Recently I had the opportunity to do some research on my family lineage through ancestry.com. I was able, because of some family stories that I knew and names with which I was familiar, to trace back to the 1870 census on both sides of my family. Prior to that, the names disappear because during the 1860 census my forefathers were not people but property.
I could, if I were a serious researcher, perhaps track back to a particular plantation, look at slave schedules, and research the slave owners—all of which would be very difficult to do. My lineage effectively disappears because of one simple reality: we were slaves.
This is no shock but it does pain me. To see the name of my great-great grandfather who could neither read nor write nor properly identify the year of his birth—and to know that he was during his childhood merely a means of production to increase someone else’s wealth—is no easy thing. To know also that for years afterwards his descendants lived on the margins of society, never enjoying the full rights of citizenship until the years just prior to my own birth, is likewise no easy thing.
The beauty and the pain of my research is that I and my forefathers are in some sense inextricably linked together. It is un-American in many ways to say this, because the American identity is intimately bound up with forging a new identity, unencumbered by the past or by the obligations which family and culture may impose. Yet it is true and is, in my view, much more biblical.
When your son asks you in the time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”
What is the place of ancestry in understanding my identity both spiritually and naturally?
In the Scripture cited above, the answer given through the ages to the children of Israel was rooted in an always accessible historical event in which the past and present collide; “We were slaves.” This is no mere rhetorical device, but was a reminder to every generation that no matter how far back the events of the Exodus recede, they too were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and God delivered them from his hand.
In the same way I can look down my family tree and say that we were slaves in Mississippi; we were slaves in Kentucky; we were slaves, but the LORD delivered us. This historical memory was an integral part of the Jewish identity and of the identity of Blacks in the United States and in both cases was closely aligned with their understanding of what it means to be the people of God.
Although the connections to this history are less viscerally obvious in the contemporary Black church, the feeling of it, the essence, is still evident, particularly in the music and worship legacy. It involves the whole of a person—body and soul—and requires, yes even demands, the full engagement of the congregation for it to really be done at all. It emerges out of the full context of the Black American identity as people who can say, “We were slaves.” In some sense every person is invited to make the song or the worship experiences their own; to interpret it afresh and realize its applicability in their own lives.
This immediacy of experience—the sense of participation not only in your own pain, but that of your whole people as well—is especially poignant of late, given all the fresh pain inflicted on Black people by recent events. It seems every day brings a new story of an unarmed person shot, an unaccounted for death while in police custody, a church shooting. Sadly, whether these Black people are guilty or innocent feels less relevant than that they are all Black. The things my ancestors went through don’t seem quite as distant as they once did.
These current events offer something else, as well. They offer the opportunity for an extension of participation. Just as all of Israel—every generation—was called to say, “We were slaves,” so too the whole body of Christ, of whatever color or ethnicity, is called to participate in this more recent pain.
Just as all of Israel—every generation—was called to say, “We were slaves,” so too the whole body of Christ, of whatever color or ethnicity, is called to participate in this more recent pain.
And it doesn’t stop with issues of potential police brutality, or racist “lone shooters”. It extends to Christians undergoing the severest tests of persecution under the brutality of ISIS, to the harassed business owner whose conscience doesn’t permit their participation in what they see as sin, to the voiceless cry of aborted children and trafficked slaves—humanity reduced to commodity for the sake of others' convenience. It is not just them, but us, all of us. However far removed we may seem at any given moment, we are slaves.
Let us pray that God would also deliver us.