Christopher Columbus took girls as young as nine as sex slaves, once writing to a friend that “there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.” The White House in Washington DC was built using slave labor. Innocent Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps (a nice way of saying "wrongfully imprisoned") during World War II. Under pressure from the United Fruit Company who to keep their monopoly on land in Guatemala, the United States helped oust the democratically-elected leader of Guatemala- an event that led to the longest-running civil war in Central America. And sadly, as much as these sound like exaggerated conspiracy theories, they are not.
My own family owned slaves, until their gambling addiction got in the way and they bet away the family plantation in Louisiana. Of course the story my family told everyone was that they abruptly moved to New Mexico “for health reasons.”
When you are looking at the ugly parts of history, you are constantly faced with the reality that there are actual people that commit injustices. It’s easy to get a one-dimensional view of them as awful and evil. We can’t identify with at all. Making them less human makes it easier to imagine how people commit horrible acts.
But another reality often comes up- when we see that our own nation or ancestors were the ones that committed the injustices. Suddenly we are faced with this dilemma. On one hand, we tend to de-humanize all those that commit injustices, while on the other, we put our national heroes and ancestors on pedestals.
When I think of slave owners, I can’t just have a picture in my mind of an evil taskmaster living in sad stories from long ago. The picture is of my own great-great-great grandparents, whose genes I share. Maybe my nose and ears resemble the nose and ears of the person who owned an African slave just a few generations ago. That picture of a sad, unjust history is a picture I’m a part of- in a distant way. Now I have to figure out how to think about those that I admire so much when they participate in the same acts I can’t imagine any good person doing.
To learn about the history of any nation- including God’s chosen nation of Israel – you will be confronted with stories of injustice. How in the world to we wrestle with this? The very people and culture that have shaped us into the people we are today have also made decisions that seem so unjust- and there is probably a legacy of pain and injustice that affect people even today.
The parent’s sour grapes
I have asked God many times how we can address injustices committed by our ancestors. To start to wrestle with this question, let’s look at a passage out of the book of Ezekiel. In it, Ezekiel is giving a message from God to the nation of Israel about how God views injustice across generations:
Then another message came to me from the Lord: “Why do you quote this proverb concerning the land of Israel: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste’? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, you will not quote this proverb anymore in Israel. For all people are mine to judge—both parents and children alike. And this is my rule: The person who sins is the one who will die. (v. 1-4, NLT)
That proverb is a little weird- ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste.” But think about it. The parents make a mistake, they ate sour grapes. But the children are the ones that feel the effect of their action, so their mouths pucker. The next generation would feel the effects instead of the ones that actually did the wrong. This is God saying that Israel should not quote that proverb any longer because now the person that makes the mistake will be the one the feel the effect of it.
The passage goes on to give a description of a hypothetical righteous and just man:
“Suppose a certain man is righteous [saddiq] and does what is just [mishpat] and right [sedeqah]. He does not feast in the mountains before Israel’s idols or worship them. He does not commit adultery or have intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period. He is a merciful creditor, not keeping the items given as security by poor debtors. He does not rob the poor but instead gives food to the hungry and provides clothes for the needy. He grants loans without interest, stays away from injustice, is honest and fair [mishpat] when judging others, and faithfully obeys my decrees and regulations. Anyone who does these things is just and will surely live, says the Sovereign Lord. (v. 5-9)
God is giving a hypothetical description, and shows a clear picture of what doing righteousness and justice would have looked like at that time. This person follows the way of God- is pure in his worship, follows God’s laws. Most of this is focused on how they treat the poor and weak, and how they steward their own food, clothes and money. And this person will reap the fruit of what he sowed- because he sowed in justice and righteousness.
The son’s choice
Now the passage goes on to give this hypothetical righteous man a wicked son. Contrast the picture of a just and righteous life with a description of a wicked life:
“But suppose that man has a son who grows up to be a robber or murderer and refuses to do what is right [mishpat]. And that son does all the evil things his father would never do—he worships idols on the mountains, commits adultery, oppresses the poor and helpless, steals from debtors by refusing to let them redeem their security, worships idols, commits detestable sins, and lends money at excessive interest. Should such a sinful person live? No! He must die and must take full blame. (v. 10-13)
Again, even though this is a hypothetical description, you can see a clear picture of what an evil life in the sight of God would have looked like: worshipping idols and individuals using their power to hurt the vulnerable in their community. A wicked life was marked by how someone treated the poor and handled their own resources. And this person will feel the full effect of what they did wrong- not their father. The son sowed in wickedness, so he will reap the fruit of his decisions.
The grandson’s choice
So what we just saw was a righteous man with a not-so-good son. The son would take the responsibility for his actions, not his dad. Now, the passage goes on to give a third generation to this hypothetical family:
“But suppose that sinful son, in turn, has a son who sees his father’s wickedness and decides against that kind of life. This son refuses to worship idols on the mountains and does not commit adultery. He does not exploit the poor, but instead is fair to debtors and does not rob them. He gives food to the hungry and provides clothes for the needy. He helps the poor, does not lend money at interest, and obeys all my regulations and decrees. Such a person will not die because of his father’s sins; he will surely live.” (v. 14-17)
No matter what the parents did, the children always have the full freedom to choose what kind of life they are going to lead. When the do so, they will not take on the burden of their parent’s decisions. God looks at the heart and actions of the individual.
