and its creaturely population.
This story, told artfully and accessibly, has led me to think about trees and the role they play in the Bible for a viable creation (and a viable economy). That crucial role played by trees has been played since the appearance of trees on the third day of creation (Genesis 1:11-13). This is some of what I learned about trees in the Bible:
1. In the Torah provision of Deuteronomy 20:19-20 fruit trees are given explicit protection, because their presence and flourishing are indispensible for the wellbeing of creaturely life:
If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? (v. 19)
This Torah provision, I suggest, is closest to the core passion of Wangari Maathai who understood ecological balance. In the Torah provision tree protection is from the devastation of war when trees could be cut down for siege weapons. Alongside the risks of war, a greater risk among us is the threat of developers who are quite willing to devastate trees in the interest of making money. The Torah regulation eagerly vetoes a trade-off of trees for money!
2. In the doxological tradition of Israel, trees are reckoned as lively creatures and not simply inanimate objects waiting to be exploited.
As lively creatures, trees are gladly included in the joyous praise of Israel to the creator:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth (Psalm 96:11-13).
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds! (Psalm 148:7-10)
Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it! (Isaiah 44:23)
The mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12).
These lyrical lines trace out the “Social Life of Trees” as creatures in full engagement with their creator. Or perhaps better, “The Doxological Life of Trees”!
All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it (Ezekiel 17:24).
3. Like everything else in creation, trees can be distorted and put to ignoble use.
Isaiah can describe with some ironic specificity how trees can be deployed for idol worship by addressing them as targets of prayers:
He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-18)
This process of “god-making” shows how a creature of God is turned into a god. It is no wonder that the prophet ends his critique with an ironic rhetorical question:
“Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?” (Isaiah 44:19)
Such inanimate objects of wood are, like the greater idolatrous designs of silver and gold, incapable of transformative action:
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
they have eyes, but they do not see;
they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths (Psalm 135:16-17).
The point is compellingly reiterated by Jeremiah:
For the customs of the peoples are _false;
a tree from the forest is cut down,
and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so that it cannot move.
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good (Jeremiah 10:3-5).
Trees have a major role to play in the wellbeing of creation. But posturing as gods is not one of them.
4. At the opposite pole from “making gods,” King Solomon misperceived trees by seeing them simply as materials for construction that would in turn exhibit his great wealth.
His narrative is permeated with mention of wood used in his extensive constructions including his temple:
Hiram sent word to Solomon, “I have heard the message that you have sent to me; I will fulfill all your needs in the matter of cedar and cypress timber…The entrance for the middle story was on the south side of the house; one went up by winding stairs to the middle story, and from the middle story to the third. So he built the house, and finished it; he roofed the house with beams and planks of cedar. He built the structure against the whole house, each story five cubits high, and it was joined to the house with timbers of cedar… He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar, from the floor of the house to the rafters of the ceiling, he covered them on the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the house with boards of cypress… He built the House of the Forest of Lebanon one hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high, built on four rows of cedar pillars, with cedar beams on the pillars…He made the Hall of the Throne where he was to pronounce judgment, the Hall of Justice, covered with cedar from floor to floor…King Hiram of Tyre having supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired, King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee (I Kings 5:8, 6:8-10, 15, 7:2, 7, 9:11).
While Solomon may not have stooped to the practice of wooden idols, he clearly had no passion for trees as an important marker of the creaturely order willed by the creator, and given back to God in glad praise. Solomon had nothing more than an instrumental interest in trees, as he had for everything else on which he could lay his hands, including even his own people and the women he appropriated. Everything—including trees—was nothing more to him than usable, expendable commodities.
5. Given the twin temptations of wood for worship and wood for commerce, we might expect the complete exhaustion of trees.
There is, however, witness to the contrary amid the poetic lament of Job. Job makes a contrast between trees and dispensable nobodies like himself. He says of himself and other mortals:
But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire, and where are they?
As waters fail from a lake,
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
until the heavens are no more,
they will not awake
or be roused out of their sleep (Job 14:10-12).
Job has concluded, When you’re dead, you’re dead!” But trees, by contrast, can rise again:
For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant (Job 14:7-9).
Trees can be restored to life; all it takes is the revivifying aroma of water, a fact anyone knows who has engaged in the hopeless task of trying to eliminate unwanted sprouts. We may take these words of Job as a compelling response to the tree-exhausting work of idol-making and the commercial expenditure of wood. Trees possess the vitality of creatureliness given them by the creator. As trees have hope, so they may also be a source of hope amid a world seemingly done to death by deforestation.
There can be no doubt that Wangari Maathai had all of this in purview intuitively. She knew that planting trees was an act of hope in a society that had suffered so much at the hands of a rapacious authoritarian regime. She knew that planting trees would yield energy for taking democratic risks. She knew that nurturing care for the “natural” world would bring with it generative care for the public, political-economic process of common life as well.
Of course there is much more to the life and work of Maathai than can be included in this children’s book. She lectured in Veterinarian Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. Her work with the Kenyan Red Cross Society led her to involvement in the UN Program of Environmentalism. She linked her concern for the unemployed in her society with environmental needs that resulted in her planting trees. She worked at Envirocare that led to her first UN conference in 1976. In the next year she led a bold procession into downtown Nairobi to Kumukunji Park where they planted seven trees, thus initiating what became the Green Belt Movement.
In 1979 she became chair of the National Council of Women of Kenya, an umbrella organization for a host of women’s organizations. She rose to great prominence and so became a leader in resistance to Daniel arap Moi, the authoritarian president of Kenya. She became a point-person in resistance and was variously harassed by the government and the police. Through her persistence the government of Moi was defeated. In 2003 she entered into the newly formed government as Assistant Minister for Environmental and Natural Resources. In 2004 she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Until her death in 2011 she continued to flourish in ever more influential posts to advance both democracy and environmentalism. She was a relentless, brave witness to the conviction that our public political processes can indeed serve the common good.
I submit that beginning with this children’s book, Wangari Maathai merits our close study concerning how a life propelled toward the common good can make a decisive difference in the life of the world. She began as an uncredentialed woman; she ended with stark and stunning accomplishments for the wellbeing of her people.
- It is not too early for our kids to learn about state violence that aims at control and private wealth.
- It is not too early for our kids to learn that brave lives lived to the contrary can matter decisively.
- It is not too early for our kids to learn that political issues of justice are deeply linked to environmental issues of creaturely viability.
- It is not too early for our kids to learn that brave action grounded in hope for the future, even against great odds, serves to create alternative futures.
Martin Luther was famously asked what he would do if he knew the world was ending. He famously answered, “I would plant a tree.” He would plant a tree as an act of defiant hope. Wangari Maathai has gone beyond Luther’s subjunctive “I would” to actually do the planting. In doing so, she eventually defeated the forces of oppression. She not only marked the end of that world of violence, but she opened a way for an alternative future in her society. A children’s book is a good way to start a conversation about hope and defiance, about faith that is,
the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).
Her brave hope was an act of defiance, a refusal to accept political-social arrangements that seemed to be firmly and permanently established. In her hope, she knew better!
April 6, 2023
Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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