Horizons 1: Family trees

“What My Grandmothers Taught Me”
Lesson 1: Family trees

My family tree has some characters. My dad’s grandfather came to America in 1881, and served in China as Methodist missionary. He was also defrocked. When his first wife died in China, he soon married his wife’s sister, who was living with them. He officiated at his own wedding. The Methodist authorities were not amused. If we delve into our family trees, we may find the admirable and the scoundrel, sometimes wrapped up into the same person.

The stories of people in our family tree help shape who we become. My maternal grandmother was born in 1887. Surprisingly, she was college educated and became a teacher. My mother was also a teacher. There was no question that I would get a college degree. My family tree has several pastors and many of my ancestors were immersed in the life of Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. There was no question that my family would be involved in the life of the church, though no one could have dreamed that I would be called to ministry.

My family story would be very different if my ancestors had been Black or Hispanic or Asian. If my ancestors had descended from enslaved people, there would most likely have been stories of cruelty, daily indignities, close community and civil rights. But none of my ancestors in this country faced the racism that others faced. Indeed, my mother’s side of the family benefited from slavery before the Civil War and had great wealth. The implied meaning of my ancestors’ stories is that I came from important people before all was lost. In contrast, I am haunted by the slaves of my ancestors and it has shaped my desire to fight racism.

Who is in your family tree? How did family stories shape who you are?

In the Southern culture in which I grew up, who “your people” were was very important. You were known and judged by the behavior and status of your family. A friend told me that her family was well-known in the county in which she was reared. Her grandfather was a prominent judge and she was treated as someone important out in the community. She came to expect to be treated well.

Families in ancient cultures were more profoundly and radically important. As author Merryl Blair notes: “In the ancient world, it was vitally important to know who your family was. Life was fragile and dangerous, with no organized police force or state judicial system.” Families provided care for the old and infirm long before there was Social Security and Medicare. Extended families helped relatives who fell into poverty. Males provided protection for women and children, enacted revenge and the patriarchs of families and tribes handed down justice for good or ill. The family tribe and alliances of tribes could be called to form an army to attack marauders and enemies.

Alliances between families were formed by marriage. Marriage was not a love relationship but a contract between family groups. The wider the family alliances, the greater the safety net. For instance, King Solomon had a mind-boggling 700 wives and 300 concubines. The wives were women from Israel and also foreign princesses of Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Siddon and the Hittites. Therefore, Solomon had alliances with 1,000 other families, tribes or kingdoms outside of Israel upon whom he could call for help.

One’s family tree in ancient Israel helped the people know who they were. This became critically important during the Babylonian exile after the southern kingdom of Judah was annihilated in 587 B.C. Knowing from whom they came helped the exiles maintain cohesion as a people chosen by God. It also helped them to discern how the faithlessness of their leaders, who turned away from God and led to the destruction of their homeland.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, hosts the television show, “Finding Your Roots,” in which researchers help celebrities discover their family trees. Along the way, we learned the American history of former times. We see stories of sorrow, perseverance, giftedness, scandal and courage that immigrant and formerly enslaved families had as they settled and formed roots in America.

Our main focus in “What My Grandmothers Taught Me” is the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. They all showed courage and perseverance. The five would never be listed in a Who’s Who catalog of important people. All five are foreigners or outsiders with questionable, if not scandalous, pasts. Yet, the Gospel of Matthew mentions these women for a theological reason and their stories will help us understand Jesus and God’s purposes more fully.

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