When heritage becomes baggage

Two sides of the same coin. I don’t do the good things I want to do and I do the things I don’t want to do … Who am I? Each of us has a personal history that is a mixture of both good and bad. That history is our heritage. We did not choose our heritage; it was given to us. We celebrate the good things in our heritage and drag the bad through our lives like overweight baggage.

My family heritage is that I am the son of a World War II veteran and a union laborer. Dad did not finish high school. My Mom was absolutely determined to get an education even when her father was too poor to send her to high school. She left the poverty of a small farm to go to business college 60 miles away — a very courageous and unconventional decision for her to make in the early 1940’s. We were a working class family, just like the families of virtually all my friends.

My family heritage gave me a strong work ethic and the expectation that one should live a life of integrity. Education was important to the Batchelors — both sisters and I have college degrees. My family heritage encouraged me to meet new people, become curious about new ideas, and go to new places. 

The main baggage I pull behind me from my family heritage is that I am a reverse snob. I am snobbish about snobs; I am prejudiced against prejudice. I try to be open minded and inclusive but am not always able to live up to my high ideals for myself.

My religious heritage is that of small town, conservative Baptist. That heritage gave me a foundation of religious faith that has changed over the years but is still the bedrock of my identity. I learned about love and acceptance from leaders who did not always agree with my developing ideas but who never failed to love me. Because those leaders accepted me, I could trust that God does also. That faith kept me from sex, drugs and booze as a young man and prepared me for a mature adult faith in a world far more complex than my small town had been.

That same Baptist heritage drags a lot of unhappy baggage with it. I was a frightened kid who endured too many hell-fire sermons and emotionally manipulative evangelists. I am deeply saddened to know that the very Southern Baptist Convention that nourished me was born to give religious approval for slavery. I have been angered by seeing gentle and faithful seminary professors driven from their teaching positions in theological purges. I have been dismayed as many Baptists have increasingly merged faith and right wing politics in a way that ignores Jesus’s teaching about God’s love for all people.

It is my overwhelming good fortune that my national heritage is that of American citizen. The American experiment with democracy and freedom is unique in the history of civilization. My country has its roots in the patriotism and wisdom of Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln and countless others. America became a super power by playing a dominant role in World War II, defeating the horrors of Nazism, Fascism and Japanese Imperialism. We rebuilt war torn nations and made former enemies our friends. Our personal freedoms are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. We have created wide-spread economic affluence, have been amazing innovators, have lengthened the average life span, and have sent men to the moon. What an amazing blessing it is to be American.

But we Americans drag our own baggage into the present as well. We still struggle with the racism that is a long term result of slavery. Despite our efforts, we have distressing levels of poverty, illiteracy and health crises. The Statue of Liberty proclaims our ideal of being a great melting pot that welcomes all people. However, our history is that we fear and resist foreigners at least until they were second or third generation. 

The freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights drag with them hate speech and random gun violence. Abortion, religious liberty, sexual identity, climate change and other controversies divide us. Left and right each likes to claim noble heritage and pretend that no baggage exists. Yet each sees the other’s baggage very clearly. In the current atmosphere of attack, fear, and anger, our national political baggage threatens to crush us.

Because heritage and baggage are two sides of the same coin, it is perhaps inevitable that they become so painful and confusing. To focus on positive heritage alone makes one a Pollyanna; to focus on negative baggage alone makes one the kind of grumpy critic that most people want to avoid. An individual might seek counseling to help deal with heritage and baggage. As a culture, it is more difficult. In both instances the point is that we cannot solve problems if we do not first acknowledge them. I hope to encourage a bit of that reflection. Let’s talk …

The Rev. Gary Batchelor, an ordained Baptist minister, is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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