The story goes that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew that Christ was returning tomorrow. Apparently, he said, “I’d plant a tree”. It’s a pretty beautiful response. It’s a response that demonstrates Luther’s commitment to building the right kind of world regardless of circumstances, good or bad.
It’s been easy during the last few decades to be committed to building the right kind of world. Actually, it’s never easy but it’s been easier in the last few decades to feel good about it, at least in wealthy and stable places like Canada. We have seen in the last couple of generations the quality of life rise, economic growth, and the expansion of rights for traditionally excluded and marginalized people. I hope it goes without saying that the positive progress is not complete and that there are still people and communities that live in the midst of exclusion and marginalization.
But it’s been easy to believe in progress. It’s been easy to believe that the long arc of the universe bends toward justice. Maybe it’s only been easy for those of us who live lives of privilege but that’s been the dominant narrative of our time.
The conviction that progress will continue, and that things can only get better, makes planting trees easier. It’s easier to work on building the right kind of world when it seems like all our efforts will yield a harvest sevenfold or tenfold.
But what happens to our desire to plant trees when the bad guy wins? Or when death wipes out the gains of a lifetime? What happens to us when we see that progress may, in fact, be reversed? That all we’ve built may be lost?
Those of us who have been privileged to live in times and places of stability and wealth have not often had to confront these questions. It is hard, however, to consider the challenges of these days and not confront the possibility that positive progress is coming to an end. (I say this convinced that the outcome of any election is a response to the challenges of these days and not simply the cause of them.)
And if we discover that we are indeed living in an age when positive progress slows or stops we will lose some of our energy to plant trees. That is, we will lose some of our energy for planting trees if our expectation is that we will see those trees become large and mighty oaks.
But Luther clearly wasn’t motivated to plant trees, to build the right kind of world, by the expectation that he’d see it. The desire, the commitment, to build the right kind of world was founded on the faith that doing right is always right and never wasted or lost regardless of the cost.
So, take courage.
Plant a tree.