When your ancestors might not be so great…


Back from vacation and back to the heat of Philadelphia. New England was quite cool and a bit wet this summer. We still had many good experiences nonetheless.

While at my parents I read two things at the same time: a 2 volume set of the Shaw genealogy (my maternal grandfather’s heritage) and a book by Colin Woodward: Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. Below are my thoughts from reading both documents.

I like learning about my ancestors. In past visits to my parents I’ve read my paternal grandfather’s daily diaries (more like logs of activities). This time I read about my maternal grandfather’s ancestors (family name: Shaw) back to the first immigrants to Boston in the 1630s. After a couple short generations, some of the Shaws emigrated through Maine to the Maritime provinces. Someone in the family compiled quite a history and so I learned about the hardworking, Scotch/English/Irish families. Some were Anglican, others became primitive Baptist and still others were “Orserites.” I find it fascinating to see how families lived through diseases, lost many children in their youth, and made a life out of nothing. It is also clear that back then cousins married each other. Interesting… The most peculiar thing was a story of how a young white boy was “bought” from an Indian tribe and brought into the Shaw clan.

The Scotch-Irish families in Maine and the Maritimes may not have had the greatest integrity. I didn’t learn this from the family genealogy but from “Lobster Coast” noted above. This book detailed the settling of Maine and the subsequent mis-use of the natural resources in the Gulf of Maine. I learned greater details about the use of “Scotch-Irish” to settle the Maine coast. This ethnic group was considered a ruthless and independent people and so perfect for settling Main and dealing with the native tribes. Apparently the first white Mainers lacked integrity as they would make treaties with the local Indian tribes only to welch on the treaty whenever expedient. I didn’t know that in the mid 1700s most of white inhabitants were pushed out of the land after riling the Indians for the umpteenth time. When the Mainers fled to Massachusetts for saftey, they weren’t that welcome there as they were seen to be a rather foul-mouthed, drunken crowd. I didn’t get that information in the Shaw genealogy. While I’d like to believe my family was the upright exception, it makes one wonder…

I can see my nearly genetic connection to the Mass/Maine/New Brunswick area. Whenever I return, it feels like home, even when I didn’t live in eastern Mass.

Its easy to forget that our ancestors, though strong Christians, were likely involved in stealing land from the native Americans.I suspect those who know their ancestors enslaved African Americans (or at least benefited from slavery) feel this same sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs.

8 Comments

Filed under ethics, Historical events

8 responses to “When your ancestors might not be so great…

  1. Scott Knapp, MS

    One of the problems good students of World History point out is that Americans are quite near-sited when it comes to a comprehension of the total history of the world that set the stage for the entirety of American history. One thing we neglect to consider, when we get caught up in the emotional hype of what our “white” ancestors did to “black” or “red” folks they encountered, is that more than likely anyone who has held membership in the human race has had ancestors who both enslaved others and were slaves themselves (possibly in the same generation, given political upheavals of the past). My German ancestors were both savage conquerers and brutalized slaves at various points in their history. History reveals that one prominent promulgator of African slavery was profit hungry Africans themselves, who rounded up tribesmen to sell them off to eager European tradesmen for sale in both Europe and the Americas. I was tracking with you pretty well up until your last paragraph, and then that touched a nerve with me…I’m tired of the payload of guilt being shot around these days for sins of ancestral forebears.! The nonsense behind the “reparations” movement has bas been tolerated for the sake of political corrodectness, and it seems no one with good sense or solid backbone is standing up to say “I owe nothing for the sins of my ancestors! All of our ancestors were vicious and marauding at some time in history! Why limit our focus merely to the snippets of history that (if you can erroneously guilt me into it) will financially and politically benefit you?” Maybe I’ll come around a bit when I see Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton getting equally in a lather over reparations to the Jews by the Egyptians. Perhaps it may be because I’m a bit more of a laid-back Mid-Westerner or something, but I noted a definite, deliberate pressure on “majority” folks in the Philadelphai area to “walk on egg shells” about this issue, and just passively drink the coolaid with others who were willing to buy that load of crap! I think I know of no other issue that has the potential to undermine the notion of being a “bond-slave to Christ” and a servant to others, than in inculcate your culture and generation with such a vile hatred of the ancestral sins of another race that one feels entitled to privilege never earned and reparations never owed! A thoughtful reading of Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place” with reflection on the humility that infused her gracious acceptance of a former Nazi captor would be most helpful for someone still struggling with this issue. I am sickened over any unjust infliction of suffering…but no more because it was done by my own ancestors than anyone else’s. And if God should call me one day to voluntarily accept the role of a slave to someone else, in order to bring them the Gospel, who am I to protest such a high and worthy calling!?! The whole force of the political fervor over reparations would unravel (for honest souls) if the story were ever to emerge that a free Black Christian man from the north felt the call of God to voluntarily go to the South (or to go BACK to the South) and allow himself to become enslaved (possibly again) for the sake of taking the good news of Christ to his captors! That story would be “Uncle Tom-ed” immediately and suppressed as not politically expedient. How then can anyone so enmeshed in the “look what your ancestors did to mine!” movement ever grasp the beauty of the trancendence of Christ? The grasp of self-sacrafical servant-hood has been been by and large lost in the church who’s culture has been hijacked by this kind of politics…and I grieve over that kind of enslavement far more than anything my ancestors could have done to someone else’s…much of that enslavement of perspective was promulgated by members of their own culture. Who really owes whom reparations now?

