I’m looking for a way to read my own life. Despite my best efforts, I am unable to find the first chapter, a table of contents, or anything resembling an index. Life is there, everywhere, in the middle of an unfolding narrative waiting for me to join somewhere along the way. I can’t go back. Left, right, and forward are my only options. God won’t let me go back. Returning to Egypt was never in the cards for anybody, was it? God is always out there hovering just below the horizon; unseen to the eye but clearly visible to the naked soul. It is impossible for me to read my story without reading it in light of God’s story. I discovered long ago: one does not make sense without the other.
How can I, in the most theologically sensitive way possible, examine the stories I’ve inherited? Somewhere along the way, the past ended up in my lap. Now, gift wrapped in layers of census records, birth certificates, and other information; I’m not sure what to do with what I’ve opened. As I look around my desk, I hear stories that need to be told. There are well-traveled roads waiting to be followed.
The Ancestry dot com commercials piqued my interest. Who doesn’t want to know where they come from? The question of ancestral legitimacy is central to God’s unfolding drama in the Old Testament. We are defined by our family bonds and ultimately our relationship to God. In the Ancestry advertisements, men and women who’ve taken DNA tests (or simply explored their family tree), discover hidden aspects of their heritage. With this new found information, they feel a new sense of empowerment to dress differently, decorate their homes in new styles, and further embrace their new identity. Who knows what you’ll find? You might be related to royalty or George Washington. The possibilities are endless.
It all begins with your name. Because others have walked similar ground, you’ll be surprised to find your relatives (grandparents and great-grandparents) are already in the system. Then you build your tree. At sixty five names or so, it starts to become clear; you’re related to more people than you ever realized. The questions start to come: Who were these people? What did they look like? Were they like me at all? Would we recognize similar traits in each other? Would we get along?
I have to think, at some point, there’s something of me in the names of the dead who are on these 19th century census rolls and marriage certificates. Somebody was nearsighted, wore glasses, and enjoyed reading. Most of them were devout Quakers or Methodists. Their lives revolved around going to church. We have this in common. Then I wonder, how much of these men and women is living in me? This question frightens me.
Although I was born and raised only miles from where most of my ancestors lived and died, I came of age in a different country. Most of the women and men in my family tree were born and raised in the United States of America when slavery was legal and/or segregation was legal. This is not the country I know. We would share a fundamentally different view of what it means to be an American.
My ancestors were farmers and laborers. They were about as poor as you could be. They were sharecroppers on good days and subsistence farmers on most days. I have found no records of anyone I’m related to ever owning a slave. As Daina Berry of the University of Texas at Austin notes, the value of a slave sold at a high value auction in the late 1850’s (in today’s dollars) would be $33,000-$40,000. In the 1850 Census, my third great grandfather’s total estate was valued at $350.00 or about $3,000 in today’s currency. I don’t know their moral position on slavery or slave ownership. However, I do know they, like most of their neighbors, could not afford to own slaves.
When I started to feel good and at peace with my morally upstanding Quaker and Methodist relatives I began to notice gaps in the information. My male relatives, third and fourth great grandfathers were notably missing between 1860 and 1865. After 1865, they resumed having children, were married, and continued with their lives. I couldn’t ignore the gap. One by one, I entered their names into the database of Civil War soldiers and sailors maintained by the National Park Service. Each time, every name, came back with a solid hit. I am the (great) grandchild of Confederate soldiers.
The names matched with regiments raised in Randolph and Guilford counties. My fourth great grandfather was at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and then surrendered with Lee at Appomattox. Another uncle was killed at Chancellorsville. This was not what I wanted to find. I was the minister who led the campaign to remove the Confederate battle flag from our local community. I wanted to find out I was related to Quakers who opposed the Civil War not those who took up arms against the United States.
My ancestors had no stake in slavery, the plantation economy, or the Old South way of life. Why did they volunteer to fight? This is what I want to know. It’s the question I want to ask and it’s the story I think I’m supposed to tell. What prompts good Christian people to fight and die for something horribly wrong, oppressive, and evil? What do I do, as a person of faith, who has inherited this story? Is it possible to find redemption, even salvation, in the suffering I’ve discovered?
Jesus lived in a violent world where slavery and war were realities. His world was much like our own. In Matthew 10, he tells his disciples that, “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” I’ve set out to discover the hidden parts of my soul. There are some things I didn’t count on seeing. However, I realize Jesus’ call on my life extends to the past, present, and future. If I want to follow Jesus, my love for my family must have limits. I must be ready to pick up the crosses and lynching trees strewn across four generations.
I won’t discover who I am on a website. I know this. I have one story to tell. It is Jesus’ story. My story makes no sense unless I tell His first. Though here’s what I think: one way to read my life is to be a better neighbor. I need to know how to be a better neighbor to those around me. I can do this by understanding the world that has gone before me. It’s important to know who hurt who, who killed who, who fought who, and why these things happened. Jesus seemed to say the Kingdom of God is built one day at a time both with stories about King David and the world to come. The past informs the future. I’m trying to be better informed about yesterday because there are still plenty of crosses to bear tomorrow.
Richard Lowell Bryant