Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
I love the Book of Genesis. Brilliant in its structure, it unfolds the story of the relationship between God and God’s people, and God’s people in relationship with each other and with the created order. It outlines the vision of shalom for all people and invites human cooperation in this vision. The narrative allows for – even highlights – the complexity of human behavior and the ways we get it wrong. The stories are not always tied up in nice, neat conclusions. They invite us to struggle.
Foundational to the narratives in Genesis are the ideas of belonging and place. People belong to places, and yet God’s vision expands upon humankind’s boundaries. At the beginning of the narrative of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, Abram (later called Abraham-father of many) hears instruction from God, the God heretofore unknown to Abram and his kin. God says, “Go to a place that I will show you.”
How would Abram/Abraham have answered the question, “Where are you from?”
Some chapters later, Hagar, the servant of Abram and Sarai, his wife, has her own encounter with God. What we know of Hagar is what the narrator takes great pains to tell the reader – she is a servant/slave, and she is a foreigner. Caught up in the urgency of seeing God’s promise of progeny come to bear, Hagar is pulled into the family drama and impregnated by Abram. She subsequently leaves Sarai and Abram’s household because of harsh treatment. In her desperation, Hagar the Egyptian servant encounters God. She receives the same promise as Abraham, because God’s promise and protection extends beyond the people who will become Israel. Favor with God does not reside within the fact of nationality, social class or gender.
In June, my family gathered in Washington, D.C., where my parents live. A highlight of the week was visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum, part of the Smithsonian, was long in the making and opened to the public in September 2016. Because of the volume of visitors, timed entry passes are still required each day until 1 p.m. The exhibits are astounding, far too much to take in in a single day.
Like many of the others moving through the crowded museum’s multiple levels, we were an inter-generational group. Our four generations moved in clumps of four and five, meeting up at different points throughout the day, and processing what we had seen and heard at the end of the day. For my young adult children, being faced with the degree to which the biblical text had been used to justify slavery and segregation, cruel and vicious separation of families, and the controlling of Black bodies with violence was devastating. The cognitive dissonance of Jesus’ teachings juxtaposed with the historic evidence of slave ships with names like Jesus, Hope and La Amistad (friendship) was real. Faced with the artifacts of this history, they, like generations before them, found it impossible to understand how Christians could support, participate in and defend to the death this system. There is no reasonable explanation that I can offer.
Although descendants of Africans have been born in the Americas since the early 1600s, citizenship was not granted until 1868. The dismantling of legalized racial segregation began 100 years after that. Both movements were hotly contested and many of the beneficiaries of these changes suffered severe, often violent backlash. Where is home?
The museum houses a memorial to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American child lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. It is a small, sectioned-off area that contains photos of Till, a looping video that tells the story of his life and death, and his casket. It is a sacred space, heavy with sorrow. At the Till family’s request, no photos are allowed. While I know the story of Till quite well, until that moment, in front of his casket, I had never fully processed that Till should be alive today – that he should be our elder instead of our ancestor. The justification of Till’s lynching, like all others, was that he was “out of place.” As a resident of Chicago, in Mississippi he was away from home, but really, where was home for a child like Till? How much of our ancestor’s experiences, their joys and their sorrows, their terror and their grief, live in our bones? Where is home? Who belongs?
Abraham’s oldest sons, the sons of Sarah and Hagar, buried him together. Emmett Till’s mother brought his body home to Chicago for an open casket funeral. A careful and honest reading of Scripture reveals heroes and heroines of the faith who act unjustly. The same is true for a careful and honest reading of any people’s history. Are we able to let the narratives we hold dear, and the ones we would just as soon forget, lead us home?
Regina Shands Stoltzfus teaches at Goshen (Indiana) College in the peace, justice and conflict studies and the Bible, religion and philosophy departments.
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