Q&R: Generational Guilt, Trauma, Repentance & Healing Brad Jersak

Question

So much of what you say resonates with me and has some continuity regarding cruciform theology that I first came across through Greg Boyd. The more I have read and listened the more I have been thinking about the connection this has with trauma-informed thinking and practice. My work with trauma is around intergenerational trauma – the generational effects of trauma, historical and current/ongoing trauma (trauma here not so much an event as a subjective experience of loss, violence, powerlessness, etc. that results in a negative change in the way we view ourselves and our place in the world).

I am thinking about how intergenerational trauma might relate to the concept of sin and its consequences – considering what we now know about the life-long and inter-generational impact of trauma on people’s whole health (physical, emotional, social, etc). And then how a trauma-informed lens (from the perspective on trauma that I mentioned) aligns with cruciform theology for disrupting these intergenerational processes.

I value your approach and am keen on hearing your thoughts.

Response

Thanks for sharing. I’m tracking with you. I’m currently working with a number of grad students who are thinking through these same themes.

From a biblical studies/theology point of view, we see an interesting progression from imposed generational guilt and consequences under Torah law that are eradicated under the New Covenant (as described in Jer. 31). This may have important implications for both generational trauma and generational complicity in historic injustices and the processes of both therapy and restorative justice today.

In a little more detail, the OT describes sins whose guilt and consequences are visited and even codified to ‘visit the third and fourth generation’ or even to the tenth generation. A literalist reading of Genesis 15:16, Exodus 20:5, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, and Deuteronomy 5:9 sounds gruesome, identifying God as jealous (especially re: idolatry) and therefore “punishing the children for the sins of their parents to four generations”!

And in Deuteronomy 23:2-3, those born in a ‘forbidden marriage’ (which could include marriage out of wedlock or, in context, interracial/interfaith) are excluded from temple worship for TEN generations? Seriously? That’s pretty alarming on the face of it. You could be “punished” and excluded just by being born to the wrong couple or the wrong tribe. Not for what you had done but for who you are. Sadly, such laws continued to be imposed even among Christians into the 20th century (though I know we’d also find such practices everywhere to this day).

How beautiful, then, that Ruth the Moabite should have David as a great-grandson and ultimately become part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ! The narrative demonstrates in practice a subversion of this very law. Her faith trumped the law (oikonomia trumps canon), as was always the case even under the first covenant.

With Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecies, that law is abolished. Let’s read it in the context of chapter 31:

27 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will plant the kingdoms of​ ​Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals.

28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.

29 “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.

31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah sees that under the new covenant–our covenant in Jesus Christ–generational curses, especially those imposed by the community, are eradicated. However, while I once thought this was automatic under the finished work of the Cross, I now suspect that in reality, we’re actually talking about how the Cross brings about a healing process of undoing intergenerational guilt and trauma through restorative just and personal healing.

Two examples come to mind. First, I think of those whose trauma is perpetuated through generational addictions. The substance abuse of parents can impact their children, whether through in utero trauma (including FAS) or childhood neglect and abuse, and this may perpetuate itself over generations. The new covenant does not simply cancel this reality in our world. But instead of seeing God as the author of this multi-generational “curse,” Christ comes as the Great Therapist (even anonymously) through whom deep-level inner healing occurs and the cycle of addiction can end or the effects of trauma narratives and identities are rewritten redemptively.

Second, I think of my complicity for the sins of ancestor settlers who displaced First Nations people in Canada, or for friends of mine whose ancestors built their fortunes on the backs of slaves. Does the new covenant simply deny that I bear any consequences for their guilt? The reality is that I own title on land that is on the traditional and unceded territory of the Stó:lō people. And I identify with a religious tradition (Christianity) whose priests and nuns were agents of state abductions of indigenous children who we’re now discovering by the hundreds in unmarked graves.

Does the new covenant absolve me of their guilt? Does it cut the ties between me and those in my family or faith heritage who perpetuated injustices under which generations continue to suffer? This is not Jeremiah’s approach. He doesn’t use the Cross as absolution of responsibility. Rather, he foresees how it will create a doorway to healing that begins with generational repentance. Instead of finger-pointing from afar, he identifies fully with the sins of his people and their generations, and appeals for mercy as one of them. From Jeremiah 14:

7 Although our sins testify against us,
do something, Lord, for the sake of your name.
For we have often rebelled;
we have sinned against you.
8 You who are the hope of Israel,
its Savior in times of distress,
why are you like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler who stays only a night?
9 Why are you like a man taken by surprise,
like a warrior powerless to save?
You are among us, Lord,
and we bear your name;
do not forsake us!

Daniel does this also in Daniel 9:5-14. It appears to me that Jeremiah and Daniel were not even complicit in the sins of their ancestors. Indeed, they both suffered the consequences and traumas brought about by earlier generations. And yet rather than excusing themselves, they invoke the new covenant practice of identificational repentance as the pathway to renewal.

It seems to me this is the best way to understand Jesus’ baptism. Rather than bypassing John the Baptist’s “baptism of repentance” because he was sinless, Jesus identifies with his race (Jewish and human) and is baptized with us and for us and as us for the cleansing of the race.

Wherever I see healing, restoration, and restorative justice at work between people groups, I see these processes at work. It extends beyond apologies (words about our sorrow for the harms we’ve done) into amends–actions that demonstrate a new way of being and treating those who’ve suffered harm, including truth-telling, reparations, and new legislation. It’s a Cross because it involves confession, repentance, and sacrificial care. And it’s a Way because it is not simply abstract, imputed righteousness, but an authentic process by which cruciformity is applied for the healing of individuals and nations.

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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More