“It is something to have started.”
Because I am a theologian I am proximate to many conversations about what we call “political theology”. For years I have tried to avoid such conversations, judging it a man’s game. Political theology, it seemed to me, was about large-scale questions of power. It often involved jousting and loud argument, which I have mentioned that I dislike. Whether Christians should hold power, and how they should hold power, are of course both good questions. But I’ve long been more interested in what power is, even beyond conceptions from political theory about “soft power”. For a time I read a good bit of feminist political theory (this was the years when we were reading Catharine MacKinnon, Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler before she became popular). One of the chief interests of mine was how women were assumed to hold or exert power in a different way. The idea was that a “feminist” view of power might lean less on coercion and “top-down” control and more on persuasion and collaboration. In this way the intended results might be reached, but in a way that promoted relationship and supported leadership throughout the group along the process. (I still love this idea, though I’ve come to see that complete collaboration is usually impossible- someone needs to be “in charge”. I’ve also come to believe that women are not necessarily any better at using power non-coercively).
Christian talk about political power often divides into the camps of “reinvest” or “retreat”, of questions about how to use or gain or abdicate power. The conversation in my circles always comes back to the Bruderhof; should we all join the Bruderhof? Should none of us join the Bruderhof? Are the Bruderhof themselves even Bruderhof enough?1
Though I am sure I am about to be corrected, many of these conversations seem to me always to judge the success of the project based on how good its plans are. What kind of community should we form? How should we fix social systems? I suppose my question is slightly different. I am interested less in what the ends are- though please don’t propose to me a crass integralism—and more in what the practices are that lead us to those ends. What kind of people should we be as we seek either to leave Washington D.C. or reinvest in it?
This is one of the perennial things I have loved about Tolkien. There is a quiet fortitude about the Hobbits and their friends that has been so missing among Christians. I see it especially now that we are in a “post-pandemic crisis” among Christian organizations. I am slated to give a talk about “the future of ministry” at a denominational conference in June. I find this sort of funny because I don’t do “ministry” in any official manner, nor do I have any great ideas about how it should be done. I simply have been doing the thing I think needs to be done without caring much if it succeeds, whether it “works”. One question I often ask is, how do we become Christians who will remain Christian regardless?
People often talk to me about their adult children who are not following the Lord. I think they want to introduce them to me, as if my brand of wacky Miss Frizzle theologian would inspire them to follow Jesus (reader, I am not that compelling). I have started to ask these folks, which faith do you think your children are longer following? Tell me about it. Was it perhaps one that promised that Jesus would be primarily a place where they got their psychological needs met? Did you raise them to believe that middle-class respectability and good religious feelings were the goal of following Christ? Did you teach them how to suffer?
I am not a noble parent; I write a lot about how I love my children endlessly, and I do- but I also have a short temper and don’t like chaos and need everyone to do things the first time they are asked, thank you. My children also do ridiculous things like fill all my Tupperware with insects and leave them about the house or put holes in the wall when they decide to go “as fast as they can” on the treadmill (truly). All this to say, trust me when I say mine is no domestic bliss. But over the past two years, I tried to teach my kids what it meant to follow Jesus in the dark. One way I did this was to read Psalm 136 at “family church” when public worship was shut down. We read this as a family, and our youngest who was three at the time took the repeating refrain- “his love endures forever”. He took this quite seriously and got mad when someone else would begin to read this refrain. “That’s my part!”, he’d yell. This moved me quite a bit. For, dear Christian- this is your part. Regardless of what may come- plague or pandemic, political upheaval or social unrest, mask or vaccines or wars in Ukraine or whatever else- you must remember your part. It is simply to recount all the good the Lord has done and to recount it in the present tense. “His love endures forever”, come what may. I hope I taught them that, at least.
So many of us get stuck in regret- “it could have been different”, “if only x policy had been enforced”-- but regret is simply an attempt to exert control on the past. We cannot control what has now passed. Regardless of what has happened, his love has endured, and is enduring and will continue to endure. So we get to engage in the world with this quiet confidence, bringing all of our strength to ventures that may fail.
