My Checkered Heritage (And Our Brighter Future)
Rick Barry is managing editor of The Body Politic. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
I am a Hittite, on my mother’s side.
The Hittite empire splintered hundreds and hundreds of years before I was born, but their kingdom included a hefty chunk of my ancestral homeland, so my ancestors were Hittites. I’m the son of the son of the son (many times over) of many Hittites.
A few years ago, I visited my family’s country of origin for the first time. In addition to attending cultural events that traced the nation’s roots back to the Hittites, I explored the remains of temples dedicated to the worship of Chaldi—one of the gods of the Chaldeans, who made life miserable for God’s prophet Daniel, even attempting to burn him and his fellow believers alive.
On my father’s side, I’m mostly a Roman—whose government occupied the Holy Land, condoned Jesus’ execution and persecuted the first generations of his followers, attempting to wipe out the Christian church before it began.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are littered with my broken, ungodly ancestry. Enemies like that are usually cut off from any kind of access or influence after they are cast down, and their children are not usually given positions of privilege.
Yet there is grace for me.
Rather than being punished for his grandfather’s attempts on King David’s life, Mephibosheth was welcomed to David’s table because of David’s love for his father. Similarly, Jesus welcomes me to God’s table, even after my ancestors attempted to burn his ancestors alive, sent him to his death and executed his followers.
Your family history or cultural heritage, however checkered, are never obstacles to God’s grace. His wrath against sin may spill through three or even four generations, but he promises that his mercy and grace wash through thousands. I can enjoy what is great about my inherited cultures—the love of family, the great food, the beautiful language, the artistic accomplishments, the history of survival—without needing to hide the fact that we were also on the wrong side of some of the most important battles God ever waged in this world. I’m not asked to sit in the back of the church.
Like many of you, I have spent most of this week reading about the United States’s reaction to the tragic murder of nine people in a historic church in Charleston, SC. A great deal of the reaction to the tragedy has been predictable thanks to repetition, but the overtly racist nature of this crime has sparked an additional conversation about the history of and place for what is commonly known as the Confederate flag.
I’m not an impartial participant in that conversation. My family arrived in the United States in the 1900s. I grew up deeply proud to be a natural born citizen of this country, and to me, the Confederate flag has always felt treasonous. But I’ve tried to understand the hearts and minds of those who don’t want to see the flag removed as I’ve spoken with friends from the area and read a litany of comments and articles throughout the week.
One argument in particular, coming out of a story in USA Today, fascinated me. In a single sentence, a man named Dan Coleman, speaking on behalf of Sons of Confederate Veterans, accidentally gave a raw glimpse at what he holds to be most sacred in his life:
The Confederate flag may be a very complicated issue for you, but if you are a Christian, and you share Dan Coleman’s concern, I invite you to let go of it. To Mr. Coleman, admitting that our ancestors were wrong is unthinkable. But to a Christian, confessing that Christ is perfect means believing that everyone else—yes, everyone—without exception, is broken.
One of the most amazing truths the Bible shares is that, yes, our ancestors were wrong. About a lot of things. Even people you consider to be great heroes of faith, people with amazing, inspiring qualities who accomplished great things for causes we still celebrate, were moral failures. And often, they were moral failures in horrific ways: Samson broke every vow he ever made; King David had a friend murdered so that he could sleep with his wife; Peter struggled with racism; Paul treated the men who put Christians to death like they were the cool kids in the high school lunchroom, carrying their stuff for them until he worked up the gumption to start murdering God’s people himself.
Those people are not in the Bible because they deserve to be—they obviously don’t. They aren't in the Bible to inspire us—we are supposed to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, not his faithless, squabbling disciples. Those people are in the Bible because they are a testament to the abject generosity of God’s grace. He doesn’t care what you’ve done. He doesn’t care which broken systems you’ve benefited from. He doesn’t care whether you’re the child of slaves or the child of chattel slave owners. You're not beyond his generosity and his offer of a deeper existential security than you want for yourself.
How to Pray
This weekend, many Christians throughout the United States are likely struggling with the temptation to turn their ancestors or their heritage into idols as the nation around them asks them to re-assess the meaning of the Confederate flag. Pray for them. Pray for intellectual and spiritual honesty. Pray that the Holy Spirit would empower your brothers and sisters to trust in Jesus alone for their security and identity. And pray that, through their deepening dependence on Christ, they would be equipped to better make his love and consolation and reconciliation felt in practical ways by those around them who have been deeply hurt by last week’s tragedy.