“What Moral Debt, If Any, Do We Owe Our Ancestors?”

“What Moral Debt, If Any, Do We Owe Our Ancestors?”
A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz
Delivered on Sunday, November 3, 2019
At the First Parish in Bedford


Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:

“Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath.  You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers”

—Joy Harjo, US Poet Laureate

“While one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives,
One can… choose ones ‘ancestors’”

-Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man


First Reading

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Haruki Murakami, who is Japan’s most famous and successful novelist, his books translated into more than fifty languages, described elements of his relationship with his father that presage several of the themes in my sermon this morning.  The reference to the “attack on Nanjing, often referred to as the “Rape of Nanjing,” concerns the 1937 invasion of that Chinese city by the Imperial Japanese Army that resulted in up to 300,000 people raped or murdered and is regarded as one of the most horrific war crimes in history.  Here are some excerpts from Murakami’s reminiscence:

The 20th Infantry Regiment [of which my father was a member] was known for being one of the first to arrive in Nanjing after the city fell…I was afraid that my father had participated in the attack on Nanjing and I was reluctant to investigate the matter… [Later I learned that] my father was drafted in…1938.  The…infamous march into Nanjing took place the previous year…1937, so my father had missed it by nearly a year.  When I learned this, it was a tremendous relief, as if a great weight had been lifted…

My father talked to me about the war only once, when he told me a story about how his unit had executed a captured Chinese soldier…Though the Chinese soldier knew that he was going to be killed, he didn’t struggle…but just sat there quietly with his eyes closed.  And he was decapitated…[My father] seemed to have deep feelings of respect for the Chinese soldier…Needless to say, [his] recounting of this cold-blooded killing…became deeply etched in my young mind.  To put it another way, this heavy weight my father carried—a trauma, in today’s terminology—was handed down, in part, to me, his son.  That’s how human connections work….[My father] must have felt a compelling need to relate the story to his son…, even if this meant it would remain an open wound for both of us…

Compared with [my father], I never had much interest in studying…This disappointed [him]…”You were born in this peaceful time,” he must have thought.  You can study as much as you like, with nothing to get in the way…But I couldn’t live up to his expectations…Even now I carry around with me the feeling…that I disappointed my father [and] let him down.


Second Reading

You’re Inside Me Now
By Guri Duncan [1]

You’re inside me now Mom
Like once I was inside you
Nourished from your body
Given form and shape
Fingers and toes
Hair and eyes,
Heart and mind
My new and beating life
Cradled there
Inside you.

Now it’s me
Cradling you
Holding you warm and safe there
Nourishing you
Giving you shape and form
Letting you grow
I feel your movements
(As once you felt mine)
Feel life stirring
(As you once did)
Feel that joyous double life.

You’re inside me now Mom
Like once I was inside you
As real as I was real
As present as I was present.
The separation of my birth
Has ended with your death
Our bodies once again entwined
Hearts beating with a single beat
Impossible for you to die
You’re here inside me Mom.



I think you would agree that a wedding cake baked for a wedding that took place in August of 1936 is probably not fit for human consumption today.  That is why I did not eat it when I found a piece of my parents’ wedding cake stuffed into a little 1 by 2 inch cardboard box that my maternal grandmother had secreted away in a lockbox that had apparently not been opened in close to eight decades.  The cake didn’t look all that bad, actually—I could make out a nut or two, maybe a raisin, burrowed into the brownish mass—but I didn’t eat it.  I just took a picture of it with my Iphone and then, sadly, reluctantly, I threw it out.

Ever since I left Bedford in 1978, I have been hauling around with me from one house to another about twenty-five large cardboard boxes full of family papers and ephemera, going back to the late nineteenth century when my great-grandparents came to this country from Germany and the Netherlands: business papers, wills, children’s books, diaries, photographs, literally thousands and thousands of letters starting in about 1880, and, obviously, a piece of wedding cake in an old lockbox.

In that lockbox, for example, are the handkerchief and still-full wallet of my grandmother’s young husband, the grandfather I never knew, dead at age 39, the handkerchief and wallet retrieved no doubt from the hospital after the operation that killed him.  That grandmother, whom I knew well and who epitomized in my mind prudishness and propriety, lived a widow for fifty more years.  But not apparently quite as prudishly as I thought for there is also, among all these boxes, a letter that refers to an affair she had that ended, and I quote, “with tragedy and humiliation all around.”  Well, good for her for trying though wouldn’t we all wish for just a few more details?

