I want to tell you a story. It starts in The Netherlands in the 1940s: World War II. It starts with my family, who I’m gonna brag on for a minute.
Both of my mom’s parents, and their families, were equal parts courageous and compassionate in the shadow of Nazi Germany. They sheltered neighbours and strangers who had lost their homes in bombings. They stole and forged papers; my teenage grandma once pretended she was pregnant with stolen papers under her dress! They created and distributed an underground newspaper. They dispersed contraband and food stamps. They spoke out against Nazi-sympathizers; they once housed a fleeing Nazi mayor and his family, but treated them well. I’ll admit that they also once participated in the beating of a Nazi-sympathizer; they weren’t perfect. They fed their communities from their gardens and miraculously bottomless soup pots. They even used their farmland to receive Allied weapon drops after being alerted through coded BBC broadcasts on a hidden radio! They hid Allies and men avoiding conscription to work in Germany. At one point my great-grandma nursed a stranded American pilot in one room and a German soldier in another! But their servanthood came with steep sacrifice.
Many things happened to them throughout the war. Of the most extreme, my grandpa’s family home was burned to the ground with his dog inside — and this was after a first attempt at burning it. They were left homeless and hiding apart for the remainder of the war. Later, my grandma’s family home was invaded; their farm had long been used as a resistance headquarters of sorts. The men hid in the attack, attempting to destroy damning papers. But they were found. My great-grandma was interrogated with a grenade between her knees and my great-grandpa was soundly beaten. The men were sent to prison and the women were held captive at home while the Nazis stayed on the farm. Fortunately, this was very near the end of the war. The men were freed to return home after two weeks of continued interrogation and the Nazis left the farm as the Allies approached. But, just as the men returned, the soldiers did as well. They’d forgotten a coat. The women ran to hide and as my grandma’s mom shut and locked the front door, one notoriously trigger-happy soldier opened fire in her direction. My grandma, caught by a soldier as she tried to hide, was guided at gunpoint to step over her mom’s bleeding body to retrieve the metaphorically bloody coat. She never healed from that experience. The war was over, but her mother was gone.
Today, there’s a road named after my great-grandma and she’s buried in a cemetery for those killed by enemy action. She was a gracious, steadfast, forgiving, and faithful woman who lived like Jesus. The following was written in their newspaper about her death: “Mother Traas was the support of her 14 children, the refuge of so many exiles and outlaws, the hostess of all illegal workers. We struggled for freedom with her — without her we must arrive at our aim. We, ‘her children,’ regained life and freedom. We, the illegal action, lived up to Victory. The Mother of the Underground gained the Eternal Peace.” It was an immeasurable loss for her family and community.
You might think that I’m telling this story to inspire us to do the right thing and to stand against injustice no matter the cost. But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing to tell you about what happened to me, what was inside me from birth.
As a kid, I was obsessively fascinated with WWII. I’d print random history off our old desktop computer; I’d read it, but I didn’t understand much of it. Many nights, before I slept, I played a few rounds of hide from the Nazis with my TY beanie babies. Inspired by my great-grandma and Corrie Ten Boom, I imagined how I’d imitate their heroism if given the chance. That all seems harmless. But I was too young to understand the difference between Germans and Nazis. I remember learning as a kid that some of my friends were German; I remember the wrestling that went on inside me (ultimately, it didn’t affect our friendships, by the way). I hated the German language and veered away from anything that connected to Germany. Even as I began to understand the difference between Germans and Nazis — even as I read books and watched movies that told the stories of German heroes, and there were a lot of stories — any unforeseen reminder of Germany triggered an angry trauma response in my body. The simple truth is that I was a racist.
I didn’t understand why I had such an extreme response; other than my mom, no one else in my family felt the same. In the last few years, though, I’ve learned about epigenetics, which explains how DNA can be altered by experiences, especially traumatic ones. Experiences can change the chemical environment of a cell and either add acetyl groups to histones — turning on (expressing) a gene — or take acetyl groups from histones — turning off a gene. Alternatively, they can add or take away methyl groups, which result in the opposite effects. Histones, by the way, are the proteins that bind DNA into that twisty shape. This means that we can physically inherit memories — in our body, not our cognitive mind — of our ancestors’ experiences and, therefore, respond to the world as if we, ourselves, survived trauma. In this case, we’re not vicariously distressed by their stories or deeply empathetic to their suffering. Our bodies and brains literally believe and behave as though the trauma were our own. Like all genes, not all descendants need carry the same coding, which explains why I had these struggles but my siblings didn’t. The most amazing and hopeful thing about all of this, is that — under the right circumstances — genes can change back.
