Can One Good Apple Unspoil the Whole Bunch? Thoughts on Healing the Church and the Nation

Bad apples are in the news again. This often happens when we have a national debate over the behavior of individualswho can be assigned to a category. “Bad apple” theory is the most common way to push back against  “systemic problem” theory.

If most law-enforcement officers are good and noble people working in a system designed to protect people, the theory goes, we should not blame all police or try to drastically reform the situation. If, however, there are elements of our current system that will produce injustices no matter how good most of the people in the system are, then we have something more than a “bad apple” problem. The same basic logic works for racism in the Church. And lots of other things too.

It turns out that the fundamental science behind the bad apple metaphor is sound. “Badness” in apples is a consequence of ripening. Ripening is good, up to a point, but overripe fruit becomes spoiled and yucky. But as apples (and bananas, melons, pears, and peaches) ripen, they give off a hormone called ethylene, which accelerates the ripening of other fruits. As an apple rots, then, it encourages all of the other apples to be just as rotten. When you find one bad apple in a barrell, you have a problem with the whole barrell.

But does it work in reverse? Can a good apple unspoil all of the apples around it, or at least reverse the ripening process or slow it down a little bit? The answer is important both horticulturally and metaphorically, as many of us want to be agents of change in a difficult time (and all of us, presumably, want to eat good apples).

The simple answer is no. Good apples don’t emit any gaseous hormone that reverses the decaying process of the apples around them. Ripening is a natural process that ends in decay. All apples will go bad if you leave them out long enough. This is an inherent part of appleness, and once it happens it can’t be reversed. Making good apples bad just requires time and a little bit of ethylene gas. Making bad apples good requires magic.

Bad apple trees, on the other hand, can be healed by the process of grafting. A shoot or branch from one tree can be permanently attached to another tree in a way that changes the first tree by combining it with the second tree on the genetic level. The grafting process4 can be used to change the output of trees or to combine different genetic to create a new variety of the fruit. But it can also be used to heal a damaged tree—to make a bad apple tree good again.

The grafting process—involving olives and not apples—is one of the most powerful scriptural metaphors we have for the healing of a people. Paul uses it in the 11th chapter of Romans to explain how his own mission to the gentiles will end up healing Israel by grafting believing Christians onto the

And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?

For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. (Romans 11:23-26)

In the Book of Mormon, Jacob extends on this idea to create a metaphor for a whole past and future history of apostasy and restoration. Here, grafting becomes a metaphor for the process by which members of the human family become part of the Abrahamic Covenant.

But let’s go back to a version of the original question: what might we learn from the fact that a good apple can’t unspoil a bunch, but a graft from a healthy branch can heal an entire tree? What is the difference between the two types of things? Let me suggest one:  apples in a barrel are mingling together, while scions in a graft become an integral and permanent part of what they are trying to change. It is a question of commitment.

And this is how we change institutions, be they a church, a community, a nation, or a world. We have to be willing to be a part of what we are trying to change. We have seen a lot of discussion here about ways that the Church should deal with the racist elements of its past. I agree with much that has been said, but I also know that I cannot be an agent of change unless and until I am willing to commit heart and soul to the institution that I am trying to influence. No apple ever got unspoiled by being berated by a crusading banana.

This works in countries too. And with the whole beautiful, terrible, magnificent, broken, tragic, sad, and wonderful human race. Individuals can influence institutions, for good or for ill. But good and ill don’t always work the same. You can spoil a whole barrel just by hanging around and being rotten. But you can only heal a tree when you are willing to become a part of it in ways that change you both.  


  1. alesueur218 says:

    Amen amen amen.

  2. alesueur218 says:

    Amen amen amen. So just thinking about unpacking the metaphor-it means we have to engage with the each other in positive and building ways. We need to allow ourselves to grow in anti-racism as we encourage others to do the same. Fingerpointing at others for their racist ways, having anger at others for refusing to change or burying our head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the racism in our systems (or ourselves) is all going to contribute to the rot.

    So what does it mean to graft into the tree as far as the church? What actions should we be taking?

  3. This is a beautiful thought. What I am hearing, in a line, is that the “but it is a few bad apples” response to calls for systemic reform, in fact, already assumes a natural process of systemic change

  4. Well said, my friend.

  5. Well stated.

  6. Brian G says:

    Grafting doesn’t really work like in the allegory of Jacob. There is limited exchange of RNA, protein, etc through the graft joint. The expression is modified but it doesn’t convert the graft or the rootstock into each other. For example a dwarf apple tree is from the interaction of the root and the grafted too, but the fruit and the genetics of the two do not merge or convert each other.