In any case, I am not going to tell you my family history or any more family secrets. Though it’s become very popular to search DNA databases, like 23andMe, to learn about our lineages, most people find other people’s family histories incredibly boring.  It’s like when your ten or twelve year old kid comes home from a movie and wants to tell you in excruciating detail every scene, every word of dialogue, every scary or funny moment, and how you work so hard to act interested—“Uh-huh, OK, got it…”–but all the time are thinking to yourself, “Please God, let this torment end.”  That’s how I feel when people start telling me their genealogies (“Great Uncle Horace was the first bus driver in Keokuk, Iowa!”  “No, you’re kidding, the first bus driver in Keokuk?  That’s really interesting.  Did he ever crash?”)

So no family history but what this exercise has raised for me is the question of what we owe our ancestors.  As the last living member of the “Schulz” family whose lineage will end with my death, I have felt a kind of moral accountability to these many long-dead souls, to see that the detritus of their lives is at least sorted through and, if not archived anywhere, at least remembered for a moment by me.

Now the question of what moral debt we owe our ancestors—and by “ancestors” I don’t just mean our blood ancestors, our parents and grandparents, but all those who have shaped our lives, who have made our world what it is today—this question of what moral debt, if any, we owe to dead people is a complicated one but one worth pondering on All Souls Sunday.  Because, if you think about it, dead people can’t collect on debts so how can we owe them anything?  They won’t know whether we kept our promises or not.  They won’t even know if we remember their names.  Most of us know our grandparents names but how many of you can recall the names of all four of your great-grandparents?  This is why, when George W. Bush was asked if he worried about how historians would treat his decision to invade Iraq, he said he didn’t really care because “I’m just not going to be around to see the final verdict.”  And then, as if we didn’t get it, he added helpfully, “In other words, I’ll be dead.”  George W. Bush, not just the Great Decider but the Great Explainer.  Oh, how we miss you!  But I digress…

Now there is one narrow legal sense in which we do owe moral debts to our ancestors and that is that we are required to respect their wishes as expressed in their wills and estates.  In 1937, for example, an Englishwoman named Annie Langabeer bequeathed two shillings and sixpence to her estranged brother so that he could, quote, “buy a rope and hang himself forthwith.” Her estate distributed the money but left it up to her brother to decide what to do with it.  On the other hand, when Solomon Sanborn bequeathed his estate to a friend on the condition the friend make a drum out of Sanborn‘s skin and beat it every June 17 at the Bunker Hill monument to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” the friend was more than happy to oblige.

So in this legal sense we owe obligations to ancestors.  But surely our obligations to the dead are less robust than they are to the living or even to future generations.  If I make a promise to you, I have a moral obligation to keep it.  And the reason so many of us care about climate change is not so much because our own lives will be damaged by it but because the lives of our children and their children and their children, whom we will never know, are so much at stake.  As the young environmental activist, Greta Thunberg,  so eloquently put it to the adult community in her recent UN address, “You are failing us.  But…the eyes of all future generations are upon you.  And if you choose to fail us, I say:  we will never forgive you.”

We owe moral debts to the living and we owe moral debts to the future but do we really owe moral debts to the dead?  Well, we certainly act as if we do.  Perhaps we in this culture don’t go quite as far as some residents of Papua New Guinea who place Grandma’s skull on the mantelpiece in order to consult with her about all major family decisions.  But we often say things like “Your grandparents would be so proud of you” or “Ma would be turning over in her grave if she knew what we just did.”  Why do you in this congregation work so hard to preserve this old building, to keep it clean and safe?  Partly for legal reasons.  Partly for convenience. Partly for aesthetics.  But in large measure out of gratitude—for those who built it and for all those who nurtured and preserved it over the generations.  Taking care of this building—or celebrating Memorial Day or marching with the Bedford Minutemen or keeping a memorial garden or visiting the graves of our loved ones:  all these feel as if they are ways of repaying a debt, of saying thank you. And expressing gratitude like that—that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

But now comes the really complicated part…What if those ancestors were bad people?  What if they were crooks?  What if they were sexually abusive?  What if they were racists?  Or what if they were all three?  I have an acquaintance who discovered some time ago that his great-great grandfather was a slaveholder who fathered children with slave women and swindled his neighbors in a property deal.  What if Hurakami’s father had participated in the massacre at Nanjing?  Surely people like that are owed no gratitude, no moral debt.  For white people who grew up in a society shaped by white privilege and corrupted by white supremacy—surely any gratitude we feel toward our ancestors has to be tempered by horror and regret at the world they, wittingly or not, have fostered.  For anyone who was abused by a relative or mistreated by a parent, the idea of owing them a moral debt rather than them owing us an apology is likely to be abhorrent.  I’m pretty certain that I’m going to find things about my family in those boxes that will make me squirm.  I’m just relieved that the family came to this country from Germany in the late nineteenth century and not after 1945. Any moral debt we may owe to our ancestors cannot be pure, simple and unalloyed.