The passage ends with a powerful summary of how he views injustice across generations:
“‘What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness. (v. 19-20)
The “parents” of our nations have chosen some pretty crazy stuff- racism, sexism, oppression, slavery, wars, and so on. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is what we choose.
It’s important to remember that we are under a new covenant, and we no longer pay for the effect of sin- it’s all under the blood of Christ. Jesus changes everything, including how we look at injustice. What this passage is showing is that we can look clearly at injustices in the past, and not take on the burden of shame, guilt, and punishment. Our life will be marked by what we sow. No matter what our parents and grandparents did, we get to choose a just and righteous life.
While the history of this nation includes the choice by my ancestors to run a plantation of slaves, I can choose differently. Part of that choice is seeing the continuing legacy that slavery and its aftermath continue to have on our nation.
God's justice is focused on righting wrongs and restoration. For us today, doing justice in this generation means something like "Doing Justice=Following the Rules again=Let's move on with our lives as long as we are being Lawful." But doing justice God's way more like "Doing justice=Actively working to restore wholeness =Let's move in to heal, liberate and restore everywhere that injustice has touched."
So our generation choosing justice doesn't only mean that we go back to following the rules, enjoying our comfortable lives while leaving those most impacted by injustice to deal with the fall-out themselves. God's justice ends when restoration comes- so wherever we see the destruction from injustice by a previous generation, we should actively work until wholeness returns. In the end, the entire community benefits from an environment of peace, wholeness, and justice.
Recording dirty laundry
America, and many other nations, are facing a crisis. Looking at our own past can be paralyzing. Our parents ate sour grapes- way more than we’d like to admit- but what are we supposed to do about it? Can’t we just erase those inconvenient parts from our history books and just talk about the great stuff they did?
In the Bible, God acknowledged that His own chosen people messed up again and again- grinding the face of the poor, crushing the needy, committing extortion and oppression, depriving foreigners of justice, devouring innocent people- and much more. And God not only confronted the injustices in Israel’s history, He made sure they were recorded- so now when we read the Bible thousands of years later, we can see their dirty laundry.
This points to a challenging, but needed, perspective: There is power in seeing the full picture of history.
You can even see it with individual leaders. David is remembered as one of the best kings of Israel, and a man after God’s own heart. But we still hear the story of how he committed rape and murder. If David did that today, he’s spend his life in prison. What an atrocious story to include alongside all the great things that David did.
These "inconveniences" aren’t erased, swept away so that we can admire just the great things that Israel and its leaders did. They are put into the same book where the story of Jesus is told. Because the same nation that Jesus was born into was the same nation that committed those atrocities.
That’s right, included in the same book where we hear the redemptive story of mankind, in that same book the stories of the injustices Israel committed. If any nation needed to be totally perfect, it would have been this one. Yet it was not. And God made a record of it so that thousands of years later we still know that Israel did some pretty bad stuff.
A previous generation committing injustices never disqualifies what God wants to do in this generation. Israel crushed the poor, turned to other gods, enslaved their own people - and none of that disqualified them from seeing the Savior of the world come through their people.
Where do we go from here?
So how do we look at our own nation’s history? Can we only have pride in our history if our forefathers and foremothers were not perfect? How do we have honor for people that at one point built the very nation we enjoy today, yet at the same time committed injustices that we only associate with things only the bad guys would do?
Any nation’s story is a collection of every member. It’s of pain endured, of courage actualized. Of selflessness, hard work, and opportunity- and extreme greed, slavery, and ignorance. And into these messy, beautiful places, this generation has been born.
Honor what previous generations have done. Pull apart any great leaders life, and you will find mistakes- probably some big injustice they committed (King David, anyone?). Their mistakes don’t stop them from being able to build something great.
Look at what happens when a nation or leader’s story is put into the hands of an all-powerful, God full of grace and mercy. Mistakes never disqualify us from being used by God. So why, then, do we feel the need to only record the good parts of someone’s life when writing it in history books? We need to train ourselves to see from God’s perspective, where we can see the story of a murderer and a king, of a nation's atrocities and redemption, and not let one part erase the other. There is power in the full picture of history.
Look at what our national leaders have built, tell the great stories from their lives, and honor what they gave their lives for. But don’t let honoring the good stuff they did do silence the voices of those that also experienced the pain of injustice through their choices. Our voice as a nation is a voice of us all. We can’t ignore the stories of some because it’s too hard and inconvenient. The Bible doesn’t even do that. Our voice is the voice of us all. To leave some out because it’s too hard for us to hear is to loose a piece of ourselves.
In every nation, there are parents that have eaten sour grapes. There is no denying it. But this generation gets to choose what we are going to do. Will we choose justice and righteousness? We won’t get the stomachache. But to do that, we have to acknowledge that there still are places where restoration is needed from the choices that our parents have made. And we should include in our written histories the stories of it all- just and unjust.
 Letter of Christopher Columbus quoted in Documents of West Indian History by Eric Williams, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad: PNM, 1963.
 Gritsch, Eric W. Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgement. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.