My great-great-grandfather is buried on the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Private Hiram A. Thacker fought in the Alabama Infantry for the Confederate States of America. He died in 1864 at a field hospital in Charlottesville from wounds suffered in a battle outside of the city. A couple years ago, my wife’s family and I were traveling home from visiting family in Delaware when we decided to make a pit stop in Charlottesville in order to see where my great-great-grandfather was buried. Visiting that confederate cemetery and his grave was a surreal experience for me.
My family has always been proud of being from the South. We love the culture, food, and southern hospitality. But standing before my great-great-grandfather’s grave, I felt extremely conflicted. I felt a deep sense of family connection to a man that I never met, but also felt a deep sense of guilt and shame because of the racism and bigotry for which this man fought for and died to protect. The stains on my family’s history are undeniable, but the gospel reminds me that my family doesn’t define who I am, nor does the place that I call home.
Reconciling family heritage with the stains that cover it
In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus shocks those around him. Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have arrived to see him, yet he proclaims to all that those who do the will of his Father in heaven are his true mother and brothers. This message runs counter to the narrative that many in our society believe. We often hold our family up as the central part of our identity.
When my family in Christ is attacked, berated, and oppressed, I will not stand silent or remain passive.
Jesus isn’t denying his biological family. Christ honors his biological family (John 19:25-27) but reminds us that our truest identity isn't in our earthly family. He is showing us that our truest family are those who trust in Christ, no matter the color of their skin nor the families from which they descend. The gospel message transcends all allegiances and heritages, making clean that which was stained through the power of the blood of Christ. My true family are those brothers and sisters that have trusted in Christ. That includes those that my great-great-grandfather fought to keep oppressed and enslaved.
This gospel is revolutionizing the way that I think about my family’s heritage and the things for which they have stood. Being a new creation in Christ, I can see that my connections to my African-American brothers and sisters are deeper and wider than a biological connection could ever be. Thus, when my family in Christ is attacked, berated, and oppressed, I will not stand silent or remain passive. I must speak and stand up for the rights that my brothers and sisters inherently have because each and every person is created in the image of God. It is from that image that we derive our infinite dignity and worth, not the color of our skin.
White supremacy and racial arrogance have no place in the Christian faith because they run contrary to the core of the gospel message that all people are made in the image of God and thus, no one race is superior to any other.
New hope in Christ
Recently, I finished a book by Isabella Wilkerson called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. It is the retelling of four different people and their move from the South into other parts of the country during the early part of the 20th century until around the 1970s. Wilkerson interviewed many African-Americans as they retold the horrors of Jim Crow and the racism in the United States. I read of murders, beatings, false imprisonments, and countless cases of discrimination that occurred throughout the country during this era. These stories helped shine a light on our nation’s scars and stains for me in a new way and helped me see the deep pain that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced.
Growing up in the South, I grew accustomed to seeing statues, flags, and battlefields that seek to remember these stains on our nation, and in some cases, honor the cause for which the soldiers of the CSA fought. My home state of Tennessee has battlefields and cemeteries scattered throughout her land. These places should serve as a visible reminder of the horrors of what took place at that time and the division that America continues to experience. My family has been a part of many of these sins, but the gospel reminds me that my hope and identity is not found in my family’s history or the place I call home. My hope is only found in the blood of Christ that reconciles sinners and brings about a new family of people that might not have anything in common outside of Christ.
The gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility and brings about one new man through the blood that Christ shed on the cross (Eph. 2:14-16). This gospel creates a new family history for me, one that is summed up in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In light of the events that took place in Charlottesville, we need to be reminded where our true allegiance lies and let these things drive us to stand together as the body of Christ made up of people from all nations, colors, and creeds. We are one family in Christ, and we are called to lay down our lives for our brothers.
Our truest identity is not found in a confederate statue, flag, or even the color our skin, but in the person and work of Jesus Christ who unites all people around the cross, announcing to the world that we are one people and that nothing can divide us if we truly follow after him.