“The rich world of his ancestors set the standard for Dietrich Bonheoffer’s own life. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.”
A standard set from ancestors. This reflects a difficult and odd truth found in the Ten Commandments:
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them (other Gods); for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting (in Hebrew, paqad: to deposit or set in motion) the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6)
As the Word teaches, the character of one generation—through sin nature or blessing—flows down into another. Honestly, doesn’t this appall you a bit? Punishing one person for the acts of another? Let alone children? But there is a greater truth here—God is not speaking to a single person, but to a people. The pronoun, “You” is in the plural, as is “fathers,” “children,” and “generations.” This is magnified by the addition of “a thousand generations.” God is not saying that I will punish each child for the behavior of each respective father. Instead he is saying that if one generation falls away and worships other “gods,” that the sins will be deposited in the future upon the next generation. It is a corporate commandment, not an individual one. Somewhat like the U.S. National debt, pushed into the future to be dealt with someday. God, working for their good, knows that the overall behavior of the Jewish culture will taint, infect, or train the generations which follow. Said a different way, God clearly understands that, as he established it, the collective behavior of fathers and mothers of a society will create a motion, a future debt or balance, for their children.
I see today that we are so infected with individualism that we have come to believe that “we alone” can raise our own children into righteousness and wisdom. Or that we alone, as pastors and leaders, can create a church which is holy and effective. But scripture attests that the motion of a sound orthodox faith is designed to build from generation to generation. Watching waves roll into the Hawaiian coast, I recognize that each wave is not really alone. It moves as a part of a flow, pressed forward by a thousand- thousand-thousand tons of water behind it, all parts heaving and moving to the ordered pull of extremely distant celestial bodies and far away gusting winds. As each wave rolls to crash in white-frothed confusion on the beach, it is not only obeying the law of gravity, but also the law of generations. The law of generations in Exodus 20 says simply that we are influenced by the collective motion of our societal environment, and of our society’s history. My dad and his dad, and his dad before him, have generationally created a pull which has an influence over me. Their good pulls me up, and their evil pulls me down. The truth has been given proverbial status: the apple does not fall far from the tree. Let alone the apple falling far from the apple orchard, at least without some tangible touch of God’s intervention. In Hawai’i, the grandmothers and grandfathers have a saying, “Nana i ke kuma” (look to the source.)
I am shaped by my source. But it is not only my direct spiritual linage which pulls at me. A generational pressure is then cumulatively added to or subtracted from by the wills and actions of those others around them to influence me. The overall motion of a people is determined by the overall direction of its movement from generation to generation. The effects of bad parents in a good community are mitigated, but so are the benefits of good parents raising kids in a bad society.
We have lost the law of generations, I think, to another, more man-friendly law: the law of perceived control. This law, far from Biblical standards, acts like this—when faced with a situation one cannot control, one simply chooses to believe and act as if one can control it. This law creates the seawalls of the human mind, pretending that a few rows of piled papermache stone will hold against the largest ocean wave. For example, with our children, we desire an abundant, safe, healthy future, but we cannot guaranty it to them. So, although we cannot control their future path, we act as if we can, believing that if we, as good parents, do all the right things, they will be “fine.” Enter Sunday schools and charter schools and Ivy League schools. But there are so many factors acting upon them, so many celestial bodies of ideas pulling at them, so many generational sins weighing on them, that I fear we are fooling ourselves. King Solomon might add parenthetically here, “A chasing after the wind?” We cannot alone make them safe. We cannot alone make them good. We are fooling ourselves. We can influence, but we are a small part of the equation which shapes them.
What is needed then is not another parenting class, but a generational leadership class. If the law of generations remains true (and the Bible says it does), then we must work to create a legacy of good for our whole “schoolhouse” of children. We must work to create a tidal pull toward righteousness in more than just our own families, but also in the families of all those in the church. “You raise your child and I’ll raise mine,” isn’t Biblical and it doesn’t work. We must work to get grandfathers and grandmothers to parent again, only this time as elders who take responsibility for a whole generation. It is an individual effort, to be sure, but it is a corporate movement of change. The church needs to be a family, “deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.” We need to find a difficult balance: a faith both deeply rooted and vibrantly alive. This is a real seawall against the evil of our world, and I am willing to haul stones for this legacy.