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My Ancestors’ Stories

How can we create policies that bless people for generations?

By Lisa Sharon Harper
June 2012

Politics is one of two things for the most of us. For some, it is a high-level battle of ideas fueled by ideology, philosophy, and sometimes theology. For others, politics is about public policies that shape the flow of life on the ground, and it is personal. For me it is the latter.

My ancestors’ stories laid the foundation for my story. Ours is an American story.

Evident throughout my family tree are the twisted scars left by the shaping forces of public policy that bent ancestral branches in one direction or another.

My grandfather’s branch, Cherokee and Chickasaw Native Americans, yielded to the power of public policy when the Indian Removal Act of 1830 ordered the forced removal of the five tribes from the southeastern homelands they had known for thousands of years. The act removed them because gold was found on their land. My ancestors escaped in the middle of the tearful walk that took the rest of their people 800 miles away to Oklahoma—Indian Territory.

My grandmother’s branch—Africans who had been brought to America—bore the brunt of public policies passed in Virginia in the seventeenth century. Lea Ballard was born in Kershaw County, South Carolina in 1836. Her mother was an enslaved woman. Lea was classified as “mulatto” (half black and half white) on the 1880 census.

We don’t know who her father was, but we know he was white. Judicial law established in 1640 and 1662 determined the course of her life. According to the law, even though Lea was half white, she was enslaved upon birth because her mother was a slave. Of Lea’s 13 children (from five husbands who were sold or died), those born before the Emancipation Proclamation were born into perpetual slavery because Lea was a slave. Lea was my great, great, great grandmother.

My ancestors’ status as ethnic minorities and immigrants in the United States offered them the unique experience of contributing much to and being profoundly shaped by the American public square. While they lived and loved and worked in the context of families and communities and relationships, the grand trajectories of their lives were often shaped by the overwhelming force of public policies enacted in their times. Sometimes those policies blessed. Sometimes they cursed.

Jesus said in Matthew 25, “When you did it to the least of these, who are my family, you did it to me.” Jesus identifies with the oppressed. He identifies with the ones who live their lives on the margins. And he calls them family.

In our American democracy, we the people are the government. So, not only will we the people be judged by annals of history according to how we treat the least, but we the people—all of us—will ultimately stand before God. We the people will be called to account for the effect of our public policies on the least of these in our society. Did we bless or did we curse?

Blessing or cursing; that’s our choice.   

Excerpted from Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes (Russell Media, 2011). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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