Grappling With the Tainted Legacy of 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.


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.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Tish Harrison Warren