Remember Your Story

by Rev. Dr. Paula Owen Parker
Summer 2015

The Bible is full of genealogy. The book of Numbers is about the census and genealogy of the Israelites in the wilderness. The book of Ruth has the genealogy of David. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles is a comprehensive genealogy of all the tribes of Israel. The first chapter in the first book of the New Testament is the genealogy of Jesus. It was very important for the Jewish people to know who their ancestors were. It was important for them to know their roots. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, God spoke these words to them and instructed them to pass their story down through the generations:

    And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates....When your son asks you in time to come, saying, "What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?" Then you shall say to your son: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." —Deuteronomy 6:6-9, 20-21
Over and over again God said to the Israelites, remember me and remember your story. God kept impressing upon them the need to remember their story. The third commandment says:
    You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. —Exodus 20:4-6
There are many examples of the Israelites forgetting who they were and laying aside their values. The familiar stories of King David and his family are such examples. Specific examples among David's eight wives are Ahinoam the mother of David's first son, Amnon; Maacah the mother David's third son Absalom and daughter Tamar; and Bathsheba the mother of Solomon.

David summoned Bathsheba to himself after he watched her, a married woman, bathe. He coerced her to sleep with him and she became pregnant. To cover up his seduction and rape, he had her husband, Uriah, killed so he could marry Bathsheba. This was the first generation of seduction, rape and murder within David's line. Amnon, David's first son, found Tamar his half-sister attractive and set up a plot to seduce her. When she would not cooperate, he raped her. David did nothing to punish Amnon. Abasalom, Tamar's brother and Amnon's half-brother, had a plot to kill Amnon and succeeded two years later. This is the second generation of seduction, rape and murder. Solomon, David's son by Bathsheba, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart toward other gods. God became angry with Solomon and said to him,
    Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. –1 Kings 11:11-12
The generational sin of seduction, and violation (rape) tainted Solomon's relationship with God. The consequence of Solomon's seduction and unfaithfulness to God was the loss of the kingdom. Seduction, adultery, rape, murder and unfaithfulness passed down to three generations. God said to the Israelites, and God says to us: "Remember who I am, remember what I have done for you, remember how you feel about me, and remember how I want to bless you. Tell your stories to your children, talk about them all the time and pass them on to the next generation."

There are reasons why we don't know all we should about our families. There are silent stories that are overlooked; secret stories that are intentionally hidden; and there are severed stories caused by a chaotic rupture in the culture. 

SILENT STORIES

Silent stories are unrecognized, overlooked and glossed over. There are many silent stories about women in the Bible because there is very little genealogy on the women's families. There is one exception, the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. They were descendants of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath. Joseph and Asenath had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. They were adopted and blessed by Joseph's father, Jacob, and became two of the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim have African and Hebrew ancestry. Zelophehad was a descendant of the tribe of Manasseh. The daughters of Zelophehad were the third great- granddaughters of Asenath. They could trace their family back to their third great-grandmother, who was royalty in her own right and had her own story. The daughters' names were recorded, which was unusual. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah's father died and left no sons. The existing laws gave the inheritance to the closest male relative. They challenged the laws and asked for their father's land and won, changing the inheritance laws for women. The only stipulation added later in Numbers 36:1-12 was that if they married, they had to marry someone from their tribe so their inheritance would remain in the tribe. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a silent story, overlooked by many students of the Bible. It is not in any of the three cycles of the lectionary, which begs the question, what other silent stories are we overlooking?

SECRET STORIES

Secret stories are veiled, concealed and buried by unanswered questions, purposeful omissions, and incomplete truths. We may not know the secret of these stories but we know they exist. Domestic violence victims are among those who are keepers of secrets. They make excuses and hide their fear, anxiety, and humiliation. Sexual abuse survivors are threatened with punishment if they "tell." They bury their confusion, shame and guilt. War veterans mask the trauma of combat. Clandestine love affairs are camouflaged. Secrets, however, can unravel. For example:

Jenna's life began with a secret: Her father hid Jenna's existence from his own parents and siblings [for many years] until he became seriously ill. Six years later, Jenna, then 30 and living in Oakland, discovered another man was keeping her a secret. She was eight months pregnant when Allen revealed that he maintained two apartments—one with his wife of ten years and their 5- and 8-year-old daughters, and another for his secret affairs. Jenna realized that she was repeating an old pattern. Allen had entangled her in a web of lies and denial, just as her father once had. Jenna entered therapy and began to connect the dots. She chose men who were not available to her, men who couldn't commit, were dishonest, and had secret lives. She never felt like she was chosen by her father, and kept repeating that pattern in her relationships.1

Secret stories have a way of telling on themselves eventually.

SEVERED STORIES

The Transatlantic and Domestic Slave Trade, the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, are all examples of severed stories, stories cut off from their historical and cultural roots. For years, the Holocaust survivors were encouraged not to talk about their experiences. Denial, repression, avoidance and indifference were the reactions of some in the Jewish community and many in the larger society. The survivors were accused of actively or passively participating in their own destiny by "going like sheep to slaughter." "Bystander guilt" led many to accuse survivors of participating in immoral acts in order to live. The bystanders' attitudes influenced survivors to stop talking, but their pain did not go away and it showed up in their children.

Intergenerational trauma was first observed in 1966 by clinicians who were alarmed by and concerned about the number of children of survivors of the Holocaust seeking treatment in clinics in Canada. The children displayed depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, guilt about betraying their ancestors, and guilt for being excluded from the suffering. They felt obligated to share in the ancestral pain, to take care of and be responsible for survivor parents. They had dreams and saw images that were unexplainable.

