“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
but they have not gained the victory over me.”
Psalm 129:2 (NIV)
Wendy and I watched Godfather: Coda a few weeks ago. For those who aren’t familiar, it is the recent re-edit of the final film in the Godfather trilogy by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Originally released as The Godfather III back in 1990, the film has always been largely criticized for not living up to the first two films. Coppola claimed that he was at odds with the movie Studio on how the story should be told and was forced to rush the film to market. He was finally allowed, 30 years later, to recut it and tell the story as he and Mario Puzo imagined it.
The trilogy is really the story of Michael Corleone. Raised in a mafia family, he swears early on in the first film that he’ll never be part of the family business. The overarching story is how Michael descends into the underworld with the intent to save his family and then can’t escape, as his family is slowly torn apart.
One of the subtle storylines in the third film is that of Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony. Anthony, like his father, wants nothing to do with the family business. “I’ll never be part of the family business,” Anthony states. He then adds, “I have bad memories.”
“Every family has bad memories,” his father replies.
That line has always resonated in my soul because I find it to be true. Just the other day I wrote about my journey of discovery and uncovering some of my families’ bad memories when I was a young man. But there is also the larger reality that we are the product of the systems into which we were born. We are a product of our people. Michael wanted to escape, yet he chose in and tragically couldn’t find the exit.
Wendy and I are both products of a Dutch American tribe who risked everything to come to America, settled as a tribe on the plains of Iowa, and prospered. That prosperity was fueled by our tribe’s deeply rooted values of faith, frugality, and hard work. Wendy and I often acknowledge that we are products of our people with both the blessings and curses that come with every human system.
For the Hebrew tribes, history and identity as a people is one of constant struggle against other tribes and nations and their subjugation by human empires. That is what the writer of today’s chapter, Psalm 129, is pressing into with his lyrics as he describes being enslaved and beaten:
Plowmen have plowed my back
and made their furrows long.
Psalm 129 was likely written after the return of exiles from captivity in Babylon. The sting of the experience would have still been fresh in the memories of those singing this song on their pilgrimage. It is the cry of a people that first acknowledges that God has blessed them and they have not been overcome, then asks God to justly deal with their oppressors.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself confessing that there are a host of human experiences that I can’t completely fathom because I haven’t experienced them myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t seek to understand, to empathize, and to learn lessons from the experience of others. Our Dutch American town holds an annual festival of our Dutch heritage. The motto of the festival is “Everyone’s Dutch for a day!” and visitors are encouraged to learn the history, try on a pair of wooden shoes, learn a Dutch dance, and eat lots of pastries. When invited in to learn and embrace the knowledge of other cultures and people groups, I observe that everyone benefits. When excluded from doing so, I observe that the walls of prejudice are fortified to the detriment of all.
One of the sins of the institutional churches and the abuse of their power in history is the perpetuation of prejudice, injustice, violence, and indifference for the sake of power and empire in the kingdom of this world. The Jesus Movement that was about tearing down walls of prejudice and spreading love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to every human tribe became a human empire. In the black-and-white binary choices to which the world likes to reduce everything, Christianity has been summarily dismissed by many.
I have found, however, that the heart of the Jesus Movement has always continued in the hearts and lives of individuals who embrace it and seek to carry out the original mission. A mission in which every human being of every people group can experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. When given a vision of eternity, John described the crowd as persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. When U2 described it in their psalm they sang, “I believe in the Kingdom come, when all the colors bleed into one.”
My heart this morning is crying out with the prayer of St. Francis. Perhaps it expresses more succinctly what my heart is trying to say in this post:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.