In fact, I would say the idea that we owe moral debts to our ancestors can be a very dangerous notion. It’s not just those Confederate monuments.  How many wars have been prolonged in order that the previously fallen not seem to have died in vain?  That’s what happened in Vietnam.  How much of our history has been distorted because we didn’t want to admit the truth about those who went before?  That’s why it took so long to acknowledge Thomas Jefferson’s sexual exploitation of Sally Hemings.  How much guilt has been endured, how much emotional energy wasted, because we feel we’ve not lived up to the expectations of family members long since dead and buried?  Even though he is now a world-famous novelist, Hurakami still carries around the feeling that he disappointed his father.  Whether we realize it or not, our ancestors haunt us.  Sometimes, as in some Native American traditions, those ghosts inspire us to be our best selves. In feminist thought, the Crone, both living and dead, is the source of enormous wisdom.  But at other times our ancestral ghosts keep us stuck and hurting.

So here’s what I think:  I don’t think we really owe any moral debt at all to our ancestors but we do owe a moral debt to ourselves and that is to learn from our ancestors and to come to terms with them.  Sometimes that coming to terms will take the form of gratitude for the gifts they gave us.  You know, I have provided counseling services to many people over the years and over and over I have been struck by the fact that, even those people who regarded their own parents as inadequate or even worse, almost always managed to find somebody else in their growing up years—a grandparent, an aunt, a teacher, a family friend—who offered love and affirmation.  What kind of people would we be if our gratitude to those who loved us ended when their lives did?  It won’t matter to them of course but it surely matters to us.  As Joy Harjo says, “Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath.  You are evidence of her life, and her mother’s, and hers.”

On the other hand, sometimes coming to terms with our ancestors requires that we repudiate them—repudiate them for the damage they did to us or to others or the damage  they did to history.  Again, it won’t matter to them but how we define ourselves in relation to the past says everything about our own values here in the present.  That’s what Ralph Ellison means when he says that we can’t choose our relatives but we can choose our “ancestors”—choose how to regard them and which ones of them to honor.

We cannot escape our ancestors even if we want to.  Partly that is because, as we sang “We are our grandmother’s prayers/We are our grandfather’s dreamings.”  It is because, as Guri Duncan said in the lovely little poem Deb read to you this morning, “You’re inside me now, Mom.”  And it is because our ancestors’ virtues and their failings have been bequeathed to us and live on in our choices and our characters.

So we have decisions to make:  we can embrace our ancestors; we can renounce them; we can forgive them; or we can do all three.  But what we can’t do is ignore them for, one way or the other, they just won’t go away.  Hurakami still carries within him his father’s story of the executed Chinese prisoner. So far I have chosen to embrace mine—at least until something in those boxes leads me to feel otherwise.

A little more than a year ago I retrieved the ashes of my parents, these two sweet precious children of the earth whose photographs from about 1915 are leaning up against the pulpit—I retrieved their ashes from a cold mausoleum in Pittsburgh and mixed them together, as they would have wanted them to be.  Then Beth and I set out on a journey to the Midwest to spread their ashes in locations that would have been meaningful to them.  The last place we stopped was on the street in Urbana, Illinois, where close to one hundred years ago they grew up together, flirted, courted and wed.  It was a brilliantly sunny day.  I read one of their love letters out loud and then we returned them to that familiar place, that green and welcoming earth.  I know it doesn’t matter to them where their ashes rest but it made me feel better to have paid them the honor of taking them home.

Almost eight years to the day before he himself died and many years after my mother had, my father wrote me a letter.  It encapsulates much of what I have been trying to share with you this morning.  The letter was dated January 26, 1983 and this is what my father wrote:

[My own] daddy died on this date twenty-seven years ago and my Mama died
January 6 thirty years ago.  January is a month of deep emotion for me.
On all such dates I take some moments to acknowledge anew that I have
been immeasurably blessed by my parents, my brother, my sister, my
wives and my son.

And then my father concluded the letter by writing:

My private “memorial” moments consist of meditation assisted by
re-reading some [family] letters…I cry when I read these letters.  But
I feel that tears are only the slightest of all tributes due my people and
that the best tribute is to try to deserve them as much as my frailty

May we all come to terms with our ancestors as much as our frailty permits.


[1] From My Mother Was A Grapevine, Driftwood Press, 1994.  This is a collection of poems that Ms. Duncan – journalist and poet – wrote after her own mother’s death and what that stirred up within her.

It is a collection of 105 poems.  This one is the final entry.