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    My goodness, doesn’t my spelling/typing need a lot of help after the Tylenol PM kicks in at 11:00 PM?

  3. Scott, I might humbly suggest that your spelling isn’t the only think you should have reviewed. Seems that you have vented your feelings but maybe showed more than you would do on second thought (I hope). There is good biblical examples of confession and grief over the sins of ancestors in Lamentations, the prophets. You see in Ezra 10 and Neh. 9 public confessions of corporate sin most likely NOT committed by the speakers but by the people. There is nothing wrong with grief and shame over the consequences of the sins of the father, and nothing wrong over seeking justice for any sin– as long as it is not sought as an idol or made into a self-righteous demand.

    Your response is common–anger over being made to feel guilty. I don’t accept Al Sharpton’s arguments but it doesn’t mean that you and I don’t benefit from the legacy of slavery. We just do. My black children suffer far less than previous generations but don’t for a minute assume they, at 10 and 8, haven’t faced both racialization (making assumptions about them based on the color of their skin) and racism (direct prejudice thinking less of them because of their skin color).

    Notice too the response to possible racial prejudice in Acts 6. The dominant culture didn’t say they would fix it, or that it wasn’t really happening. No, they gave the minority leaders (read the names and see the ethnic background) the power to fix the problem. They ceded power for the sake of the Gospel.

    Your response sounds like you answer all concerns about justice and wrong doing in two ways:
    1. Its part of being in the human race, live with it.
    2. Stop whining.
    I would suggest both one and two either overlook real damage and unnecessarily lump every race related concern into the camp of Al and Jessie. You might want to read Ed Gilbreath.

