What’s up there on your family tree?

My cousin Pat has a long-standing addiction to Ancestry.com. At a dinner the evening before my mother’s funeral, she announced that we have a family connection to Millard Fillmore. Frankly, I knew little about him except that he was one of the portraits on a U.S. Presidents puzzle we had when I was still wearing Keds and riding a bike.

That seemed to be the case with the rest of my siblings, too. We were decidedly undazzled by the news.

A little poking around since Pat’s pronouncement has surfaced the information that Fillmore was an educator and the last Whig President. He opposed slavery and tried to mitigate the slave trade but was also willing to make compromises to help preserve the Union. He stridently stood against the Know-Nothing group because they were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant.

So, there is multiple-removed Cousin Millard on one side facing the other side of the family’s Great-Aunt Elsie. She was the one who changed her last name so it wouldn’t sound tinged with immigration and greeted everyone with a can of beer and a cigarette in her hand. If you stopped in during a summer heat wave, she sometimes forgot to don a housecoat and appeared at the door in her slip.

Her philosophy of life, rendered from her New York stoop, was “You do the best you can.”

Probably all of us do the best we can with our genealogy — dealing with our own hereditary mishmash, adopting and adapting or rejecting family culture and all its predilections and prejudices, and deciding how we might best keep the faith of our fathers and mothers.

One way or another, we come to terms with the mix of heroes and villains, high achievers and loafers from whom we have picked up some strands of our genetic code.

It may be comforting for us to look at what Matthew and Luke put in the ancestral line of Jesus, in his human nature as son of Mary and foster son of Joseph. There are great kings, including David and Solomon, who, despite their accomplishments and stature, had seriously off-track moments. There are women of questionable reputation. There are saintly types such as Josiah, who revitalized the public commitment to the Covenant, and scoundrels like his grandfather Manasseh, who had a last-minute conversion after years of idolatry, superstition, desecration of the temple, and persecution of prophets.

A look at Jesus’ family line in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, with its twists and turns, shows why the human race needs a Redeemer.

All of us are a combination of nature, nurture, and self-determination. Faith and life teach us that our history is not our destiny. As one TV preacher frequently says, we are children of God, so we’re equipped with “God’s DNA.” It is up to us to let that godliness direct what is built into us and, as needed, overrule our unsavory tendencies.

We have something to say about whether the Millard or the Elsie within wins the day.

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.