Racism and xenophobia continue to have residual influence even after their overt expressions are rejected.
This points to the power of deeply rooted assumptions in a culture of socially focused and limited privilege.
Insights like those of Walter Rauschenbusch (“A Theology for the Social Gospel”) and Reinhold Niebuhr (“Moral Man and Immoral Society”) have pointed to the ways in which the structures of society can embody features that are personally rejected by its participants.
From a pastoral perspective in the community of faith, the challenge is offering a transforming gospel in a context where life-long perspectives have been nurtured.
A culture of “just the way things are” implies a kind of determinism that emphasizes the difficulty of changing the course of life from how it has begun and developed.
“Can a leopard change its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23) is the rhetorical question in a discussion of inevitability.
The images of agriculture play a significant role in the affirmations of biblical theology. Seed time and harvest, good and bad fruit, the Kingdom of God like the sowing of seeds on various kinds of ground – these are powerful metaphors that transcend agriculture and find their way into many other areas of life.
One feature of nature that is often noted is the rather clear relation of seeds planted and fruit produced.
If a pumpkin seed is planted, a pumpkin will be the result. This “law of nature” affords no exception. “Can a fig tree yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” (James 3:12). This is a closed system that we might even call deterministic.
This kind of thinking has found its way into the realm of human experience in a form of social determinism that notes the power of a developmental context on the perspectives of people.
In the past, people who lived in social frameworks that depended upon slavery naturally accepted its reality as “the way things were” and tended to frame morality within rather than against that system.
More recently, and in the memory of many of us, a “Jim Crow” system of racial thinking and living dominated a context where even clear and blatant injustice was accepted as “the way things were.”
Still more recently, even after the legal dismantling of many frameworks of injustice, the subtle remnants of their effects remain, often subconsciously, in our collective psyche.
We might wonder if the natural impossibility of a leopard changing its spots and a given seed producing something other than what it is tempts us to think that certain ways of thinking and living are determinative for a human future.
Plenty of experiential evidence points to the difficulty, if not impossibility, of people steeped in certain beliefs and attitudes escaping the chains of those beliefs to see the world a different way.
Educators and pastors know this reality very well, and our public life continues to show the effectiveness of appeals to consume the fruit of seeds from earlier plantings.
More than a few times in many years in the classroom, I have thought to myself (and sometimes said to others), “It would take a miracle to get this student to break free from an early conditioning process that is so deeply ingrained.”
In other words, “This leopard won’t change its spots” or “These pumpkin seeds aren’t going to yield a watermelon.”
Then, sometimes many years later, I’ve gotten a visit from a spotless leopard or an email from a former pumpkin now a watermelon, who were thoughtful enough to share a story of a change of perspective that has made them and their world different from what they once were.
Did it take the miracle I thought it would need?
I think so, if we let “miracle” get liberated from being something spectacular and contrary to the laws of nature and become something that is seen by the eye of faith as a “sign” pointing to the sacred.
It would seem that the gospel, along with its precedents in the covenant faith of Israel, indeed offers a “miracle message” in its invitation to embrace the possibility of being shaped not only by the conditioning of our past and present but also, and more importantly, by a forward calling toward a transformed future.
Sure, seeds will produce fruit according to their nature. Yet, we affirm theologically that it is the “nature” of humans to reflect the creative “image of God” and to participate in the ongoing work of bringing order out of chaos.
Of course, we can choose to be content with the chaos or to manipulate it to our own ends. Or we can choose to let new seeds be planted in the soil of our experience that will grow a different kind of garden.
The gospel’s miracle message points us to that possibility.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).