My husband Fred and I have been watching more TV than usual over the course of the last year – it happens when you don’t get out much. And so I’ve discovered – and got hooked on – a particular PBS show: ‘Finding Your Roots’ with historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. (show pic ‘Gates’). In case you haven’t seen this show: Gates invites two or three prominent guests – like actors, musicians, and newscasters – and explores their ancestry with them. This partly happens through looking into records, but also through genetic research.
Needless to say, there is an entire team of experts in the background doing the research. Regular people like you and me probably wouldn’t be able to come up with the same detailed results if we were to look into our ancestry.
But it is fascinating to learn where the ancestors of celebrities come from.
If the guests on the show happen to be white, the ancestry can be traced back to different places in Europe. Sometimes the paper trail is well preserved, and guests learn about ancestors who lived as far back as the 16th century. Although that’s rare.
It’s different for most people of African descent – and for a good reason. The vast majority of black people in this country trace their ancestry back to people who were brought from Africa to the American continent by force and against their will: slaves. And once those Africans reached America – if they survived the grueling sea passage – their entire history was erased. Their names were substituted with European first names. In lists and censuses, they often even don’t have a name, but are just listed by gender and age – and sometimes by monetary value. They were seen as subhuman – and treated as such.
Any deeper knowledge and culture those Africans would bring along would be snuffed out. Even though they might have been able to read and write – even though they may have held high positions or be proficient in a certain trade or craft in their country of origin – more often than not they were not permitted to display or pass on their knowledge. The vast majority of slaves in this country was kept uneducated. For education liberates, and that was the last thing a slave-owning society wanted.
So for the majority of guests on ‘Finding Your Roots’ who are of African descent, the paper trail ends somewhere in the U.S. American South in middle of the 19th century.
And though African American guests on the show usually know somewhere in the back of their minds that they descend from slaves – learning about real, actual ancestors and their names, living and working on real plantations and being treated like cattle – or worse – by real slave owners touches them in a special way.
In a recent show, musician and music producer Pharell Williams was one of the guests. You may know him as the singer of ‘Happy’, a song you just couldn’t escape 8 years ago. Williams is black. And Williams, a soft-spoken and gentle person, had one of the most severe reactions of any African American guests on the show when he learned about his enslaved ancestors: he got angry.
Not that he showed it outwardly. Well, you could tell that he was disturbed, but he didn’t explode or anything. However, he shared his feelings of anger with Henry Louis Gates Jr. And as he was doing so, he seemed hesitant, even guilty. ‘I’m trying not to be angry,’ Williams said. And, a little later, ‘I didn’t know you could…have humanitarian vibes and be angry. This is new for me.’ All the while, Gates reassured him that it is only natural to feel angry, that everybody should feel angry about slavery.
Gates’ statement that everybody should feel angry may make us uncomfortable. Anger, even righteous anger, is not necessarily a feeling that is valued in our society, not to mention in a Christianity that originated in a polite Northern Europe. Midwestern Lutherans for example have the reputation of being ‘nice’; folks like Garrison Keillor even make fun of this niceness.
We teach our children that anger is wrong and has to be suppressed. Spoiler alert: anger tends to come to the surface sooner or later, and then with a special ferocity and force. Sometimes people direct anger not against others, but against themselves. And that’s called depression.
We see in today’s gospel that even Jesus isn’t always as meek and mild as he is often portrayed in art and song. Jesus has ‘humanitarian vibes’, there is no doubt about it. He came to heal, to mend, to reconcile, to save. But that doesn’t mean he can’t get angry: in today’s gospel, Jesus is raving mad, even violent, starting a riot in the temple portico, driving out the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals.
And we don’t talk much about this angry Jesus. Maybe because it makes us uncomfortable. And the discomfort may grow when we think about the circumstances: the Mosaic Law commands the sacrifice of animals in the temple. And not just any animals, but flawless animals. Of course not every person coming to the temple to sacrifice could provide or bring a flawless animal. So there needed to be a place near the temple to buy such an animal. And if Jews came from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, of course they would have to exchange their money before buying an animal. In the end, these are the laws of economy. The end hallows the means, or so one would think.
But apparently Jesus thinks differently. He has a radically different understanding of the holiness and the purpose of his Father’s house. Now it has to be mentioned, that this whole episode happens right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel according to John, from which today’s story is taken. This is how Jesus sets the tone: by attacking tradition. By turning the tables. By questioning authority. By attacking a kind of worship that has become comfortable – and a routine. No wonder the religious elite and all who profit from the system are alarmed and disturbed – and from that moment on watch Jesus’ every move. What will he be up to next?
People sometimes wonder what Jesus would do if he came back tomorrow. Some may think that this would be a time of immediate peace and bliss.
But could it be that Jesus would display the same kind of righteous anger he displayed at the beginning of his ministry in the gospel of John? Could it be that Jesus would look at us, his followers, and say, incredulously, ‘What happened, friends? I gave you pretty good guidelines beyond the 10 commandments how to deal with each other. I taught you to love each other, to look out for each other, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to be honest about your mistakes and to ask for forgiveness, as you are to forgive yourselves – why is my Father’s house – why is my Father’s world in the state it’s in right now? Why do you sacrifice everything on the altar of a free-market economy? Why are people treated unjustly?’
Could it be that Christ, exasperated with us, maybe even angry at us, would first fix whatever is broken – and make us do our part in getting things fixed – before he would establish the kingdom of God’s peace and justice – and eternal bliss for all? Could it be that Christ would tear down things first before the creation of all things new?
Jesus Christ did not come to affirm us in our ways, but to show us and lead us on the way to God. And that means: repentance. A turn-around. A change of mind and heart.
And this is the good news. That Christ reveals to us what is broken, how we are broken – and then takes what is broken and makes it whole. If we let him.
Of course this is a challenging, even uncomfortable concept – that Christ came to change us, to change the world, and to use us as agents of change for the better, for the ultimate good. But then, the concept of the cross – the concept of God dying for the world and for us – is a challenging concept, a concept that turns our worldview upside down. However, the focus on the cross helps us refocus what our lives are all about: about relationship with God and others, about love and forgiveness, and being forgiven, and sharing and justice for. The cross is about life everlasting with God and all creation; however, we can’t get this life if the old isn’t destroyed first. And, yes, this is radical. And that’s why repentance, the turning from the old and comfortable, is such a big deal.
And, like it or not: just being nice and ignoring or minimizing all that is broken won’t help us with the kind of repentance Jesus calls us to. It may be anger – the kind of righteous anger Jesus displayed – about all that isn’t well in this world and within ourselves, which leads us on our way with Christ into the kingdom of God. Anger may be the beginning of healing and wholeness for all.
This post is also available in: German