My family can draw a straight line back to the Mayflower and our ancestor Mary Allerton. As a child, I learned that we were among the first settlers of this country. Our people came here, so the story goes, because they wanted freedom to practice their religion. While it was dangerous, they made a courageous decision for themselves and their descendants. I felt pride in this heritage. It wasn’t until college, or perhaps even later, that I began to piece together a different story for myself; if my ancestors included the Mayflower settlers, then my ancestors were also participants in the ensuing slavery, rape and genocide of Native American people. It took many years for me to learn that the rhetoric of the religious liberty can be religious justification for cultural genocide. I don’t know specifically what Mary Allerton’s relationship with the Wampanoag was, but history paints a pretty clear picture of the relationship between European settlement and native communities. As is true for many of us, I’d been given a version of my history that was white washed and tidied to avoid the shameful things.
Recently, my daughter has stumbled across a children’s book written from the perspective of Mary Allerton. Three Young Pilgrims is a less white washed version of the Pilgrim narrative than others. Still, it certainly doesn’t hint at the murderous history that would unfold as a consequence of the European migration. Because I am aware of how powerfully this story operated in my own childish brain, I have been mindful to talk with my daughter about how this is only part of the story of our family.
Our family is the result of the broader history of this country and is responsible to and for that history. Our family is the result of romantic Thanksgiving narratives as well as Native American removal. We are the result of waves of Italian, Irish and Dutch immigration and also chattel slavery. Who we are is reflected in American anti-semetic laws and practices, and the recent history of redlining of cities. All of these things shape our history and thus our family. Our collective national history determined who married who, and who had access to what, and who had the right to move where. Our family, as it is constructed today, is the result of an American story that is deeply racialized and deeply political.
My guess is that many family gatherings this week will include conversation about who we are as a country, and who we are as families within the country. These are, of course, theological conversations. Who we claim as part of our family, the stories we tell about what has shaped our family, these things lead directly to our circles of concern. Many horrors have been justified by claiming to do what is right for one’s own particular circles of concern. We can justify a vote for a bad politician who offered the better tax deal for our particular family. We can justify denying other citizen’s civil rights based on our specific religious objections. We can justify separating children from their parents because it will keep our families safer. We justify all sorts of evils using family, faith and allegiance as our central categories of concern.
At heart, Christian discipleship is about forming us into people capable of giving ourselves away, and not just for family members and close associates. The Kingdom of God calls us to be accountable to the fullness of our stories. This week will be filled with fireworks and celebrations. As we celebrate Independence Day, may we be mindful that God’s work has always been to press us outside our easy circles of concern. At its best, America has been a place of welcome to the poor, vulnerable and politically disfavored. That is part of our story, and it is worth celebrating. But even in our celebrations, we must be mindful that the story of our country continues to be written on the backs of the politically disenfranchised, the undocumented and the financially vulnerable. We are all characters in this unfolding drama.
As an adult, I’ve again found pride in the story of my ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. It isn’t a romantic pride, but one founded in history and accountability. As I talk with my daughter about our family’s role in American history, we also talk about our continuing role in advocating for the marginalized. We talk about how our family has been participants in the good and the bad of history. We have high standards for ourselves and our country because of our first allegiance to God who claims us in our fullness. Our freedom in Christ makes us free to serve our country and demand more from it.
Elizabeth Hakken Candido is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) Pastor who currently serves as the College Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life at Kalamazoo College. Liz lives in Kalamazoo, MI with her husband Bob who is a pilot. They have two daughters, Clara and Abigail. Liz blogs at skepticsnbelievers.wordpress.com
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