The Hidden Wounds of Family and Racism

By: William D. Shiell

Last week as the violent deaths in Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge, and Dallas occurred, I’ve reflected on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Elder Brother as a mirror image of our times. By rejecting their Father’s love, the brothers inflicted a deep wound in their family and community. One went to the far country, the other to the field. The younger brother was reckless; the older was resentful. Both sinners needed to surrender to a loving Father who sacrificed his life for them and demonstrated a different way to live.

Richard Rohr calls this hurt a “Father wound.” In his book on racism, Wendell Berry describes this as a “hidden wound” passed down through families. For our society, both are connected. In families, children disobey parents (like the brothers did in the parable), or parents injure children. The hurt can be caused by the death of a parent when a child is young, parents going through a divorce, a father hurting a child with words or weapons, or children simply disobeying. In other words, father wounds happen in every kind of family.

Berry suggests that white Americans have ignored the hidden wound of racism transmitted through generations since the slave trade. White persons have perpetuated this sin and injure persons of a different racial or ethnic background from one family to the next.

When we mix the two together—the unhealed family wounds with unhealed racial wounds in a society—we have violent sin that is magnified during last week.

To be human is to live with some sort of family problem caused by someone. To be American is to live with racism. The ones that remain unhealed are those who refuse to acknowledge the existence.

Without confession, repentance, forgiveness, and justice in Jesus’ name, the open wound becomes filled with the same kind of recklessness and resentment that the brothers had. Persons with unhealed wounds often act out, misbehave, have multiple problems with authority figures, or become resentful toward others.

In my pastoral ministry, I’ve found this to be a prominent ministry issue in the church. I’ve counseled more men especially to make things right with their fathers or surrender their deceased fathers to the Lord. As I’ve talked with civic leaders, I’ve also discovered this to be at the root of much of the violence in our society—deep unhealed wounds from sinfulness in families.

I don’t pretend to think that this one solution will solve the racism, white privilege, violence, and anger we are having now. But I do think this is one area where our churches can make a difference. We stand with families and preach a gospel of reconciliation into the midst of crisis.

The Father in the parable gives us a picture of who God is and shows us how we are to live. The Father demonstrated a different Way. Luke 15:12 tells us that he “divided his property between them.” The Greek word for property is literally “life.” He sacrificed his life so that his younger son could have what he wanted. In other words, he knows that the only way we can overcome our struggles with each other is through sacrifice, humility and love. What does that love look like?

1.)    The Father grieves deeply over the loss of his sons.

He calls the younger son “Dead,” not only because the younger brother treated the Father as if he was dead. It’s because the younger son died—in his sin. As Rohr says, grief is the unfinished hurt in our lives that says that life is not as it should be. When we choose to grieve, we are admitting that there has to be more to this life than we see. We are refusing to let the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens be forgotten. We admit that we have died in our sin of racism, injustice, white privilege, and violence.

2.)    The Father is filled with compassion.

Because he chooses to grieve, the void left by the sons is filled with something divine. Compassion chooses to walk in the shoes of the other person and to learn what it is like to live their lives. As Karen Armstrong suggests, compassion means feeling with the other person.

This kind of embrace cannot happen on our turf. It’s one thing for a predominantly white church to invite another congregation to worship together. It’s quite another to become a guest in an African-American or Latino neighborhood. Meeting someone in their home or office and listening deeply to their concerns open doors to relationships.

When we are compassionate, we go to a person and ask them what they experience. We travel to talk to a police officer, and we find out what they are going through. As our friends at the Christian Community Development Association remind us, we relocate our lives into their neighborhood.

We ask questions like this….
What do you tell your sons when they go out in public?
What is it like for you when you are stopped by a police officer?
As a police officer, what do you experience when you stop someone else?
What needs can we help you address?
What angers you and why?
Would you be willing to talk with someone else about their experience?
What were your family dynamics like going up? How is your relationship with your parents now?
How can I and my church be helpful?
How can I pray for you?
What deeply concerns you today?

3.)    The Father Embraces the Lost Sons

A Christian response to those who have wounded us—and those who’ve experienced deep hurt in their lives—is to love our neighbors as ourselves. We embrace each other and listen deeply to one another’s hurts and perspectives.

4.)    The Father Generously Gives his best

The Father gives the best robe (probably his own) restoring the relationship between himself and his son.
He gives authority through his ring, and he gives his status as a member of the household and community when he puts sandals on his feet. He invites the neighbors, servants, and older son to join the celebration.
How does the Father’s behavior change us? He shows us who we really are and identifies one of the issues in our lives. He gives us the chance to be healed from our wounds. As the resurrected Christ did for the disciples, he shows us his scars and invites us into a new life.

Rohr identifies several steps in the healing process that I encourage you to follow.

1.)    Jesus takes the wounds of our lives onto himself. As Isaiah prophesied, “he was wounded for our transgressions”—and everyone else’s too.
2.)    He accepts us as the imperfect parents, children, and people that we are.
When we realize that he accepts us, we can also better understand our condition. God has not called us to fix each other. Conversion takes time. It’s a journey downward into the depths of life, and it’s a path that Jesus walks every day. Just when we think things like racism, white privilege, and violence should be behind us, we often find there is much more work to do. The good news is that we are willing to continue to work on these issues and not ignore them.
3.)    He invites us to recognize and admit our faults to those we love.
Once we’ve discovered even more work to do, we admit what we’re learning about ourselves. As we confess these sins and surrender them, Christ does the work of healing.
4.)    We extend the same grace to others that we desire from them.
By accepting our humanity, we offer the same space in love to our neighbor.
5.)    We learn to honor and respect the authority figures in our life—especially those with whom you disagree. One of the signs of healing is that we accept the authority of others and learn from them.
6.)    We reconcile with those who have hurt us and those we have wounded.
7.)    We surrender those who have wronged us to God.
8.)    We work to bring justice to the oppressed.
9.)    We forgive our enemies.

How can God become a loving Father for you in these troubling times? Allow his warm embrace to shower you with his grace and compassion. He runs toward the prodigal returning from the far country, extends arms of love in the fields to the elder brother, and welcomes us home. He announces that we were dead, and now we are alive.

July 12, 2016

William D. Shiell

President, and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching

ABOUT William



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