Black History Month and Atoning For Our Sins

Last month we went to see the movie Hidden Figures and my kids loved it. I know they were mostly intrigued by the science but what a great way to expose them to the reality of our history- both the good and the bad. When I saw the original book Hidden Figures at the store I knew we had to have it. What better time to read it than during black history month? When we read about segregation and how it was put into practice my children were of course shocked and appalled. My ten-year-old asked if he could go back in time and make them change those laws. Probably not, I replied, but the very least we can do is learn from our history.

Raising two boys I am trying to figure out how to teach them to be responsible, sensitive, and aware of the world around them. Is part of their duty, as privileged white men, to take responsibility for the past? Does my daughter, as a privileged white woman, share in that responsibility as well? It’s hard to place that burden on them. These are my children. They no more chose to be born white than I did. It seems unfair to be asked to accept responsibility for the sins of our forefathers. But, I was reminded of this verse from the Bible: ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. Numbers 14:18. To the third or fourth generation?! Once again this seems so unfair. Why should our children be cursed for their parents’ sins? But in all practicality it’s true. Our children do suffer for our mistakes.

Recently a family member was sharing some of our mutual family history. I learned about how abusive my great-great-grandfather was to his wife and children. My great-grandfather continued this cycle of abuse on his wife and his son, my grandfather. It was such a sad story but I also felt hopeful.  The male relatives of my generation, to the best of my knowledge, are good loving husbands and fathers. I felt like maybe we had reached the end of this particular curse. The fruits being passed down were no longer rotten, filled with hatred, anger, and contempt. They were fruits of love, joy, peace and acceptance.

Imagine if you will, a child on the edge of a still pond. He picks up a large rock and throws it as hard as he can towards the middle of the pool. There is of course a large splash and the water is no longer still and peaceful. The surface tension has been broken. Less noticeable is the ripple effect spreading out in a circular motion from the epicenter of the crash. Each wave is smaller and less pronounced. Eventually the pond becomes still and peaceful again. My family is hopefully feeling the last ripple effects of a very severe disturbance. The effect is still noticeable but not catastrophic. We have healed. The pond is becoming still and peaceful again.

Imagine again the same pond and the same child. This time however he doesn’t have just one rock. He has a dozen. He hurls one as hard as he can into the middle of the pond with the same effect as before. Before the water can calm he hurls another and then another.

It is tempting to claim that the past is the past and that we’ve moved on. Why should we feel any personal responsibility? We weren’t throwing the rocks. However, the reality is we are all feeling the ripple effects even if we weren’t the doing the throwing. And for some people the stones keep coming. There hasn’t been time to heal. Healing is important but before healing can occur the abuse has to stop.

My family couldn’t have healed if each generation hadn’t made a choice to learn from their past. They couldn’t change what had been done by their fathers but they were able to change their own actions towards their sons and daughters.

And that’s what makes all the difference. Noticing the ripple effect. Noticing the rocks that are still being thrown. You might not be throwing them yourself but are you a bystander watching someone else throw them? Recognize that you and your family may have healed from the great boulders that were slavery, segregation or any other grave injustice. You might not even have been in the pond at the time! Recognize that other people and communities are still feeling the shockwaves.

What rocks will our children and grandchildren have to atone for? Continued racial injustice? Economic disparity? The destruction of the planet they will inherit?

It certainly seems unfair that our children will pay for our mistakes for years after we are gone but the Bible contains some hope on that matter. He promises to show love to a thousand generations to those that love him and keep his commandments. Exodus 20:6 Blessings for a 1000 generations! How amazing is that?!

So that’s our choice. We can keep throwing rocks and continue the curse or put the rocks down and accept the blessing.

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