Dec. 5, 2022

Yearning for (Intergenerational) Roots

Yearning for (Intergenerational) Roots

In the Plough Magazine, Peter Mommsen wrote the article Yearning for Roots - We’re born with a hunger for connection with our ancestors – both biological and spiritual. That title drew me in because I've been hungry to see Christians writing on the need for rootedness. Too often we have a gnostic or platonic Jesus, where body and spirit are part of a dualistic (two-sided) reality. But the incredible thing about the incarnation of Jesus (of which we are particularly dwelling upon as Advent approaches Christmas) is that Divine Spirit and mortal flesh are mysteriously united!

While we may theologically acknowledge this, we rarely work out its implications. Our ideas of the age to come are "heavenly," rather than a new reality where both heavens and earth are renewed. And with regard to rootedness, we rightfully acknowledge with Paul that we need to be rooted and built up in [Christ Jesus]" (Col. 2:7), but we wrongfully make this spiritual rootedness a totalizing force that erases creation-based goods.

But before I go further on that, let's hop back to David Mommsen for a moment about the need for roots. In modernity, we suffer from a preoccupation with the now, with what is new, to the detriment of our intergenerational relationships.

The “pervasive rootlessness”... afflicts not only America, but also virtually everywhere that modernity has touched... If all that matters is the now – what philosophers call presentism – then there seems to be little we can learn from past generations. Instead, the cult of youth wields near-total cultural power.

One result is that the old are cut off from the young, socially and often physically as well. Traditionally, the role of elders was to pass on inherited wisdom to the next generation. But if the past is judged useless or morally suspect, the elderly can seem to have little to offer their communities.

Mommsen highlights the injustices that many elderly suffer (essentially being euthanized through neglect), and later notes Scripture's strange (to modern eyes) emphasis on geneologies. 

[Matthew's] purpose in beginning his book with a genealogy is not to track the transmission of genes, but to tell the grand intergenerational story into which Jesus was born: the story of God’s covenant with his people Israel, of sin and exile, and of the promise of redemption.

Matthew’s genealogy, then, both affirms the significance of family history and powerfully relativizes it. Biological kinship, it turns out, is far less important than the family called into being by God’s promises...

To be sure, our biological families and inheritances still matter; the New Testament pointedly echoes the Decalogue’s command to honor father and mother. But heredity and blood kinship are no longer the primary source of our identity. In a prophecy that Christian tradition interprets as describing the age to come, the Book of Zechariah promises that the generations will one day be bound together once more:

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.

As I understand Mommsen, his point is that to be properly Christian (and properly human), once must be rooted in intergenerational community, which is most poignantly fulfilled in the eternal multi-generational family that Jesus is creating. And if we are to practice intergenerational solidarity with our faith ancestors, we must begin with practicing it with own parents and grandparents. This reminds me of 1 Timothy 5:8, which says that not providing for your relatives is a denial of the faith.

But Mommsen says that the Biblical text "powerfully relativizes" the significance of family history, and quotes Matthew 12 where Jesus redefines family around doing the will of his Father in heaven. But the question is, to what extent does the Gospel narrative powerfully relativize family. Or, to put it in TJ's word, "To what extent does God's kingdom relativize kinship?"

To help think about the complexity in answering  this question, let's look at a few cursory sample of scriptures that come to mind, some of which will emphasize the importance of kin and family, and others which will diminish it (some verses have already been mentioned). 

Relativize/diminish the role of kin & family Emphasize/uphold the role of kin & family
Gal. 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Gentile... for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Col. 3:20 "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord."
Matt. 10:37 - "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." 1 Tim. 5:8 - "Anyone who does not provide for their own*... has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
Matt. 12:46-50 - “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Matt. 15:4 - "For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’

*it should be noted that "their own" is often appropriately translated as "their own relatives", but this would not have been constrained to biological or familial ties, but could include other people who belong to a kinship network of belonging and responsibility, including, but not limited to, household servants and adopted kin.

I don't have an easy resolution here. It's one of the questions around ethnicity that Communion & Shalom hopes to spend a lot of time on. But for now, it's worth reflecting on the powerful words of Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It is profound (especially in the first century) to declare this broad-sweeping of a unity in Jesus. And we cannot preach this enough, that through the blood of Christ all hostile barriers that separate different people groups are abolished. We still have too much division in this world, and, even worse, a callousness towards the affairs of our poor or suffering brothers and sisters.

Yet, pointedly, we must understand this verse in context of Galatians and its focus on how we receive Christ. Galatians 3:28 does not erase ethnic identity (nor sexual and gender identity). If it did, then surely all natural intergenerational geneologies and kinship would be a distraction from our heavenly purpose. But in Galatians 3:3, God speaks to the Galatians in Paul's letter saying, "After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?" In Galatians, Paul is not saying that the realities and works of the flesh are erased by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but that they are made impotent without the Spirit of God. None of our works matter, unless they are "faith expressing itself through love" (Gal 5:6).

This dynamic of flesh and spirit, biological-family and faith-family, ethnic kin and spiritual kin, are not easily solved and practically lived out. Christians regularly face this tension and may rightfully get stuck in trying to figure out who to spend the holidays with, let alone other times where options of where to investment time and resources seem mutually exclusive. But what cannot be understated to our modern age is that your roots matter. From the shape of your nose to the shape of your heart, your roots matter. But what cannot be said enough to any of our material deterministic friends out there (I'm not sure there are too many left), the Kingdom of God breaks into the most unexpected places. The Spirit of God doesn't come to eradicate your roots, but to transform them. I don't fully understand how this would all roll out, but I believe God redeems our roots. So, while you belong to your family, and your family belongs to you, we all foremost belong to Christ, thanks be to God. 



PS, because Galatians 3:28 is so often used to not only correct gender inequalities, but also deny the purposes of our sexed and gendered bodies, I want to include a very brief parallel table below for reflection. Similarly, I believe we must seek to understand and experience the liberating power of Jesus in relation to our sexed bodies and gendered reality in such a way that we experience the promise and power of God, but not in such a way that we liberate ourselves from "garden-goods" God intends for us to steward and redeem.

Relativize/diminish the role of sex & gender Emphasize/uphold the role of sex & gender
Gal. 3:28 - "There is neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." 1 Timothy 5:1-3 - "Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters"
Eph. 5:21 - "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Eph. 5:22-33 - "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord... Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church"