In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded a song called, “Strange Fruit.” The lyrics came from a poem written two years before by Abel Meeropol. It was a protest song against racism in general, but it was naming the horror of the lynching trees. The words were written after the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith on 7 August, 1930. One listener names that the song is, “the ugliest song, that it tears too much at the gut.” It is not a song you would have playing on repeat, but it is also not often that a song is found that can reach such a deep place in the gut. Here are the words:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant south, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, here is a strange and bitter crop.
I heard this song for the first time in a cross-racial clergy group and our response was stunned silence and then prayers began to rise, the words of which were as raw as any prayer I had heard uttered before. There is strange fruit alive in the world today. The injustices that exist are like a stripping of a people, a slapping in the face of humanity, and a rape of the ways in which we are called to live as people working to sort out life the way Jesus embodied it. “One can have an awareness of a moral wrong on an intellectual level, without being wholly emotionally engaged” another shared, “Listening to strange fruit is literally like being kicked in the gut.”
Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was a prayer of the gut. He would have been in touch with the beauty and wonder of the world, but the horrors would have been before him as well. The word Gethsemane literally means—olive press. His prayers were a pressing of his spirit, like olives being pressed for their oil, only the fruit of Jesus’ prayer was a life of faithfulness even if the cost was his blood. “If it be possible for this cup to pass from me, He prayed, “but nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, there are no roses or lilies, the garden is a grove of olive trees. We are told Jesus went there often to pray, to a place known as the olive press.
Billie Holiday’s, Strange Fruit, is a haunting song. When I listen to it, I see the lynching tree and I see images of children washed up on the shore, attempting to find refuge. I see people lit on fire a tire around their neck, I see schools falling apart–children struggling to learn, I see women in tears beaten and bruised, I see people oppressed for worshipping in a different way. I see a world thirsty for something more and struggling to find its way there.
I understand why Jesus would pray in a place called the olive press, for it is when we are pressed on every side and relying on God, that we find our way to new fruit, fruit that is undeniably of God in that it breaks open reminding the world of the power of love. God’s fruit is born in the world one seed at a time, one act of defiance against systems that kill at a time, one–self-sacrificing ‘not my will, but yours’ love–at a time. And Jesus bids to us on his knees in a grove of olive trees, “Come, stay awake in prayer with me. Take care that you don’t become tempted to sleep.”
With you on the journey,