  7. Laurel Leee Pedersen says:

    Beautiful thoughts, Michael!

  8. Cultural violence is as real as it is hidden. The racist cultural violence has now become more visible, but we fail at seeing ourselves as part of this culture. “Lord, is it I?” is the question I try to ask myself. How am I the bad apple, or at least how have I allowed myself to become rotten by hanging out with the rottenness in the culture?

    Maybe by admitting that I’m part of this system and try to change myself, I then can become a little twig on that grafted branch that can change culture and system.

  9. Handlewithcare says:

    glorious and inspiring, an antidote to my eeyorism. Why I stay.

  10. Over the past month I’ve read many posts on covering racism, the role of the church, police, bad apples and so on.

    I try desperately to receive the context of all that’s shared here and allow myself to grow from understanding varying views and opinions.

    I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yippie

    I’m also a wife of a police officer, just shy of 30yrs of service. Yippie

    I deal with all facets of racism as a reality every day, but I choose to act on faith and purpose, not indifference or ignorance.

    I don’t engage in bad “apple-ness” but I also don’t see value in pointing out bad apples, because it appears the underlying thoughts go beyond that politically accepted description and borders on something entirely different but painfully clear.

    I wonder how many reading this post are Black? I wonder how many actually are actively engaged in a positive solution where racism exist? I also wonder if any know, are or are related to a “good apple ” police officer?

    Pause and
    Let that sit for a minute.

    My answer to my own questions is yes, yes and yes.

    I wish that any posting and reading the many posts here, on all the many illuminating degrees of racism, the role of the church and bad apples and such, would take note that some among you are sensitive and keenly aware, more directly, from personal experience the reality and weight of it all and encourage you to yield more time to engage in inclusive solutions and become catalysts of change and talk less about the reality of things they presume to know but really don’t.

  11. A few days ago I injured my leg; a fluke because after a long day of accomplished tasks, I simply miss-stepped and landed wrong, twisting a bit and there you go. Ouch.

    It’s been days and with great pain and discomfort, I’m healing, but it still hurts a bit.

    How to heal the Church? In the context of healing, you first have to acknowledge and know what’s the matter, where’s the source of the problem, the root cause.

    When you go to a doctor, they often will twist your limb until they get a reaction, ouch and ask you to tell them when it hurts? and how bad?

    Well, it’s bad, really bad. And healing will cause the bad parts to be revealed so they can heal more sufficiently as the pain will be evident, getting worse at times, through the healing process.

    My leg was swollen, bruised, ugly.
    Racism swells and is ugly but both can be healed.

    I acknowledged that I injured my leg because I wasn’t watching my step and caused to step poorly and result in injury. The church needs to acknowledge that racism has existed within the culture and structure of the Church. Making that acknowledgement is within itself painful but true and necessary. Its ugly and nobody wants to see or hear that, fear it will make things worse; it might.

    While no matter or act of defacing monuments is just, the recent paint stained on Brigham Young creates a very real truth in reflection of a painful past. When I looked at the image of the defaced monument and just focused on the placement of how and where the paint was applied, it caused me to wonder and think deeper on healing the Church and cleaning or what to do to remove the stain of racism, because in essence that’s what must occur.

    This comment isn’t about bad apples nor do I condone acts to deface any property. This response is focused on what it would take to heal the Church from racism.

    Here’s my further thoughts and suggestions:

    What I see:
    The Stain on Brigham Young covers the body, but not the heart, it lands on the feet, it’s name sack is marked over with the word RACIST and the image is in a way conveying blood and, or bleeding. These images speak to me in a way possibly that the person or persons who did this, may not have intended but none the less, I find compelling. The heart not being stained or covered in my mind conveys to repent; the stain over the name conveys the beginning and the stain over the body conveys, the whole of the church as what speaks to me.

    What I see is hope and healing. What you may see is simply disgust and bad apples.

    The Church Presidency should see this and respond and not react in disgust of bad apples but see this as a point to heal and grow from. I see the bad apples but I also see hope.

    Today, I turned suddenly and tweaked my leg again; minor but it hurt a tad but still healing, its a process you see. Painful but healing will come.

    I have a vision of our Prophet, humbling himself and starting the healing process by cleaning the stain through the process of grief by acknowledgement, growth by the act of cleaning the stain from many years of systemic racism and sustaining healing by acts of change even to consider changing the name from BYU to possibly “A New University (ANU) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” A new way, a new Church in the scope of repentance and healing.

