by Peter Levenstrong
Family heirlooms are a funny thing. Sometimes they’re precious, beautiful, and full of meaning. Other times they’re the sort of thing you keep hidden away, not wanting to share that part of your family history with just any visitor. Sometimes they’re both.
In my family, one of the heirlooms that exemplifies this both-and complication are a pair of elephant tusks. Back before conservation made it illegal to hunt elephants, when my grandfather was a medical missionary in Kenya, he went on an elephant hunt. He shot and killed one of these giant, graceful creatures, and shared the meat with the people of the community he was serving.
The question of what to do with the tusks has weighed heavily upon my family. I was shocked to learn of government efforts to round up elephant tusks and burn them, preventing them from being bought and sold on the black market. This apparently not only cuts off supply, but also decreases demand, thereby reducing the cycle of poaching and violence. I wondered whether my family should have done the same with our elephant tusks.
But while participating in the black market sale of elephant tusks is a non-starter, I’m not convinced that simply getting rid of them is the best answer, either. These tusks are things of great beauty; it would be a shame to destroy them, even if doing so is the easiest way of washing our hands of their violent history. I can think of a harder, but perhaps better, response: to keep the tusks, remembering the gentle beast from whom my grandfather took them, and showing gratitude for their beauty while being honest about their history.
For 21st century Christians, wrestling with the complex, complicated, and beautiful history of our church, this struggle may sound familiar. As Christians, we have many family heirlooms that are fraught with a violent history; and yet, many of these heirlooms are beautiful, and provide rich, fertile ground for the growing of our faith & spirituality. I think of the many theological squabbles and outright wars that have been fought over the filioque, justification, or any other such foundational theological question that has sparked violence.
Many Christians are so appalled at the gruesome and embarrassing history that they want to give up on the tradition altogether, and just get rid of it. Understandably, when certain doctrines have such a bloody history, it might seem like that would be the only way to truly stop the violence.
But as someone who finds the Christian tradition to be a thing of incredible beauty, I’m not willing to make that choice. I want to hold on to this family heirloom, to treasure its beauty and the ways it enriches my spirituality. But I also understand the complex history of our tradition, and know that we should cease to weaponize theology in ways that perpetuate violence, whether indirectly or directly.
We need to tell our history, and do our best to make amends where we can to the many peoples who have been harmed by Christian evangelization and violence. However, the Christian tradition remains a thing of beauty; and while the choice to continue to treasure this tradition is complicated, it is nevertheless a profoundly worthwhile endeavor.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/