Lament: Re-Examining Family History

By John Hare—

Challenge. In my last sermon, which was about wrestling with God, I talked about an example from British history, and the transatlantic slave trade which Britain ran. My example was from Jane Austen’s exquisite novel Mansfield Park, where the father returns home after dealing with “troubles” on his plantations in the West Indies. I said I was going to have to re-examine my own family and its history, and this was going to change my writing and my teaching. The painful part of this is that I am going to have to learn to be ashamed of some of the things of which I have been proud. It is not just the history, though I do believe that shame can spread, like a stain, to ourselves from what our ancestors have done.  The truth is that I am still oblivious, in the way Jane Austen’s character was oblivious, to how I have profited from the economic exploitation of others. Listening to the stories of the lives of people of color, I see how I have been privileged without even realizing it. 

Reflection. The passage I quoted from the Bible was from Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Test me and know my secret thoughts. See if there is any way of wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The Lord already knows me behind and before, as the Psalmist says earlier. But what I ask God for, with fear and trembling, is that I be shown my negligence and blindness, so that I can follow in the way everlasting that brings eternal life.

Action. What do I mean by saying I am going to have to change my writing and my teaching? I will give two examples. The first is from my writing. I am completing the third volume of a trilogy about ethical theory and the doctrine of the Trinity. This third volume is about the Holy Spirit, and I have been focusing on how our sense of identity can be shaped by the Spirit’s work in us. One central example has been our sense of gender identity, and I have compared this to our sense of racial identity. I have come to see in a new way how both of these can be warped by social circumstances beyond our individual control. The second example is from my teaching. Next term I am going to be teaching a course on theological aesthetics with Awet Andemicael. I have taught the course before, but always by myself. It is going to be different this time around, and one way it is going to be different is that we are going to focus on pictured images of Jesus and how they have shaped our theologies. At St. John’s, when we return to our beloved building with fresh eyes after half a year away, we need to think about our pictures in glass and mosaic, in our church school materials, and implied in the language we use in our liturgy and hymns.

Prayer. I think the characteristic work of the Holy Spirit is to bring unity, that we can be one in our relation within ourselves, in our relation with each other, and in our relation with God. The exploitation by one group of another reverses unity in all three relations. There is a prayer which comes from our Book of Common Prayer for the unity of the church:

 Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For the Road. Here is a parting thought. Even though it is painful, it is best for us to see the ways of wickedness within us, and especially the ways of blindness and indifference to those who have been suffering from exploitation; it is only when we see this that the Spirit can work on us to live a life worthy of our calling.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Test me and know my secret thoughts. See if there is any way of wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

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