Roots or Idols?

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An Opening Editorial

Managing Editor Rev. Ginna Bairby
Managing Editor Rev. Ginna Bairby

I’ve always struggled with the idea of roots. It’s not that I don’t appreciate where I’ve come from or have deep love and gratitude for my family and the community that have raised me, nourished me, and made me who I am today. But when asked to go deeper than a generation or two back and dig for roots that run deeper, I find myself running up against an internal resistance.

General Editor of Unbound Chris Iosso can tell you stories about his ancestors of past generations. He knows which European countries those ancestors left to migrate to the United States, when they did so, and where and how they put down roots in the country he’s come to know as home.

As for me, I mostly just identify with being from the United States and from my immediate family. I’ve been told my ancestors were Scottish and British. As far as I know, our family has been in the US for a long time, mostly in Virginia. I think we’ve been Presbyterian for quite awhile, too, at least on my dad’s side. It’s not that this information isn’t available to me; I know we have a well-researched family tree. Rather, it’s that on my part, the interest isn’t there. In its place lies something stronger than caution but not yet aversion – ambivalence.

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When we reflect longingly back on the Presbyterian Church of the 1940s, the 1950s, or even the 1980s, how do we toe that fine line between honoring our roots and worshipping our idols?
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However, as I’ve put together this special young adult issue of Unbound, I’ve begun to shed a little light on my ambivalence toward the concept of roots. In fact, this ambivalence seems somewhat common in my millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 2000). Three issues in particular have surfaced as I’ve examined my – and my generation’s – seeming discomfort with toward roots, and I would argue that they all have to do with what I perceive as a fine line between roots and idols.

1.) I don’t want to be less than my roots, but I want to be more than just my roots.

This desire to live beyond the confines of one’s roots will surface in several articles in this issue and seems to be a common trend among millennials. Certainly we are not the first generation to experience this tension, and yet it seems to pervade our worldviews. On the one hand, we appreciate our roots, particularly the families and/or communities that have raised us and shaped our identities. Even those of us who have experienced pain, dysfunction, and rejection from our families or communities tend to appreciate the way in which those negative experiences have shaped us.

stick-figure-familyOn the other hand, we’ve also seen that roots can include unhealthy expectations, somebody’s else’s dreams, cycles that need to be broken, and/or pressure to live into a social convention that’s worn out its welcome. The United States underwent a social upheaval of sorts in the years before we were born, and as such, those of us who are women, LGBTQ, of a racial/ethnic minority, or in some other way outside of the “privileged norm” understand that much of what’s in our collective roots constitutes a denial of our full humanity. Which leads me to my next point:

2.) Roots are inextricably tied up with privilege.

I suppose it’s rather obvious when you think about it. To be sure, it explains my own ambivalence toward my roots. I am, in part, uncomfortable identifying too deeply with my social, racial, economic, and religious roots because they point back to a place of privilege. Over the course of history, my roots fall more often than not on the side of the oppressor. My European American ancestors migrated to a “new world” that was not so new at all and were part of the conquest and massacre of Native Americans. My wealthy, Southern, white ancestors were the owners in the system of slavery. In more recent years, my family’s wealth made us perhaps not the “1%”, but at least in the 10% of people consuming more resources than we need while others don’t have enough.

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Those of us who, in some way or other, fall outside of the “privileged norm” understand that much of what’s in our collective roots constitutes a denial of our full humanity.
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In short, when I examine my roots, I am forced to face the reality that I come from a privileged group of people who have been responsible for the repeated uprooting of others.

In the same breath, I recognize that my reflections are beginning to sound dangerously close to a “white [wo]man’s burden.” For in a sad twist of irony (perhaps not so ironic at all), it is the fact that I come from a place of privilege that allows me the privilege of asking whether I even want to engage the subject of my roots in the first place. As several of our authors in this issue will articulate, the question of one’s roots is much more of a daily reality for immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities, and others whose roots in some way fall outside a small circle of privilege.

3.) Talking about roots brings us uncomfortably close to nationalism.

It is perhaps here that roots most easily fade into idols. A defining factor of the millennial generation is that the attacks of September 11, 2001, took place at some point during our formative years. Some of us have lived more years while our country was at war than not; the youngest among us don’t remember a time before the “war on terror.”

September11-False-FlagThose of us old enough to remember 9/11 – including most if not all of the authors in this series – will also remember the backlash in our own country of something that masqueraded as “patriotism” but would be better described as xenophobia and American exceptionalism. Everything from the Patriot Act to “God Bless America” bumper stickers to the flood of patriotic country songs (some more sentimental, if naive, others downright offensive and militaristic). And of course the US’s subsequent attacks on those we deemed responsible, which eventually came to include countries that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks.