  4. Scott Knapp, MS

    Hi Phil, thanks for making a thoughtful response to my post. Since you have black children, my points must have really been disruptive for you, and I’d imagine your response is a lot more diplomatic and contained than it potentially could have been. This is far from the first time I’ve enjoined conversations on this topic, and I’m used to having to “agree to disagree” with folks who have your perspective…and I’m putting it out there with no pretense…I disagree with elements of your perspective. Part of my argument has to do with the time span being considered when “ancestral fault” is being assigned to determine who owes apologies to whom. In America, it is most politically expedient for some to limit the review to only the last 200-300 years or so. (Has anyone forgotten that it was historically not unheard of for one African tribe to subjugate another for slavery, or even wipe out the entire tribe out of petulance?) Another component of my argument has long been that the strong focus on fixing the cultural maladies of slavery in this country, which has hijacked many black churches, has fostered it’s own form of racism in the minority community, to the point that personal sacrifice for anyone from the dominant “offending” culture is no longer viewed as a high calling or privilege in Christ, but as repugnant and reprehensible (Uncle Tom). This is in direct conflict with the basic Biblical command to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” One simply cannot hold fast to both ethics and live successfully as a Christian! As legitimately important as “breaking shackles of oppression” is, honoring God and loving others must take priority (Paul’s advice to Onesimus to return to Philemon and serve him with Christian gusto must be terribly confusing to some, and his lack of exhortation to Philemon to free Onesimus immediately and end his enslavement must be equally frustrating; Paul had a pregnant opportunity to make a dramatic abolitionist pronouncement, yet he didn’t, and we’re left wondering why). Your interpretation summary of my remarks is simplistic and offensive, Phil…but understandable…you don’t know me personally and have had only limited exposure to me based on what I’ve put into print here. I’m neither a “live with it” or a “quit whining” guy. If I’m counseling with someone who is having a lot of anger issues over actual or perceived mistreatment or discrimination in his world (and the minority youth I work with certainly do), I’ve got one of two (perhaps both at times) directions I can go in my helping efforts: autoplastic or alloplastic approaches. Alloplastic would be Al Sharpton’s preferred counsel; mine is autoplastic first, then work for change from a renewed perspective. I want to present an individual much better equipped to live for Christ in the face of racism, and love his racist enemies well, perhaps even to the point of serving or dying for them…I want that same character for myself as well. Capitulating to the “apologies and reparations” tenants sends a bad message. I work with minority kids who’ve been badly discriminated against by neighbors, cops, teachers and peers (and therapists in some cases!)…they’re angry, hurt, and vengeful…dangerous combinations. So long as leaders within their culture continue to pump them with rhetoric, and people from the dominant culture continue to capitulate and enable that rhetoric, these kids will remain angry, hurt, arrogant, and entitled. I can grieve with these boys at the treatment they’ve received (I was run off a basketball court in Ocean City, NJ in 1986 one night at knife-point (possibly gun-point?) by a group of Hispanic and Black kids my age, because “this ain’t your neighborhood!” I’ve also been frequently the last guy picked for pick-up games on inner-city courts in my area, because I was the only white guy with the guts to go into the neighborhood and play for the sake of bridging the gap, and I was a good player at the time, but it still didn’t earn me any cred, because (again) I wasn’t from the neighborhood). As a good paraclete, I empathize with the hurt (no “get over it” from Scotty) and I believe in proactive responses to injustice (no “stop whining” here either), but I don’t believe the “apologize and make reparations” perspective is going to further the motivation for Christ-like soul change in anyone…if anything, it’s going to strengthen and justify the errant alloplastic efforts of misguided radicals. The proactive response from the offended must be infused with sacrificial and servant-motivated love for one’s enemies…and I will speak out strongly against any perspective that I believe will ultimately run counter to that helping effort goal (even if they come from well-respected seminary program chairmen, like yourself). I am aware that it won’t make me a popular helper in most Black churches…but I have had my perspective affirmed by some of my Black brothers whose maturity and insight I admire and respect for a host of other reasons having nothing to do with agreement on this particular issue, so I know I’m not just another “angry White man” running off at the mouth. One last thought…I have a teen-aged son with Autism, thankfully on the milder end of the spectrum (Asperger’s Disorder). The prevalence of discrimination against those with learning disorders or mental illness in this country is, in my opinion, as pervasive as any other form of hostile discrimination out there. I’ve learned this from trying to get my son into community programs, into sports programs, into school programs, navigating through IEP meetings and fighting for certain goals to be included, and fighting for services when I think he’s being screwed! This kind of discrimination has resulted from centuries of maltreatment of the mentally ill, and decades of employment of a school and community structure that rewards the gifted but continues to view the less-than-gifted as distractions from the goal of fostering a better society (ala, Aryans, my great German “ancestors”!). I’ve had to advocate strongly for my son at times, and it’s not been pretty and I’ve not been popular…I hate this treatment he receives for circumstances over which he has no control. Yet I am called to not only love these folks who make his and my life harder in their foolishness, but I have to model this respectful love while my son watches me advocate for him. Yes, I believe those folks owe someone an apology and owe someone reparations…”Against You and You only have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). Ultimately, and anger and rage behind the “apologies and reparations” movement is the Satanic anger to usurp God’s place of judgment and demand retribution for past sins. It doesn’t invite the actual sinner to consider his sins and repent (he’s long dead, unfortunately), and it certainly doesn’t foster an inviting opportunity for present day racists to consider theirs, either (as badly as that is needed)…and it strengthens the fleshly desire in the “oppressed community” to keep the Satanic motivation alive and well, even under the guise of “church”. Phil, that’s what I most strongly react to, and that’s why I can’t go along with your perspective. Again, thanks for the opportunity to dialog about this topic…that I do appreciate!

  5. Scott, clearly my original post and comment to yours is touching a nerve. But I challenge you to go back to my last paragraph in the original post to see if it bears the load of your accusations against me and my perspective. It would seem that you are offended at a perspective that I do not hold. I’ve said nothing about reparations, in favor of Al Sharpton, suggested that victims should stay victims until they get their due. Of course I’m for helping people live in a broken world and not for pandering to a “poor me” mentality.

    But I encourage you again to consider whether your long comments are as balanced as you think. It would seem that you’ve stereotyped the black church as in favor of Al Sharpton as a whole. That is certainly not the experience of the communities I’m around. I think that is the part that is most offensive to me. As I read you (and maybe I’m wrong but reread your posts), you are focusing on one problem that does exist in some circles (maybe even many) where political correctness silences the crowd from talking about all the issues. Sure, folk like John McWhorter and Bill Cosby have been taken to task for speaking up about the injustices within the Black community. But there are many others doing it every day in the evangelical African American Church. But in focusing on this problem, you read my one phrase about feeling sad about the behavior of my ancestors as some politically correct speech. I am not sure how you read that but I can’t see that you got that from me.
    Read Reconciliation Blues by Ed Gilbreath. Great book and not a “poor me” type at all. He neither agrees with Jessie Jackson nor does he think one must villify him completely.

