Our Beautiful, Broken Christian Ancestors As a Southerner, I have to grapple with my forebears’ tainted legacy. As a believer, I have to do the same. Tish Harrison Warren/ OCTOBER 13, 2015
I am a seventh-generation Texan who has ancestors from all over the South. When I think of the South, I see my grandmother’s hands, gnarled with arthritis—hands that picked and shelled native pecans and mastered a rolling pin. I imagine my great-grandfather’s dusty feet as he walked from Arkansas to the Gulf Coast looking for cheap land, a kid leading a milk cow. I think of live oaks and tall pines, Jekyll Island and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, bourbon and fried okra.
I also think of my ancestors from Mississippi—small-scale cotton farmers who owned slaves. I think of the graveyard where my parents will be buried, where, according to local lore, slaveholders and slaves are buried side by side. I think of Jesse Washington, a teenager who in 1916 was lynched an hour from where I live. I think of segregation, Jim Crow, and redlining. This, also, is part of my culture and story, even part of me, my blood, and my kin.
Both the North and the South practiced racial injustice, but in the South the legacy is unavoidable. Nearly as soon as they are old enough for moral reasoning, white Southern kids face this complexity: those before us who have committed atrocities also gave us life. Their legacies of goodness and evil are entwined.
At the heart of the broad, longstanding debate about the Confederate Flag on US public grounds lies a deeper question: How do we respond to evil in our history?
In the face of centuries of systemic racism, some Southerners have responded with a sort of ancestor worship, an idolatry of the past that makes us apathetic and defensive. Loyalty to those before us is exalted over love for those around us.
Clarence Jordan, a scholar and co-founder of the Koinonia Farm intentional community in Americus, Georgia, denounced this false worship. Once, after Jordan preached on the ministry of racial reconciliation, an elderly woman rebuffed him: “I want you to know that my grandfather fought in the Civil War, and I’ll never believe a word you say.” Jordan, a Southerner himself, replied, “Well, ma’am, I guess you’ve got to decide whether to follow your granddaddy or Jesus.”
It is a choice that we all face, wherever we are from, since we all inherit cultural and familial legacies marred by sin. But if the false gospel of some is ancestor worship, the false gospel of others is “progress.” We mobile urbanites can deride our heritage altogether. Confident in our own broad-minded superiority, we adopt a historical determinism that smugly labels everyone on the “right” or “wrong” side of history.
We might hope to avoid the complications of a shameful history by looking to the church as our true family. After all, Jesus scandalized the Israelites by elevating loyalty to the family of God above loyalty to biological families. He proclaimed that our true family is composed of those who obey God—the community of believers, the church.
But embracing the church does not rescue us from a painfully mixed legacy. It puts us right in the center of one.
Our Christian inheritance includes immense beauty, holiness, and grace, as well as immense violence, failure, and sin.
The hands of believers before us have blessed the poor, built cathedrals and universities, worked to abolish slavery and to secure women’s dignity, embraced abandoned children, and passed down the faith from generation to generation in most every culture and place. And yet these very hands have blood on them. They are stained with the violence of the Crusades, with torture and the Inquisition, with the horrors of colonialism, slavery, the abuse of children, and the persecution of minorities.
When confronted with sin in the church, Christians can stumble into the faulty thinking of traditionalists and progressives alike.
On one hand, we are tempted to airbrush saints of old, glorify church tradition, and pine for a mythic, unadulterated past. In The Anglican Way, Thomas McKenzie tells of meeting an Orthodox priest who bragged that under no circumstance would his church innovate. I am sympathetic to this view. But the church is not infallible, nor can it be frozen in time. There are instances when, in order to be more faithful to Scripture, we must repent, reform—even innovate—in our thinking and worship. We belittle the gospel when we paper over wickedness or weakness in our heroes and traditions. (This temptation is not exclusive to liturgical types; I have met low-church, evangelical, and Reformed believers who idealize historical leaders and movements with as much zeal as their higher-church brethren.)
On the other hand, we are tempted to write off church tradition entirely, engaging in what C. S. Lewis famously described as “chronological snobbery.” When my husband was getting his PhD, he taught a course in church history to divinity students. One day after class, he mentioned that the students seemed disengaged. “Why?” I asked. In short, it was because they deemed John Calvin a homophobe, Augustine of Hippo a sexist, and Arius a marginalized voice. The students had taken their particular contemporary concerns—about inclusion and equality—and imposed them on all who had come before them. They could easily deconstruct, and dismiss, nearly every leader in church history.
