"Generational Curses" & Confession for the Sins of Our Ancestors
Pentecostalism & the (Mis)Location of Power (Part 5)
This is the fifth post in the ”Pentecostalism and the (Mis)location of Power” series. I began writing a draft of this a year ago, but have majorly adapted and finished it now while Pope Francis is in our province to repent to the Indigenous peoples for the heinous sins committed against them by the church. (I have recorded this post for your convenience in case you would rather listen to it.)
On July 4th, 2021, the Sunday following Canada Day (July 1st), I stood before the congregation were I was interim pastor and repented for the sins of our ancestors. In particular, I repented for the sins against our Indigenous sisters and brothers who endured unspeakable hardship and trauma at the hands of the Church and government here in Canada. Unsurprisingly, this was met with mixed reactions. While I genuinely think that the large majority of the congregation appreciated it, I did receive an email that mentioned that my actions were inappropriate given that this was something that our ancestors, not us, had done. Was it inappropriate?
Let’s start with the Bible. It is my view that as we repent for the sins of our ancestors we are being faithful to a biblical practice. In Leviticus 26:40, for example, we read God’s own instructions (through Moses) to the Israelites:
“But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me…I will remember my covenant….”
In the book of Daniel, we find Daniel repenting on behalf of his sisters and brothers and those who,
“did not listen to your servants and prophets who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land” (Dan. 9:6).
Notice that Daniel is repenting not only for current sin, but the sin of past generations as well. In an age of individualism, it is hard for many of us to understand corporate responsibility, not to mention corporate responsibility for past events, but we would do well to say with Isaiah,
“I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5).
The idea that my sin effects only me, or that the sin of others – our ancestors, say – lies “back there” somewhere and has no bearing on our current reality is something that could only make sense to the modern individualistic mind. The truth, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, is that,
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”1
Before I come back to corporate repentance for the sins of our ancestors, I want to spend a few minutes talking about what some Pentecostals and Charismatics called a “generational curse.” Something has always seem both right and wrong to me about this idea. What seemed right was that there are recognizable patterns of struggle and, at times, addiction, which seem to be passed down from generation to generation. What seemed wrong to me, however, was that often it seemed like God, or perhaps the devil, was somehow entirely responsible for this. It seemed as if it was a spiritual issue that was largely unrelated to our physical and/or psychological state. When it comes to thinking about this from the side of the Divine, it is absolutely vital to renounce and correct any theology that implies that God punishes people generationally. This is unworthy of God. Jesus himself, we do well to remember, renounced this theology. In John chapter 9, for example, we read about “a man who was blind from birth.” The disciples asked the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their question was harmful to the parents and to the blind man, not to mention to the disciples themselves. Jesus says “neither.” We must join Jesus’ “neither” statement anytime this theology comes anywhere close to the surface.
There is also a way in which some seemed to imply that this “curse” was assigned to dark powers at work in a persons life. Again, there is something right and something wrong here. I don’t wish to diminish the role of the powers of darkness which wreak havoc in our lives. There is a temptation, however, to make these powers exclusively spiritual and remove them from human involvement altogether. Richard Beck, drawing on Walter Wink’s work, says:
we see that there are times when the language of powers seems to pick out strictly “spiritual” powers (e.g, Ephesians 6:12), and there are other times when the phrase picks out a strictly human, generally political power (e.g., Titus 3:1). But more often than not, the passages blend the two. For example, Colossians 1:16 clearly refers to both visible and invisible powers–powers in heaven and on earth.2
This mix, in my view, is what we are normally dealing with when we talk about “generational curses” (though I’m not a fan of the term). If there is a mis-location in our theology and thus in our understanding of how power is at work when such a problem is to be dealt with, it is an over-spiritualized diagnosis. Again, this is not to say that dark forces aren’t at work, they are. The problem which we must not hide behind, however, is that the dark forces often work through our own hands and our institutions, including the hands and institutions of our ancestors.
When my wife was doing her masters in psychology, she came across what some therapists referred to as a “soul wound.”3 I like this language far better than the language of a generational curse. What is a soul wound? Essentially, a soul wound is a term used by some for the “intergenerational transmission of trauma.”4 We could also speak here of “Historic Trauma” (HT)5, or “collective trauma” caused from “insidious trauma” (think repeatable trauma) which is passed down from generation to generation. As Ivey, Ivey, and Zalaquett say,
“The Trauma of severe abusive treatment can persist over generations. Furthermore, there is now clear neurobiological evidence that epigenetics changes in the genome can be transferred from one generation to the next–and onward from that point to future generations (Kellermann, 2013).”6
Unfortunately, we learn that with historic or collective trauma, time often does not heal all wounds. Sometimes, time makes things worse. As Susan Methot, drawing on Murray Sinclair notes,
“the effects of cultural genocide get worse over time as older generations die out. So the effects of that trauma manifest as intergenerational up to seven generations later.”7
Methot, writing in 2019, notes that
“Indigenous communities are in worse shape today than they were in the 1970’s, especially as regards individual health outcomes, rates of suicide, levels of violence, and child welfare issues.”8
Amy Bombay (University of Ottawa) gives us data on the continuing trauma experienced by subsequent generations of those whose ancestors had attended a residential school:
In this regard, data from the 2002–2003 RHS [First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey] revealed that 37.2% of adults who had at least one parent who attended IRS [Indian Residential Schools] thought about committing suicide in their lifetime, compared to 25.7% of those whose parents did not attend (Assembly of First Nations [AFN]/First Nations Information Governance Committee [FNIGC], 2007, p. 37). As well, 20.4% of adults who had at least one grandparent who attended IRS had attempted suicide, compared to 13.1% who did not have grandparents who attended (AFN/FNIGC, 2007, p. 37).9
It should not escape us here that residential schools effected both those whose parents and/or grandparents attended and those who did not. Even the lower percentages mentioned above are incredibly troubling. What this data reveals, however, is the biologically passed-on effects of trauma. The descendants know at inexplicable levels something of what their ancestors experienced. Bombay notes:
“Marion Hirsch (2008), in her photographic essays referring to the Holocaust, has described how parental traumatic experiences can result in the children having ‘post-memories’ that are so well entrenched that they become recaptured memories, recalled as if they had happened to the individual.”10
Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, in her interview with Serene Jones, talks about this from an African American perspective in the United States with regards to slavery:
White people always say to black people, “Why are you always talking about slavery? That’s in the past. We don’t want to talk about it.” It’s not in the past! We still hold that trauma in our bodies as it came down through our family systems and affects us still! We wince every time we see a Confederate flag. My son said, “You didn’t have to tell me about a Confederate flag. I just knew to fear it.” Something in your body recoils when you see it. No one had to tell us. Somehow it comes down.11
No one had to tell him. He knew what to fear, because that fear was passed down in his body before it was ever passed down verbally.
