The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein begins with the story of a boy who loves an apple tree. He enjoys the shade of her canopy, satisfies his hunger with her ripe, plump apples, and climbs and swings from her branches. As he grows, the boy wants his friend, the tree, to provide much more. He wants to cut lumber from the tree’s branches to build a house and to cut down the round trunk of the tree to construct a boat. The tree obliges because she loves the boy. By the end of the story, she has given everything she has until she is left with only a stump upon which the boy can rest as an old man. At that point, the story reads: “And the tree was happy . . . but not really.” The truth is that neither the tree nor the boy is satisfied. I read Silverstein’s book to my theology classes to introduce contemporary feminist debates about sin and humility that were stimulated by the [End Page 108] 1960 publication of Valerie Saiving’s article “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”1
The story offers a powerful and painful metaphor for women conditioned by the Christian church and its canon of theologians to believe that humanity’s ultimate sin is hubris and pride; and the ultimate loving Christian responses to human sin are humility and self-sacrifice, understood as synonymous with obedience, self-effacement, and self-negation. Student responses to this interpretation of The Giving Tree always vary. Some are disturbed that I have ruined a story used in their favorite children’s sermon. Others feel betrayed by the church for teaching them to give to the detriment of their own identities. One student, also a woman committed to a religious order, challenged my feminist reading of the story. She responded, “I am a feminist and I believe in humility. Humility means not having to apologize to anyone for who you are. Humility is only in the sight of God.” I interpreted her statement to mean humility is only in the sight of God and not human beings, particularly men. At first, I found the student’s comment disquieting and wondered if her desire to cling to humility was the result of patriarchal influences upon her own thought. Her comment, however, became the source of a few nights of embattled sleep. Here was a woman whom I knew to be a strong women’s advocate. She and her sisters are educators, regularly attend war protests, pray together daily for justice, live communally, share their money and possessions, and take risks to work with prisoners, refugees, and undocumented laborers. Submission to the “powers that be” is not her focal point. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Saiving’s article provided the timing that I needed to reflect more carefully on the relevance for contemporary feminists of Saiving’s critique of the sin of pride as it was articulated by theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and to revisit the value of humility for feminist discussions.
Articulating the sin of pride as the misuse of freedom, Niebuhr stands squarely within the Augustinian tradition. According to Niebuhr, human beings experience anxiety as a result of living in a state of awareness of their own finitude and freedom; this anxiety creates the occasion for sin. Human beings misuse their freedoms when they allow themselves and their own projects, imaginations, abilities, and interests to become the center of the universe. Christ, for Niebuhr, is the ultimate response to human sin. Christ is the final norm for human nature in defining perfection through humble acts of sacrificial, self-emptying love. Saiving exposed the limitation of traditional views of sin as pride as products exclusively reflecting male experience. Pride could not be women’s sin when women have been forced to stand at intersections created for [End Page 109] them by men and have been deprived of the power and freedom to shape their own destinies, projects, and identities. Moreover, humility known only in acts of self-sacrificial love cannot be the means to redeem women’s circumstances if women’s freedoms have been taken from them.