Lisa Sharon Harper discusses the work of rebuilding beloved community through discovering ancestry and rejecting the title of whiteness.
If you think of the lives of your ancestors, what comes to mind? Many of us might remember stories our grandparents enthusiastically told, the odd, passed down antique now in the living room corner, or maybe a record of some names, dates, photos, if we’re lucky. Looking back to our ancestry might even prompt feelings of discomfort, confusion, questions around ethical choices. And we’re future focused people, living for the now and the next. But the very DNA that makes up our bodies today holds a truth from those generations past.
How Our Ancestry Can Illuminate Our Lives Today
Learning our ancestry can illuminate the present. Lisa Sharon Harper found just this. Tracing her family line back to their arrival at America’s shores on slave boats in the 17th century, Lisa discovered that she not only found a deeper understanding of herself, but of who God intended her to be. Lisa joined Evan Rosa for a conversation on the For the Life of the World podcast about her book, Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World and How to Repair It All.
“What I found in the midst of this research,” Lisa shared, “is that [my ancestors’] lives were so amazingly connected with policies that were passed in their time that I began to understand America better as I understood myself better, as I understood my ancestors and their lives better.”
The law, Lisa describes, is personal, fundamentally shaping the lives of those who live under them. Lisa’s research revealed how her ancestors, those who were first born in the new America, were subject to some of the first laws that privileged whiteness and impacted gender. These laws were passed as early as 1662 in Virginia, determining the terms of individual’s slavery and indentured servitude based on the race of their mothers and fathers. Even after the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, Lisa describes how the law again forced her ancestor’s paths, limiting their work prospects to the same jobs they would have done while enslaved, pushing them out of the south.
This work prompted Lisa to ask a new question.
“When was the last time people of European descent as a people did not go somewhere in the world, anywhere in the world, and imagine they should be the rulers there?
“When I [asked myself this], I had this ‘aha’ moment: it's before the Greek empire... You have to go back before the Greek empire in order to find the moment when people of European descent did not assume that they should be the ones to rule the world. And that assumption has been passed down to us through Greek philosophers like Aristotle.… I name Aristotle because he explicitly said it in his book Politics. He said that if a people group has been conquered, it has demonstrated that it was created to be enslaved…So if you see people who are not white male or able bodied, they are not civilized. And they're certainly not Christian. So, you get to enslave them.”
The Biblical Foundation of the Image of God
This idea, Lisa emphasizes, did not come from the Bible. “On the first page of the Bible, we actually see very clearly: All humanity is created in the image of God and called and created with the capacity to exercise dominion in the world, to exercise stewardship of the world, agency to shape the world.”
The lie of white supremacy, Lisa says, has been passed down from Aristotle for thousands of years and one way forward may just be for white folks to turn back through the generations and discover their ancestry.
“What would happen,” she asks, “if people of European descent in America were actually to see themselves—not to renounce whiteness, but to reject that moniker that actually erases their history, erases their family, demands that they renounce their origin story and simply root their origin in the reality that they have some level of power. Because that's all whiteness is really for, is to determine who has power.
“What would it look like for people who have been deemed white to say no, who I actually am is one who has benefited from this cover called whiteness, but my ancestors were Lithuanian. Or, my ancestors were German. And this is their story. This is how they came to American soil.
“My ancestors were Swedish, were British. And they came here in this way—or they were Quaker—there's all kinds of stories, usually involving famine or oppression that got people here.”
Lisa suggests that this work can be the work of reconciling our identities with our humanity.
“If you were to root yourselves in who you really are, then you would rediscover your humanity, your frailness, your fleshliness, and the reality that God does not ask you to be perfect.
“Never in the scripture are you asked to be perfect. God is perfect. Only God is perfect. God asks you to love. God calls us to be reconnected, deeply and radically reconnected.
The call of life is to be reconnected and whiteness as a construct inherently, by design, disconnects.”
Rebuilding the Beloved Community
The only way for people of European descent to find true peace, Lisa says, is to reject the cycle of domination and to “trust God to be God.” This is the work of becoming beloved community.
“If we choose the way of God, if we choose the way of the kingdom of God—that we are all brothers and sisters, because God is our father. God is our mother. God is our parent—if we choose the way of the beloved community, where love flows in all directions and all people are prepared to exercise stewardship of the world through their education and their housing and their job capacity… if we go the road of the beloved community, then what we do is we're going to have to transform this society. We're going to have to go under the hood of the car in other words. And rework this car and how the engine runs… No longer will it be the few, it'll be the all, the many…and if we have the church, and people of European descent who call themselves Christians, fighting for the beloved community, we could get there.”
To listen to more of Lisa’s conversation with Evan, listen to Episode 120 of For the Life of the World.