And so, after our extremely cursory view of testimony and data with regards to historic trauma or souls wounds, what can be said about this idea of a generational curse found in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles? First, a “soul-wound” or “historic trauma” is not a wound which is self-inflicted, but comes from the outside and is passed down. Second, and of incredible import, the outside infliction does not (ever!) come from God! A this man or his parents theology must be renounced. Third, while we are absolutely dealing with evil categories, these evils don’t merely come from satantic forces working on their own accord, but rather through human hands and human institutions. The undeniable truth that we must come to terms with is that the trauma that we humans inflict on one another gets lodged in the body and is passed down to subsequent generations. Therefore, while we can say that spiritual practices such as prayer should absolutely be welcomed here (note: not as the enemy of psychological help), we must simultaneously be extremely cautious of over-spiritualizing what is happening and making the devil a scapegoat for our, or our ancestor’s, involvement in evil practices. These wounds are inflicted to a person and we must therefore acknowledge that prayer and “renouncing” should not simply be something that is located towards the other person, but that we, the victimizers – or descendants of the victimizers – must prayerfully and publicly repent and renounce our own sinful actions. Many don’t like the idea of repenting for the sins of our ancestors. But let’s think about the implications of refusing to repent on behalf of our ancestors. In effect, we are saying to the victims of “soul wounds,” ‘while you have to carry the wounds inflicted by our ancestors today, we refuse to repent in the present for something done in the past.’ Stated differently, the implication is that the victims have to deal with the painful past, but the rest of us don’t.
Yet this isn’t fully the truth either. Serene Jones in her book Trauma and Grace writes:
I had my first experience of talking to a white congregation and telling this story about my grandfather and this lynching he participated in. I told what that did to me as I had to wrestle with it in my relationship to slavery and to Jim Crow. After the lecture, there were probably ten older white men, all over seventy, who came up to me in tears. They said, “I need to tell you something. My grandfather lynched someone. My great-great-uncle lynched someone. My brother’s a member of the John Birch Society. My next-door neighbor’s grandfather killed a black man and buried him in his backyard and everyone knew it and never said anything.” I was overwhelmed by how much actual knowledge there is that white people won’t talk about. It’s in their own families. This was a liberal, white, Protestant church. They take all this knowledge and shove it down and don’t want to deal with it. And it doesn’t go away. It lives in their bodies. And festers.12
We carrying things around in our bodies which have been passed down to us. Some of these things which we carry are incredibly troubling. When we refuse to confess the sins of our ancestors, we are doing a double-violence. First, and most importantly, we are perpetuating a violence and impeding healing to those who carry in their body today the trauma that our ancestors inflicted on them. Second, we impede our own healing by blocking in our minds (but not in our bodies!) the guilt and shame passed down to us from our ancestors.
And so, the Spirit is at work hovering over our darkness and is patiently and slowly healing the wounds we carry, and is inviting us into this work of healing. It is not, therefore, “inappropriate” to repent for the sins of our ancestors. Rather, it is inappropriate not to, for this is the work of grace and healing we are summoned into by the God who bore in his own body the worst that we do to each and to ourselves in order to heal us all.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (Washington, 1986), 290. Quoted in Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, Volume 1 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), 1
Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 49
Allen E. Ivey, Mary Bradford Ivey, and Carlos P. Zalaquett, Intentional Interviewing and Counseling: Facilitating Client Development in a Multicultural Society (Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2018), 33
See William Aguiar and Regine Halseth’s study, “Aboriginal Peoples and Historic Trauma: The Process of Intergenerational Transmission,” National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health (NCCIH Publications), April, 2015, https://www.nccih.ca/495/Aboriginal_Peoples_and_Historic_Trauma__The_process_of_intergenerational_transmission.nccih?id=142.
Ivey, Ivey, and Zalaquett, Internal Interviewing and Counseling, 34
Susan Methot, Legacy: Trauma, Story and Indigenous Healing (Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2019), 278
Amy Bombay, “The Intergenerational Effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the Concept of Historic Trauma,” Transcultural Psychiatry Vol. 51 (3) (2014): 320-338, DOI: 10.1177/1363461513503380
Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 171-172