I thought of this when I read about Treebeard. Like Tom Bombadil, Treebeard is my friend. I recognize him, with “a sad look in his eyes, sad but not unhappy.” I think my eyes have looked that way these last two years. Merry and Pippin have escaped the orcs, narrowly and due to an act of mercy from within the ranks of the orcs. (One theme within Lord of the Rings is the way mercy is found even among evil beings.)
Treebeard is “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck” (452). He has clothing that is the color of bark and his arms are “covered with a brown smooth skin” (452). He has feet and a face covered with a beard that looks like a mass of twigs and moss.
A clever thing about Treebeard is how he moves. He is very strong and imposing, but he is not flexible. When he wants to recline his body folds toward the ground, crumbling in an organized heap.
Treebeard shares with Tom Bombadil and Gandalf the quiet wisdom that comes with age.
One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground- asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between rot-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years (452).
This Ent has been thinking about the affairs of the forest for a very long time. As is often the case, the Hobbits soon learn of a history that extends far beyond them. Their kind is old, though not as old as the Ents. They must add their own line to the genealogy that Treebeard recites in order to locate them in his history.2
Everything is not alright with the trees. Though some are Ents, like Treebeard, and are able to communicate, others are falling away into hollow sleepiness. This drowsiness results in “bad hearts”; in trees who cannot speak. Treebeard is a shepherd to the trees, trying to rouse ordinary trees from the slumber that the Great Darkness has cast them into; “we do what we can”, he says, “We keep off strangers and the foolhardy; and we train and we teach, we walk and we weed” (457).
There are only three Ents left from before the time of the Darkness. Treebeard’s resignation to join the hobbits gradually falls away as he recounts the history of the Ents and the Entwives that have been lost. As he recounts this history, he remembers a better day, one where the Ents spoke to each other. He is remembering, too, the orc-work- wanton hewing- and the cutting down of the rowan trees. All of this rouses Treebeard, and he in turn rouses the Ents with the memories of what has happened to their kind. And so they come, clamoring through the forest like a great mighty cavalry. They are headed to Isengard, “to war, to hew the stone and break the door” (474). “It seemed now as sudden as the bursting of a flood that had long been held back by a dike”, as the Ents traverse the forest to head to Isengard. They are heading to burst down the doors and destroy Saruman, but it is not at all certain that they will succeed.
Treebeard knows that they may fail: “it is likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents”. But he must try to storm Isengard, along with his company of Ents. “If we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later. That thought has long been growing in our hearts; and that is why we are marching now. It was not a hasty resolve. Now at least the last march of the Ents may be worth a song” (475). The question of Treebeard is, how do we move when we know we may fail? If I can read a room, this is the question most pastors are asking. The Ents give a wonderful answer- with confidence and strength, knowing it is at least “worth a song”.
I am working on my own last march of sorts, trying to help little baby Christians locate themselves in their history. It is gratifyingly small work-- “we do what we can-- we keep off strangers and the foolhardy; and we train and we teach, we walk and we weed” (457). I think a Christian leader needs to hold within themselves some of the quiet sadness that Treebeard holds. This sadness is a mark, I think, of knowing the old stories and discerning how much has been lost. But it carries with it a sort of joyful resolve to do the thing that we have always done, which is tend and weed and walk and remind others of their true name. It brings with it a kind of rebellious mirth; Treebeard has this, as did Tom Bombadil. In the face of harrowing challenges and obstacles, both had quiet souls that were able to laugh. I love this image of Treebeard, right when he seems to embrace the decision to storm Isengard:
He strode to the archway and stood for some time under the falling rain of the spring. Then he laughed and shook himself, and wherever the drops of water fell glittering from him to the ground they glinted like red and green sparks. He came back and laid himself on the bed again and was silent. (463).
May it be said of us, too, that we know how to receive the task at hand with mirth, with a deep resonance of joy that allows us to rest from the impossible task at hand.
Please no one tell me to read David French, it is a point of pride that I do not know what French or his constant sparring partner are arguing about, and that I don’t care to know.
Treebeard is not his real name, and he will not tell them his real name; “my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to”; I am terribly tempted to make this a metaphor for the name “Christian”. I won’t, or at least not today.