Some people – and there are millennials among them, to be sure – look back at the aftermath of 9/11 as a time of patriotism and pride in the US. However, for many of us, and I would argue particularly for those of us who were in our formative years from elementary school to college, 9/11 and its aftermath marked a turning point of opening our eyes to the world outside of our country’s borders. Unlike Alan Jackson, we quickly did learn the difference between Iraq and Iran – and much more about the complicated political dynamics of our 21st century context. With this greater global understanding, the phenomenon of nationalism – at home or abroad – became increasingly irrelevant and counterproductive, even dangerous. I dare say if you asked the American population whether they more deeply identified as citizens of the United States or of the world, you would have more millennials in the second category than any other generation. Our understanding of roots is rapidly changing and expanding.

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So where does this leave us as we examine the roots of the millennial generation in the context of social justice and the Christian faith? I don’t think there’s any one answer, but to further reflect, I’d like to turn to Simone Weil and her 1943 book The Need for Roots. For those who don’t know her, Simone Weil was a French philosopher and political activist who grew up in a secular Jewish household but eventually became something of a Christian mystic. She is remembered as a theologian of great ingenuity and great compassion, the later of which may have led to her untimely death at age 33, when, while suffering from tuberculosis, it is rumored that out of solidarity she refused to eat more than the rations allotted to the soldiers at war. Weil is perhaps an appropriate conversation partner for an issue on young adults because she never lived past that age herself.

weilWeil wrote The Need for Roots in 1943, the final year of her life, to a France suffering from internal problems and German invasion during World War II. She sought to help her country recover its soul, identity, and “roots” as a nation. To be sure, she speaks to a particular moment in history, and I don’t want to draw exact parallels where they don’t belong. However, there are parts of what she writes to France in 1943 that ring true in our situation today.

First, there are the similarities between Weil’s France in 1943 and the United States in 2014. Both have been through war upon war, internal class struggles, and the moral and political ordeal of running an empire, whether or not the term is explicitly used. Both trace their ideals back to democratic revolutions in the eighteenth century, and yet both countries fail to live up to those ideals in their present contexts. Ultimately, both nations are struggling with their national identities and with how to recover something of the ideals in which they claim to be rooted.

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We, too, are going through a time of mass disillusionment, of confusion about our identity, of struggling with the relationship between our historical roots and who we are today.
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The national connection is perhaps the obvious one, but as I reflect further, I begin to think about how much of this rings true as well for the Church as a whole and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in particular. We, too, are going through a time of mass disillusionment, of confusion about our identity, of struggling with the relationship between our historical roots and who we are today.

pcusa logoParticularly relevant to the PC(USA) is Weil’s discussion of our nostalgically mistaken glorification of the past. Any reader can tell how deeply Weil loves France, and yet she minces no words as she describes her country’s past and current failures to live up to its highest ideals, even and perhaps especially in its 1789 moment of revolutionary glory.

If we’re honest, can’t we as the PC(USA) recognize pieces of ourselves in that mirror? We who have sung the priesthood of all believers for centuries and yet, until recent decades, have accorded second-class status at best to women, people of color, and people who are LGBTQ? We who call ourselves the Church “reformed and every being reformed” and yet who dig in our heels at the notion of change, even as we wonder if it is the very Spirit moving in our midst?

When we reflect longingly back on the Presbyterian Church of the 1940s, the 1950s, or even the 1980s, how do we toe that fine line between honoring our roots and worshipping our idols?

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What might such rootedness look like for the future of the United States? For the Presbyterian Church? For the millennial generation?
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800px--_Roots_-What I appreciate most about Simone Weil’s analysis is that she replaces this concept of “roots” with the idea of “rootedness.” She sees the study of history, the relating of the past to the present and future, as organic and fundamental to a healthy society, but her concept of rootedness is ultimately oriented toward the present and future. For Weil rootedness consists of full dignity and human worth in one’s present situation and a vision of inspiration outside of oneself for the future. From this core concept – dignity, worth, and vision – Weil constructs in almost painstaking detail her hope for what rootedness will look like in the future of France.

So as we begin this young adult issue of Unbound, I pose this question: What might such rootedness look like for the future of the United States? For the Presbyterian Church? For the millennial generation?

It is clear that on all of these levels we, like Simone Weil’s France, need to develop a new sense of rootedness. And, I would suggest, perhaps we, too, need the fresh gaze of a new generation to help us differentiate in this process between our roots and our idols.

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Read more articles from the young adult issue.

 

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