    Change is rarely easy. Healing isn’t any easier. Seeing the stain of the past poured on Brigham Young, isn’t simply a matter of bad apples but a revelation of change necessary for healing and growth. I didn’t place it there but I acknowledge the stain and see that my heart isn’t hardened but has revealed to me a way to heal from the stain, however painful the process might be.

    There. I feel better already. Don’t you?

  12. Imagine for a moment that the Church had an auxiliary organization, for example CES, that was once lead by a racist. Imagine that person had stated opinions and even implemented policies that discriminated against certain races. In this case, it would be easy for the Church to face its past and apologize for this behavior. Even if the Church had to throw the CES president under the bus, it would be fairly easy to do so retroactively.

    Now compare the above scenario to reality. The reality is that the racism was not rooted in an auxiliary organization of the Church nor was it implemented by an auxiliary president. The overt racism and racist policies of the Church were executed by none other than the LDS prophets themselves, starting with Brigham Young. And of course, no prophet or First Presidency was willing or able to reverse things until Spencer W Kimball (maybe David O McKay wanted to but he didn’t). And the doctrinal foundation for this racism was rooted in the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, LDS canonized scripture. That’s a little harder to ignore than say an Ensign magazine or CES manual.

    So there you have it. And the Church knows that if it apologizes for previous prophets by name, that could undermine the entire premise that the Prophet speaks for the Lord. The Church leadership is essentially trapped. Brigham Young was NOT one bad apple.

  13. Kristine says:

    I think it might be important to clarify that the part about the “crusading banana” is not actually about the victims of institutional abuse, but about allies who have the choice to stay or go, and can choose to stay without being harmed further.

  14. Josh, this is the conclusion I have come to as well. I am imagining a new way to move forward. Would it be the worst thing in the world if the church reduced the role of a prophet to a President? Allowed members to think for themselves on issues that challenges their moral integrity? I like the idea of belonging to a faith based community. I like the idea of using my money to make the world a better place so I would still pay tithing to this church. I would still go every week and use that time to reflect on how my actions are measuring up to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I think if this were the path moving forward many people would stay. This is what I have done in my mind already. I worry that I am not acting in integrity by leaving. That is something I have to wrestle with.

  15. Your apple metaphor is certainly at work in the Republican Party. Look at the influence for decay that Trump has had on the GOP. The party of family values will now excuse anything Trump does. I wonder how many Mormons, even as they insist Trump is a “great president,” would use him as an example to teach their children how to behave. Would they teach their children to be truthful as Trump is, to be loyal to their spouses as Trump has been, to treat other people with kindness and empathy as Trump does, to be honest in their business dealings as Trump is, to be welcoming to the refugee or the stranger as Trump is, to be modest and unassuming as Trump is? Maybe some would. But most know in their hearts that there is a bad apple at the head of the Republican Party, and they don’t know quite how to deal with it. Toss it out to protect the other apples? Not a chance. Thus, the party’s future has probably already been written.

  16. Angela C says:

    Just so, Michael. Unfortunately, as we all know, the bad apple metaphor is a dodge, not a good faith argument. Your post aptly exposes why.

  17. Mary: you have touched on a very very important issue that I hope can be expanded in a separate edition: the role of prophet vs. the role of president. This is huge to me.

    In sum, I think 99% of President Nelson’s actions have been presidential, not prophetic. And the beautiful thing about it is that I am perfectly comfortable with a Church president who implements a policy I don’t like. He has his inspired opinion, I have mine. Want to implement an anti-gay policy and then reverse it 40 months later? Go ahead, that’s your prerogative as president of the organization. The problem is when you do so by claiming it is the WILL OF THE LORD. That’s when many of us get thrown for a loop.

  18. Josh, this is my heartache as well. Oppression of another by religious sanction is the worst kind of discrimination. Some, I would say most, members of the church would say that we are bad apples for saying it out loud. I believe that we are trying to become part of the tree to heal.

  19. Bubba, thank you for this meditation. An entirely beautiful way to look at things.

  20. The question I ask myself is “Am I a bad apple?” I try to be fair and equitable. I listen to those with opinions different than my own. Is that enough? Am I aware of my own prejudices and weaknesses? Until I am, I cannot progress.

  21. Josh h, I agree. “Brigham Young was NOT one bad apple,” but he represents the core and as such as Prophet, President Nelson should be compelled to address and work to eradicate systemic racism from its core and demonstrate a level of consciousness towards healing the church, without a direct mention of his name in that context, while lessening its presence on monuments and such, but with a greater emphasis on actionable tasks that the Church can undertake towards that end.

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