John 15:1-8; 5 Easter B 2021
“I am the Vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus tells his disciples. “The one who abides in me and I in that one, that one bears much fruit…” So far, so good. Now comes one of the most “un-American” statements in the Christian scriptures. When we abide in Jesus, the Valid Vine, we will bear much fruit “because apart from me, you are unable to do anything” (John 15:5).
“America” has often been described as more of an idea than a country. In fact, the idea of America is filled with myths and useful half-truths as well as a great deal of real history. One of those myths is the “Story of the Self-made Man.”
Wikipedia notes that the phrase was first uttered in official records “on February 2, 1842 by Henry Clay in the United States Senate, to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions.” Clay was holding forth on the values and virtues of American industry and wealth in a “free market” system. He argued that government should protect the ability of such industry to be “self-made.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-made_man).
Perhaps you see the irony already.
It is an interesting turn of phrase to come from Clay’s mouth. He was the inheritor of slaves, land, and some social position. Even though his family fell on hard times briefly, his widowed mother remarried well. That second marriage increased Clay’s access to wealth, privilege, and – most of all – political power and connections. Clay certainly made the most of what he received and served the national government honorably and well.
The myth of the self-made man, however, is the very essence of the system of white, male supremacy and inherited privilege.
Even though the phrase was coined in the 1840’s, it was in the 1930’s to the 1950’s that the myth really took hold. Just at the time when white American men received more outside help than at any other time in history, the mythology of the self-made man came to greatest prominence.
In the age of Depression-era jobs programs, the GI Bill, federal encouragement of white, male, home ownership, and postwar protection of jobs for white men, the very same men asserted with vehemence and violence that they owed nothing to no one (the double negative is in the Greek of John 15:5 and works in Greek even if it doesn’t in “standard” English).
“Apart from me, you are unable to do anything,” Jesus says. The clash with the mythology of the self-made man is obvious and therefore must be suppressed.
This mythology is part of the “America” to which Donald Trump longed to return in his slogan “Make America Great Again.” It was more than a desire to make America “white again,” although that is certainly part of it. It was more than a desire to make American “male again,” although that is also certainly part of it.
It is the desire to make un-white and un-male America the invisible and unnamed basis for claims to white, male self-sufficiency. Claims to the contrary are attacked with vehemence and violence. After all, that is another part of what it means to “make America great again.” We witnessed that part of supposed American “greatness” on January 6, 2021, in the United States capitol.
Why is this myth so seductive? And why does challenging that myth produce such a violent and vitriolic response? First, the myth of the self-made man means that I get the credit for any and all successes. And I don’t have to share that credit with anyone. After all, “I did it my way.” The Paul Anka lyrics have served as propaganda for presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Trump.
The myth can’t be sustained, of course. No one is a self-made anything. But the more it becomes clear that we didn’t do it all on our own, the louder we say we did.
It’s no accident that Rick Santorum assumes the Doctrine of Discovery (the theological and political background of the self-made myth) in remarks to an audience at the Young Americans Foundation. If there was nothing here when “we” arrived, then by golly we must have built it all ourselves! Hurrah for us (white, land-owning, men)!
“We came here and created a blank slate,” he told his audience. “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here.” History has a way of calling stupidity into question, so Santorum tried to qualify his comment, only to make it even worse. “I mean, yes we have Native Americans,” he admitted, “but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
The price of the myth of the self-made man (and the self-made country) is twofold. On the one hand, others matter only if they are useful commodities – like Africans who were enslaved by the self-made. On the other hand, those who refuse to be useful must be erased from history, memory, and moral calculus.
This is the story of white, male treatment of Native Americans. When Santorum says we “created a blank slate,” he was actually quite right. The “slate” wasn’t “blank” until Native Americans were removed and erased from the frame.
This brings us to the second reason why this myth is so seductive. If I am self-made, then I have permission to simply not give a shit about anyone else. Especially, I am permitted – no, required – to ignore anyone who might need some help to get ahead. After all, I did on my own, right? Why can’t you?
Perhaps the myth of the self-made man goes all the way back to Cain. Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper? The myth says, no – of course not. Hebrew and Christian scriptures beg to differ.
So, the myth of the self-made man is binary and dualistic. It is the war of all against all. Others are at best commodities to be consumed. Others are most likely enemies to be erased.
“Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you are unable to do anything.” In our American mythology, this is bad news. But in the Christian worldview, this is the best news possible. Remember, Jesus first says, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.”
We don’t have to do anything apart from Jesus. He is the Vine, and we are the branches. When we abide in him, we will bear much fruit.
For those who don’t think this connection to Jesus matters, I probably don’t have much of any interest to share. You may wish to listen further out of curiosity. Or not. But I have a bit more to say.
We Christians have some elementary sense of what we think Jesus does for us. Through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God has defeated the powers of sin, death, and evil. The battles are not done, but the outcome of the struggle is not in doubt. As a Jesus follower, I receive the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation (of course, I believe that everyone else gets those benefits too).
That’s what Jesus does for us. Many Christians never go further than that. I’m so glad, they think, that God has had the good sense to rescue me and preserve my life for eternity. I’m glad (at least in theory) to share that good news with others. That being said, please let me get on with my self-making project.
If that’s all that’s happening, then it’s not really good news for anyone else. But the for part is only half the gospel.
The other half is what Jesus does through us. That’s what is really at stake in this image of the Vine and the branches. God works in us and through us to give abundant life to the world in the here and now. The life we receive in Jesus empowers us to pass that life on. In fact, passing it on is what “abundant life” really means! So I should ask myself each day — How am I being good news for others?
That’s not just a metaphor or a nice idea. It’s how we do church. I am not a self-made Christian. My parents and the generations before them have given me the gift of faith and tradition, piety and practice, that make me in large part what I am. People have gone out of their way to help me accomplish things in life. I’d like to take credit for this life, but I can’t. Naming and thanking all the people who have made me would take more time and space than this meditation!
Self-made is not “God-made.” The best we can do on our own is to produce lives that are knock-offs, cheap imitations of the Abundant Life. The best we can do is produce a life that looks like cut flowers – pretty for a while but destined for death in the end.
“Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you are unable to do anything.” For us as Jesus followers, that’s the good news.
My experience of being filled with Jesus’ life is that I end up doing things I never thought possible. Rarely do I do those things alone. Never do I do those things without help. But that makes them no less valuable. The corollary of Jesus’ words here is Paul’s statement in his letter to the Philippians – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
When we are abiding together on the Vine – when we are helping one another to flourish and grow and be fruitful – that’s when we are most like Jesus. When we have the opportunity to help another, we should jump at the chance. It’s another opportunity to live the Abundant Life. When we have the opportunity to be helped by another, we should jump at the chance. That’s the Abundant Life flowing through the Vine as well.
The call today is to be Unself Made. That’s where the real Life is.