The Armenian Genocide was an atrocious severed story kept secret. When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I there were an estimated two million Armenians living in Eastern Anatolia. By the end of the war, only ten percent were still alive. They had been shot, lynched, and driven into the Syrian desert, or forced to convert and practice Islam. The Turkish government refused to call it genocide and justified their actions as a national security measure to suppress rebellion. Other countries looked the other way. Hitler took note of the indifference and determined he could exterminate the Jews without protest. Severed stories can generate horrendous consequences.

Flora Keshgegian, an Episcopal priest, is the child of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. In her experience, the victims of the genocide are portrayed as martyrs who died for their faith and ethnic identity. To forget was seen as betrayal that dishonored and dismissed their sacrifice. She struggled for ways to honor her history without being stuck in a victimized way of seeing the world.2

Keshgegian believes the work of the church, shaped by the story of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to be redemptive and transformative. In her book, Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation, she writes: 

 "To promote healing and transformation we must first remember. Remember the suffering and losses, remember the resistance and agency and remember the connection with life and wholeness not defined by the suffering. The suffering and loss must be remembered and mourned. Remembering resistance enables resilience, the ability to recover from difficult situations. In doing so we expand the hope for ourselves and future generations. The church as a community of remembrance honors and preserves memories of suffering; evokes, recognizes and validates memories of resistance; and actively supports, and celebrates memories of connections and life affirmation."3

Marie Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a descendant of Sitting Bull, is Research Associate Professor and Director of Native American and Disparities Research at University of New Mexico. In her study of generational trauma in the descendants of the massacre at Wounded Knee, Brave Heart found that the federal government's eradication of traditional Lakota mourning practices fueled what she has defined as historical trauma, a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from violence inflicted on a large group of people.4 In response to historical trauma, the descendants suffer from substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and gestures, depression, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions.

Joy Degruy has developed the term Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome5 (PTSS) which she defines as a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from 1) centuries of slavery, 2) continued experiences of oppression, 3) institutionalized racism and 4) belief (real or imagined) that the benefits of the society in which they live are not accessible to them. Multigenerational trauma, plus continued oppression, minus opportunity to access the benefits available in the society leads to PTSS6. Degruy defines three categories of behavior in her definition of PTSS: 1) vacant esteem 2) ever-present anger, and 3) racist socialization.

Not all stories are negative. I have found that to be true in my own family history. Last year I discovered a silent story. I learned that in 1897 my great-grandmother and her four sisters founded the True Love #37 chapter of one of the oldest African American women's organizations in the country. The United Order of Tents was founded in 1867 in Norfolk, VA just after the Civil War. The Tents' mission was to serve, feed, and provide nursing care wherever necessary for newly emancipated men, women and children. They taught young women about Christianity, morals, conduct, and various means of survival as free human beings. Not knowing I was following in the footsteps of my great-grandmother and great-aunts, in 1998 I founded the Daughters of Zelophehad, an ecumenical Christian transitional housing program for women and children in crisis. Its mission was similar—to provide a safe, stable home with pastoral counseling which incorporated healing prayer, case management and skill development workshops. To discover that there was a generational legacy of service to women and the community was validating and affirming.

The Israelites went into the Promised Land, forgot their story and lost their way. God sent the prophets to warn them but they were ignored. When the Israelites returned after 70 years in exile they rededicated themselves but again forgot their story and lost their way. Then God sent his son, Jesus, to show them the way back to God. But he, too, was rejected and had to suffer. On the night of his arrest, Jesus broke bread with his disciples and said, "This is my body broken for you, eat this and remember me; this is the cup of the new covenant sealed in my blood, drink this and remember me." Jesus is our timeless healer and deliverer. Jesus can send his healing presence into all the generations of trauma in our family history so that our eyes are opened, our hearts open up and our families are set free to flourish in the gifts and blessings he has for us. Jesus can make sense of the bits and pieces of the stories we inherited. Jesus severed his relationship with his Father in order to save our relationship with God. If we remember what God has done for us, and keep God first in our lives, God will bless us and our families for a thousand generations. Who knows what blessings are waiting for us! If we bring healing light to the family tree of silent, secret and severed stories that stunt our families' growth; if we tend to our family story by remembering and recognizing the achievements and resilience of our ancestors, we create that fertile soil for present and future generations to flourish.

1 Tara Roberts, "Ghosts of Relationships": Essence Magazine, August 2008.
2 Paula Owens Parker,
Using the Genogram as a Tool for Healing Transgenerational Trauma in the African American Church Community in Virginia (D.Min, diss., San Francisco Theological Seminary, 2013), p. 88.
3 Flora A. Keshgegian,
Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation. Nashville:Abingdon Press, 2000, p 122.
4 Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart.
Wakiksuyapi:Carrying the Historical Trauma of the Lakota. Tulane Studies in Social Welfare 21 (Winter/Spring part 2): p. 247.
5 A syndrome is a particular set of behaviors and emotions that are brought about by a distinct set of circumstances.
6 Joy DeGruy Leary (sic). Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome:America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (Portland,OR:Uptone Press, 2005), 119.


Rev. Dr. Paula Owens Parker  Rev. Dr. Parker is adjunct professor of Spiritual Formation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and senior program developer of Roots Matter.
 Summer 2015 Issue