While we could debate whether their precise charges were accurate, we needn’t debate that to value church history requires a willingness to learn from sinners. Take Augustine of Hippo, a fifth-century bishop in North Africa and perhaps the most important theological mind in the West. He has indelibly shaped our understanding of the Trinity, salvation, and grace. He profoundly loved God and the people around him, writing moving tributes to his friends and encouraging radical generosity to the poor. Yet he saw women as inferior to men, writing that women as women, in their female embodiment, do not fully bear the image of God, though we participate in the image of God in our general humanity. After his conversion, he sent the mother of his child back to her homeland, heartbroken and rejected.
Augustine’s status as a theological giant does not excuse his misogyny. Yet his views on women do not discount his gifts to the church.
We 21st-century believers may accuse Augustine of misogyny. Yet, within the context of his day, Augustine treated women with greater dignity than his contemporaries did. He taught that, in the Resurrection, women will be equal with men before God. He treated women around him with respect—his mother and a handful of women with whom he kept up theological and pastoral correspondence. And though he rejected his child’s mother, he grieved doing so, lamenting that she was “torn from my side,” leaving him “wounded and bleeding.”
Augustine’s status as a theological giant does not excuse his sexism or misogyny in his era or our own. Yet his views on women do not discount his gifts to the church. I have an unbelievable debt of gratitude to Augustine, particularly for his teaching on sin and grace, without which I would likely not be a Christian.
Good Bad, Bad Good Guys
Standing in the muddy stream of church history, we recall that we, too, are blind to the evil within us and around us. In Augustine’s day, misogyny was the water he swam in, everywhere and invisible. Lewis wrote that the antidote to chronological snobbery is to realize that our current moment has its own myopia and illusions. These “are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
Our era’s dearly held sins are ones that those on both the cultural Right and the Left take as givens; they are invisible and intrinsic to our way of life. It is difficult for us to speculate what they might be—just as misogyny was a category Augustine couldn’t have imagined. Yet listening to voices far removed from Western culture—voices from the Global South, for example—provides us hints about deep-seated evil in our midst: the idolatry of consumerism, individualism, and personal autonomy.
The gospel allows us to honestly confront evil in church history, and to embody the good news that God uses even sinners to glorify himself.
Martin Luther—whose legacy is clearly checkered—declared that each of us, in Christ, is rightly called both saint and sinner. My 5-year-old went through a phase when everyone was either a “good guy” or a “bad guy”—princesses and witches, superheroes and their nemeses, celebrities, friends, even strangers. One day she asked, “Mama, are you a good guy or a bad guy?” I responded with the gospel: that God created us in his image; that we have fallen into sin, idolatry, and self-worship; and that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, declares us righteous and makes us new. From then on, my daughter referred to our family as “good bad/bad good guys.”
This view of humanity, rooted in the gospel, is what allows us to look squarely at and actively repent of evil in our church, and national, heritage. And yet it also lets us recognize that we have no choice but to learn from past voices that are simultaneously sinful and holy. The gospel allows us to honestly confront evil in church history, and to embody the good news that God uses even sinners—despicable and broken, confused and conflicted, good bad/bad good guys—to glorify himself.
Clarence Jordan’s challenge remains: The way of Jesus and the way of our granddaddies (and even of Christian leaders) will, at times, diverge. And yet, following Jesus allows us to be grateful for both our familial and church ancestors. In their mixed legacies, we not only glimpse our own brokenness, we also glimpse that for which Christ died and which he will redeem.
Orthodox Christians today are increasingly accused of being on the “wrong side of history.” Without doubt, there will be plenty about us worthy of criticism. But we mustn’t fret over the imagined opinions of our descendants. We cannot control, and it is not our job to speculate, how future generations 100, 500, 1,000 years from now will judge us.
Rather, our call at all times remains to be faithful to the Scriptures and to the gospel we have received, in our own place and moment in time. Our shared hope—the hope of those past, present, and future—is that the Lord, the only true “good guy” and the Redeemer of history, will preserve his church, through us and in spite of us.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at the University of Texas–Austin. She is the author of a forthcoming book from InterVarsity Press. Visit TishHarrisonWarren.com.