I have inherited spiritual wounds from both my mother’s and my father’s side of our family. I call them ‘spiritual wounds,’ because I have come to believe that their particular historical traumas injured their ability to feel connected to the Sacred (to others) and live lives that are at peace with mystery. For very different reasons, both my colonial and Native ancestors have handed down to my familial generation a genetic passport stamped with their profound experiences of anxiousness, fear, danger, loss, grief and abandonment. My own journey is to heal what has gone before so that All My Relations may know the peace, harmony and beauty of life.
According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. This means that certain genetic variations are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes (instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence). In other words, a traumatic event that affected your grandmother can trigger certain genetic changes that can impact the psychology and physiology of the family generations that follow.
By the same token, it follows that positive experiences of love, nurture, communal caring, safety, joy and friendship can also impact the legacy we leave to our families. In some real ways, how we respond to the challenges of our lives and of our world will determine what our descendants will either overcome or celebrate.
Though the early Christian community knew nothing of epigenetics, they seemed to have appreciated the importance of gifting the future with the qualities of hope, endurance, reliance on one another and the ability to trust – even in the face of great persecution. The DNA of the Christian faith – perhaps of all three of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) – is informed as much by trauma as by blessing. However, just as we must discern as individuals how we live with our inheritance and make choices for change, the Abrahamic faith traditions of the world are in a time of discerning whether we will collectively create a global legacy of trauma or of blessing.
As the church year turns and we enter another precious Advent Season, we find our world experiencing a new kind of turmoil, a crucible of social and global ideas around race, gender, economics, beliefs, science, and the environment. The world most of us grew up in is undergoing a critical time of great social change. In times like these throughout history, we have seen both great violence and tremendous innovation that change the way people think, live and do business. My Native family experienced the devastations of genocide even as my colonial family experienced new freedoms and opportunities – both experiences are part of this country’s cultural history and ethos.
If we now close our doors to immigrants fleeing from chaos and certain death, we risk losing the next crucial step in our growth and innovation as a nation. They will change us, yes they will. However, having taken previous steps in our national history always towards greater inclusivity, equality and opportunity, shall we turn back now? Or shall we live more fully into realizing the values of justice and freedom for all?
In his time, Jesus brought ideas so innovative that the new world of which his followers had even the merest glimpse was the one which they lived (and died) to realize. In the midst of a world based on violence, Jesus taught them that God’s salvation of the world through peace, healing and truth was their life work as a legacy of his own. No earthly kingdom, with its own interest in mind, can make world peace. Rather, only when social and national divisions of all kinds are overcome by a mutual commitment to the respect and dignity of all peoples, can the Kingdom in which Love reigns be realized on earth.
In all nations, as in all families, I believe that the task of our generation is to heal the wounds of the past by living to bring truth and hope with us into the future. Jesus’ death was devastating to his followers and they were deeply confused by his loss, but the story does not end there – their hope became ours to carry, their work became ours to do. In the same way, the loss of her home and land broke my Native grandmother’s heart and took her life, but the story does not end there – I am a living chapter of the promise of life to come. I am living proof that from experiences of cultures and societies at war, life emerges full of hope all the same. Every day, I choose NOT to live solely from a legacy of grief, pain and loss, because I believe that to do so would not honor the sacrifices that have been made on both sides of my family so that I can live.
Life is God’s legacy. This Advent, we prepare again to welcome the birth of the One who gifted life to the world. May each action we take and word we speak during this season embody our commitment to nurturing, sustaining, healing, creating and cultivating life – every life that God has made. To the face of trauma, a blessing is like a kiss. Through our care and compassion for one another, God would cover the world with kisses. And so, may we be blessings in a world much in need of God’s Love and ours.