  6. Scott Knapp, MS

    Hi Phil, again thanks for the respectful dialog on this touchy topic. I’ll concede that perhaps I’ve painted your perspective with too broad of a brush, and I’m glad you’ve pointed out where your position differs from the one I’m staunchly going to oppose, although I will confess at times in your dialog it has not been as apparent as I think you’d have liked. As for your final statement, I do feel sick for the suffering of anyone who has experienced discrimination…but for the sake of the one discriminated against as an act of empathy. I still don’t find anything whatsoever noble about feeling “sick” over my connection to those sinners who happen to have passed on genetic code to me…and historical occurrences in Scripture do not always necessarily warrant a declaration of doctrine…they simply occurred. Yes, your post stimulates strong feelins with me…and the nerve is primarily the detrimental impact I think (how I currently perceive) your perspective has on good counsel to those who suffer. There’s a “taint” to your position that doesn’t sit well with me when I consider how I might demonstrate to a sufferer why it’s not only right, but preferable, to purge the thinking of anything that might stand in the way of whole-hearted devotion to serve and suffer for one’s enemies. Suppose I were Chinese…would I feel any less “sick” in my stomach about a Black man’s present-day suffering from racism, because I didn’t have a white ancestor who owned slaves? Every generation of humans has somehow “benefited” from the enslavement of other humans from thousands and thousands of years of living…somehow, in some way, my life is better because of some bizarre chain of events that was initiated at the time when Egyptians enslaved Jews and built mighty pyramids and sphinx’s. If you were to take your perspective (as I understand it from this string of posts) and play it out to it’s logical conclusion (ala Schaeffer), I would need to conclude that it would be abhorrent for me to travel to the Middle East and enjoy the visual stimulation of the pyramids, since they were built on the backs of Jewish slaves and the current society of Egypt is benefiting from that centuries old evil, and I would be contributing to it, most likely without any “sick” feeling in my stomach whatsoever. The “down the road” implications of your position have potentially detrimental possibilities that I think run counter to good character-driven counsel, and they should be reconsidered. Additionally, I think it’s disingenuous of you to go into “counselor” mode and try to analyze my argument as stemming from some “raw nerve” deep within my psyche (though typical for those of us in this field, I can’t deny; I’ve ashamedly used that tack myself in times past). As to the length of the post, good, thoughtful dialog is rarely expressed in snippets…I know my habit of sharing thoughts is not usually amenable to the “blogsphere”, but I enjoy a conversation (even a disagreeable one), not a sharing of “sound bites”…little gets said, and too many incorrect inferences are made. Again, I heartily enjoy wrestling over this issue with you, and I think no less of you for disagreeing with me. Do try to keep your points objective in the future, though…no more “armchair psychologist” play about motivation! Thanks much, Phil!

  7. Tony

    I have read with a great deal of interest this thread about slavery, sin, and a host of other subject matter that the thread contains, and maybe it is not the main topic being written about, it is to me, the most pressing. The issue of being a slave to sin seems to be, at least to me, the bigger issue. Whether or not my ancestors own slaves (which is sin), did nothing to free slaves (which is sin), or were slaves themselves, appears to me to miss the point of the Gospel, that Christ died to free slaves to sin. To be free, means to be forgiven and the burden of that forgiveness is to forgive, regardless of the cost. Would not the price paid by Christ be greater than any payment I could make? Indeed, I am in debt to the one who saved me and I am commanded to forgive, as I have been forgiven. I can not fathom how I would be judged if I demanded payment from someone whom I was a debtor, while holding my hand out to God, begging to have my debts forgiven. In that light, I’m having trouble squaring reparations and forgiveness.

  8. Phil,

    Found your post most enjoyable. It is fun discovering something new about those who have gone before us. Treasure those logs. I wish I had a few from my family. I began working with a few written notes from my paternal grandmother, but mostly I started with oral traditions. My first big surprise was discovering my paternal grandmother’s roots in the Jewish records of Jamaica. Seems our Jewish roots were a well hidden secret, as no living family member was aware of it (or willing to admit it).

    I do know that family members on both sides were slave owners and I do feel a sense of regret with respect to that. In some way I feel like they too are part of my family, but a part that was treated unjustly by their brothers. It would be interesting to meet the children of those slaves and hear their oral traditions of “our” family. It would certainly tell me things about my family that the public records don’t show.

    I do not feel a need to apologize or atone for the actions (sins) of my family – their sins are their’s; mine are mine – but I would like to say to their children, “my family was wrong; slavery was (is) wrong. Your family was wronged. You were treated unjustly.” I cannot atone for past sins of others, but I can, as a Christian, fight to see that all people are treated justly today.

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