And I believe that’s what happened to me 14 years ago. Skipping the details of why, my dad drove two men who were visiting from Germany to our church; one of them didn’t even speak English. He brought my very reluctant mom and me to them and — through major ugly crying — we shared the CliffsNotes of my mom’s family history. I can’t comprehend, never mind explain, the overwhelming emotions that consumed me. It was as though I was filled with the grief of my mom’s entire family. These men, one of them translating, were immediately and transparently filled with sorrow and empathy. They didn’t hesitate for a moment to enter our experience. They wept, hugged us, prayed for us, and — at the pinnacle — the one who couldn’t speak English knelt at our feet and repented in German. This profound experience changed everything. I felt like a different person. I was liberated. What happened that day was both a spiritual and biological healing, of that I have no doubt.
I was reminded of this experience recently when I came across a story of Whites kneeling before Blacks in George Floyd’s hometown, repenting on behalf of their — my — race. At one point, the man praying said, “Father God we ask for forgiveness from our Black brothers and sisters for years and years of racism.” As he did this, the man he knelt before shifted, his body seemingly overwhelmed by those words. He appeared to feel exactly how I felt when, years before, a stranger knelt before me and repented in the same way. I found this account humble and powerful, but I’ve since learned that not all Whites, especially Christians, feel the same. Some feel starkly and strongly the opposite.
As a foster parent in a province where the majority of foster children are Indigenous, and throughout this civil rights movement, I have heard White people say many things along the lines of, “Well I didn’t do it. My family didn’t do it; they weren’t even here when…” When Blacks were enslaved and abused, when Indigenous children were stolen and shamed, when colonialism defiled the world, etc. Shrugging off the discomfort of guilt and responsibility, we forget that these Blacks and Indigenous weren’t here then either. But that’s not the point.
As we know from epigenetics, they didn’t have to be here when the damage was done. It’s highly likely that many of the people to whom we owe our repentance carry the trauma of generations in their DNA. It’s also extremely likely that privilege and prejudice, the systems that sustain them, and the natural consequences of wrongs committed years ago have given them their own DNA-altering experiences. At the very least, their DNA has not been given the opportunity to heal. Their literal perpetrators are likely not around — or willing — to apologize. Many of them won’t, like Corrie Ten Boom, have the opportunity to look an actual and apologetic abuser in the face and shake their hand. But we can offer them that opportunity. Their harm may not have come directly from us, but we can choose to embody our race and our ancestors, just as they are forced to embody theirs. We can symbolically, on behalf of our race and religion — make no mistake, a staggering number of sins have been committed in the name of Christianity — repent. Those German men were guilty of nothing personally and yet they so willingly and graciously took on the responsibility of repentance. In doing so, they set me free.
I recognize that I’m focusing primarily on history. However, it must be noted that we’ve almost definitely engaged in racism in our own lives, and that is equally requiring of repentance. Our confession concerns our excusing of history, our lack of amendments, our comfort in privilege, our selfishness in silence, and our suppression of pleading voices. We’re not just asking for the forgiveness of our forefathers; we’re owning our own sin, too.
Let me be very clear: what’s being asked of Whites is not to go about feeling guilty and wretched. What’s being asked is not, as Jonathan Martin writes, “self-flagellating or feeling vaguely bad about [ourselves].” Although we must enter into the burden of remorse and allow anguish to reform us, we’re not meant to stay there. Indeed, that’s counterproductive and inconsistent with the freedom of Jesus. What’s being asked is absolute acknowledgement of ancient and ongoing wrongdoings. What’s being asked is complete admittance and discontinuance of complicity. What’s being asked is wholehearted humility and perfect contrition. To further quote Johnathan Martin:
On the day of Pentecost, when the fire of God’s Spirit is first given to the Church, the apostle Peter gets up and preaches a sermon in which he tells the crowd, “God sent Jesus of Nazareth…you killed him, but God has raised him from the dead.” And then invites them to repent and believe…surely almost no one who is in that crowd was part of the literal crowd who lynched Jesus of Nazareth! And yet, they are called to own the truth of their complicity in a Love crucifying, God-denying world. They are called to own the truth of the part they all have played in constructing the kind of world that would reject and torture the Son of Love. They are called to reckon with the truth, not so that they can wallow in shame, but that they may ultimately be set free from it. We confess our sins not to beg God to do something God in Christ has already done on the cross, when Jesus says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We confess because the rock bottom truth of things is that we all live much of our lives out of alignment with love, and we want to come back into alignment.JONATHAN MARTIN (emphasis added)
I believe that forgiveness isn’t contingent on an apology. Forgiveness can be given whether or not it’s requested. But an apology is a gift that oppressors, symbolic or not, can — and should — give the oppressed. An apology is a confession, acknowledgment, and validation of a victim’s pain. Further, repentance is a turning from and cessation of that which first inflicted pain. We confess to recognize; we repent to correct course. We have the opportunity to unleash liberty. The oppressed of our generation are beseeching us to free them of trauma, fear, inequity, heartache, injustice, persecution, hate, and anger. We would further wrong them to refuse them and we would assure generations to come — all of our descendants — more of the worst we can offer. We simply cannot fail to act on this moment in history.
Lord, bring us all your kindness. Lead us to repentance.