The Fruit of Holy Ground

Revelation – The Burning Bush by David Holleman, Art Musueum of Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, OH


When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely,

God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
He answered, “Here I am.”
God said, “Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.”

Exodus 3:4-5

“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”

1 Corinthians 10:12

[H]e said to the gardener, “‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13: 7-9

On Friday during a lectio divina for our annual Pause Week, a week of contemplative activities done in community, I was again confounded by the realities of doing ministry across difference. The scripture was the healing of the woman crippled for 18 years by a spirit (Luke 13:10-17), a reading that follows this week’s Gospel. One of the participants, a student with deep faith who comes from a Christian tradition that has deeply immersed her in the Bible, asked a poignant question in relationship to the crippled woman, “But what if it’s me?”

The question hung in the air with a kind of certainty. It unveiled a core reality of faith and brokenness. There are so many ways that I want that student who bears her oppression with deep grace and faith not to feel crippled or unable to stand up straight. Yet, I know that there are so many external forces pressing in upon her that my desire and her reality may never meet. She is marked by oppression in society as a whole and on our campus. As I have thought and prayed about this over the last two days, I found the question that rang out with such clarity in our prayer being turned on me. Her question became my question. I began to own feeling crippled by my own privilege and power and I began to see clearly how I needed to end this week of reflection on the “University as Social Force.”

“But what if it’s me?”

It is me. It is us.

Holy Ground

As the editors noted in the preface to the week, the idea of the University as social force comes from a 1982 address from Ignacio Ellacuría. One of the central aspects of the late Jesuit’s theology is the notion of la realidad. At its core, the Jesuit martyr read la realidad as encompassing every facet of oppression and liberation. Ellacuría strongly affirmed God’s integral presence in history and pointed to the fact that salvation occurred within the fabric of history as concrete liberation from social, political, ecological oppression (a point with which his detractors certainly disagreed). For Ellacuría, the university occupied the holy ground between reflection and action. Ideally, the university listens carefully, analyzes fully, and moves us to action and when it does, “We see clearly that God does not will that things be like this and that God wills a struggle to change things,” writes Ellacuría.[i]

True theophanies can be frightening.  God invites us to speak when we are never ready and to pay a cost for solidarity with the oppressed. Moses witnesses the contradiction of life and death in the bush that burns, but is not consumed and on that holy ground is not summoned to war, but to speak. Moses was to proclaim a plan for liberation to the powers and principalities of Egypt. The vocation of the university right here and right now is no different. Ideally, those of us engaged in this endeavor speak truth to power. This was embodied in the events at La Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (La UCA) in November of 1989 when Elba and Celina Ramos and the six Jesuits (including Ellacuría) were martyred on the lawn in front of their residence.

Dean Brackley, SJ who followed his six slain brothers at la UCA reminds us that Ellacuría emphasized that the vocation of the university was to speak into la realidad in this way:

Proyección social means projecting the information, the critique, concrete proposals for solutions, in short, the educational work proper to a university, out into the society. Ex corde ecclesiae calls for the Catholic university to “demonstrate the courage to express uncomfortable truths, truths that may clash with public opinion but that are also necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society” (no. 32).[ii]

Courageous witness to uncomfortable truths, proyección social, becomes all the more difficult in political contexts such as those we see now in the United States where violent and hateful rhetoric is having disastrous consequences. To be sure, the cost or the burden is not light for those within the American academy who want to tackle oppression. This is especially true when our own institutions and their patterns of oppression become the object of our inquiry. This is especially true for faculty, staff, and students of color and other marked identities doing that inquiry.

This week’s reflections have danced with hope by naming pain. If you have walked with Daily Theology this week, you know that we have confronted the reality that our institutional histories bear witness to painful rationalizations for oppression. We have been challenged by the hard pedagogical work of awakening white students socialized not to see racial injustices and countering racist narratives in the classroom that reinscribe that socialization to maintain privilege and lock oppression in place.

Listening played an important role throughout the week. “To open ourselves to one another across the color line; to move toward each other, and not run away or hold “them” categorically at a distance; to strive to build at every level of campus life what Francis calls a culture of encounter” are observations that were a leitmotif of these reflections. We were invited to imagine what it could be like if we were truly listening to our students and trusting in their leadership these past months to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world.

We were stretched to think about ways that our encounter with immigrant communities might be more relational and less strategic, more infused with the human dignity of faces and names and less about the abstraction of “the poor.” In this season of Lent, the holy ground on which we walk stands between the struggle of the cross and the certain joy of resurrection. “The security of the resurrection does not take away the desire to struggle but strengthens it,” writes Ellacuría. “As a follower of Jesus one tries to do this out of hope.  It is a struggle taken on through the Christian vocation and not because of class hatred, and those who are really enduring this, these are the ones who give us the most hope.”[iii]

Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”

In today’s second reading, Paul reminds us that the Exodus flight was full of signs and wonders to which the people closed their eyes. The cloud and the fire led the way, the sea parted, the manna fell, the rock flowed – the people had everything they needed in order to survive. All the tools were at their disposal and still they grumbled, discontent with the struggle. The work of journey was too hard. They desired to go back to the land of their oppressors.

