Carrying Our Ancestors' Curses

“Let the crimes of their ancestors be held against them before God, and their parents’ sins never be erased” (Psalm 109:14).

This is a curse – whose vivid vengeful energy is true, even if none of us would wish to bear the guilt of our ancestors’ crimes.

It snagged my thoughts a bit during lectio, though. What crimes indeed have my ancestors committed? Or yours?

Some Christians call racism America’s original sin — a sin that warps the lives of all of us in this country. Insofar as I benefit from white privilege, I am complicit in a society that continues to value, notice, and reward the lives of some more readily than the lives of others. This broad notion of generational sin is the sort that makes ready sense to most of us.

But how much do we know about the particular crimes of our own ancestors?

My maternal grandfather was from Finland; he died when my mother was 14. I have his fiddle, busted beyond repair. I have met one of his nieces from Finland and her mother, who is a DJ on an evangelical Christian radio station there. Beyond this, I know nothing of my ancestors in Finland on that side of the family.

His wife, my grandmother, bore 14 children. She is 100 years old and often says she sits and thinks of each of us — her descendents — when she’s not watching Detroit Tigers games. She has done only one thing in my memory that troubled me, and that was to tell my then-husband that she’d like to hear him preach one day, without saying the same to me, even though he and I were both working as supply preachers one summer. But she’s Missouri Synod Lutheran, and has probably never heard a woman preach. I do, however, recall her saying when hearing of an interracial couple, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” Her mother was Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch—i.e., German), and there was a bit of Irish and something else in there, too. One of our German-American ancestors earned a hero’s medal on the Yankee side of the Civil War. But what about her ancestors’ descendents in Germany? Were any of them Nazis? Likely few if any of them were initially opposed to Hitler. Are they my ancestors, too?

My father’s grandmother is the child of parents who also immigrated from Finland. Her father was downhill skiing champion in Finland; I have an antique painting of him wearing his medals. Her mother died when I was 4 of emphysema, and had sky blue eyes; she scared me, and spoke little English. I have many of her starched tatted doilies, an embroidered cloth, and some old bowls that were hers.

My grandfather was the son of Slovenian immigrants. He ran logging camps and won a Michigan state award for being the first lumberjack to practice selective harvesting of timber. Perhaps he threatened my grandmother at some point, though in my memory he supported her painting murals on the walls and selling wood fibre flowers and golfing in hats she made of tin cans and yarn. I do know he told me one day he didn’t think there was anything wrong with men beating their wives. At the same time, he wasn’t partisan about the ethnic divisions endemic to the former Yugoslavia. Old fights he didn’t identify with.

Of course, if we go back 200 or more years, our number of ancestors grows immense . . . and at some point, to curse another for their ancestors’ sins is to curse ourselves as well.

What I would hazard to say is a legacy — if not a curse – of my Finnish and Slovenian immigrant ancestors is a habit of amnesia. Certain tragedies took years for me to know of (a child killing her twin when she pulled a boiling pan or kettle off the stove; the banishment of an alcoholic great uncle via a one-way ticket to California . . .). What earlier stories in the “old world” led to immigration? Those stories I do not hear. Perhaps I was just enough removed; or perhaps much tragedy is borne in silence, making self-protection a norm rather than intimacy and openness. Only my mother’s mother’s side of the family – the one ‘here’ since the 19th century – has a tribal warmth and extroversion, though I identify also with the eccentricity and work ethic of my more introverted ancestors.

Perhaps that’s what I’m most convinced I half-know, though I only hazard to claim it as knowledge: that there are tragedies and crimes from ancestors in Finland, Slovenia, perhaps Germany and Ireland that we their descendents do carry like a curse. “They wrapped themselves up in their curses, which soaked right into them like water, deep into their bones like oil” (Ps. 109:18). What this knowledge-that-there-is-something-forbidden-to-know feels like to me is a deep-seated tenseness, a stilted fear, as if I am always hearing one of those ancestors say, “Don’t you ever tell this! Don’t you even seek to know what this is!” As if tense silence is a way of life, a way of avoiding death. As if the backbone of a human life is formed by a sheltered privacy.

My closest descendents, through my brother’s children, will add to their inheritance all the ancestral memories of my sister-in-law’s Mexican heritage. And perhaps because that side of the family is also a recent immigrant one, I sense a similar sort of backbone, blended with a fierce loyalty to family.

And those of us who are Christians and who read the psalms include their Jewish authors as our spiritual ancestors. We tread paths always that our both ours, and another’s.

Those of us who pray regularly with the psalms know that we must listen for God amid the expression of human emotions they voice. We live in the aftermath of their curses, of God’s own threat of curse upon generations of descendents of those who do not keep the covenant (Deut. 28-29). God promises good to even more generations who follow those who keep the covenant . . . we live in the train of all of these ancestors, no doubt, the covenant-keepers and the covenant-breakers.

So did, so does, Christ, our Master Ancestor. If we are to trust the repeated refrain that God’s mercy outweighs God’s wrath, if we are to walk united with Christ who bears and renews all things, perhaps we’ll strengthen the river of blessings more than the river of curses for those who come after us.

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