Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.