Undoing the plunder of colonialism, chattel slavery, and white supremacy is uneven, messy, and arduous work in which we will fail. There are many who even foreclose on the possibility that it can be undone. I am committed both in my scholarship and in my ministerial praxis to a sustained effort to the long work of undoing. But time and again I cannot see beyond my own bias and socialization as a white male. While theologians like Vanessa White do not have the responsibility to remind me of those whose creativity has not been included in the discourse, I am grateful for her challenging and very true analysis. I listened and I will try harder, and that’s never enough. The truth of the matter as Paul so bluntly tells us is that there is no secure ground in the wilderness. The moment that I think I am “right,” that I am appropriately “awake” to my circumstances, is the moment that I fall.

I believe that this is true with our institutions, and perhaps more vexingly so when we come together to work on these issues. There is no programmatic solution that will make our teaching and learning completely just and equitable. There is no liturgy that brings the fullness of the Body of Christ to the table. No service immersion or intrusive mentoring model or Lenten reflection series contain “the answer.” Paul calls us to be sober about the realities of justice-making in the community. Our work on behalf of justice does contain part of the answer.

These practices constitute a willingness to answer the call right now in this one discrete way. It is important that they emerge from a community to address the needs of a community on the margins. As Vanessa White noted invoking Howard Thurman, “What we call humanity has a name, was born, lives on a street, gets hungry, needs all the particular things we need.” As we have been reminded time and again this week, it is not a some other-ized “them” that needs a solution. We must begin to see the future of the entire institution as bound up in the welfare of those students, faculty, and staff members who are most vulnerable. It is truly a gift to use the tools that God has given to make the margins the center of the story of Christian higher education in the United States.

Sir, leave it for this year also, 
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; 
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.

Today’s Gospel invites us into the daily lived experience of Palestine in the 20s. That daily experience is the murder of Jewish bodies by the Roman state in their place of worship and the attribution of an accident (death by tower of Siloam) to God’s divine retribution. These are the jarring realities of the local news of Jesus’ reality and are hardly different from our own. The onlookers ask, “Were they being punished?” Jesus unequivocally says no. As I prayed with these passages, I was drawn back to my student’s question, “But what if it’s me?” Jesus clearly tells us that these people were no more to blame than anyone else.

My imagination wandered into the silences of the text. Perhaps it was complicity in the temple or synagogue guard that resulted in conditions so unsafe that people could not worship. I remembered Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald in my blessed city.  Perhaps it was the crumbling infrastructure of a city occupied. The monstrous crime that is Flint’s water supply was put in stark relief by the reading. The system, the antecedents are unseen and unheard, silent, complicit in these two tragedies. Something is going on, but we know not what exactly. Jesus speaks the parable into that lived experience of systemic brokenness.

“But what if it’s me?”

It is me. It is us. It extends to the university, too.

Which voices are silent in our curricula? Who speaks with power in our professional guilds and who does not?  What directs our teaching and learning and ministry? Does it reflect the deep well of culture of all of our students or just some?  Have we confronted the fact that theology and ministry always speaks and acts from a social location with cultural presuppositions and norms? And on, and on…

The gardener offers us another opportunity to have the tree bear fruit for all. God’s hands are dirty from working the soil around our struggling tree. Even in terms of the parable, God’s labor is embodied in unique ways. Our efforts to change, cultivating the land and fertilizing the soil, must get to the roots of injustice by addressing the ways that particular communities have been starved of what they need to thrive. Much remains to be done in laboring with God. Caring for the tree is, as M. Shawn Copeland tells us:

“A praxis of redemptive love [that] interrupts human desires for mastery and control; its aim is the inculcation of new habits and dispositions, nothing less than the complete transformation of the human person. A praxis of redemptive love—other-regarding, neighbor-loving, selfless to the point of self-sacrifice, fearless and loving in the face of persecution, open, and hopeful—hungers and thirsts for the lived and embodied justice of beloved community in which we belong to God and are for one another.”

A praxis of redemptive love allows us to live embodied solidarity and treat the university as holy ground where diverse others meet in mutuality.

It regards culture as constitutive of the faith and daily lived experience of our students, faculty, and staff instead of the focus of a month-long celebration.

It honors difference by inviting us to hold the gaze of those made invisible and make their narrative the center of our institutional life.

It lives in right relationship and can be embodied by making our institutions more reflective of the diversity of the U.S. Church through both the student body and the community of educators in whom our students see their futures reflected.

A praxis of redemptive love calls us to re-examine the structures of our departments and our intellectual craft to ensure that the inevitable blind spots and silences can be made visible and disrupted.

It is a love that is messy and complex.  It is a love that hurts.

Redeptive love requires nothing less than our whole selves. It asks us to hold the struggle of the cross and the triumph resurrection in our minds and hearts at the same time.

Redemptive love is perhaps the only thing that can ensure that in the future the tree can bear fruit for all and not just for some.

John DeCostanza, Jr. is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL.  He is an ecumenical D.Min. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.

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[i] Michael E. Lee, Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013), 131.

[ii]  Dean Brackley, SJ, “Higher Standards for Higher Education: The Christian University and Solidarity.” Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture 37.1 (2002): 6-24. Print. This article can also be found on Creighton University’s Collaborative Ministry page here:

[iii] Lee, Ignacio Ellacuria, 131.