Is there such a thing as a 'generational curse'? Do people suffer because of the sins of their ancestors?
It's a question that's been given a new airing by the singer Beyoncé, who has opened up about her family's past in an interview for Vogue.
'I researched my ancestry recently and learned that I come from a slaveowner who fell in love with and married a slave,' she said. 'I had to process that revelation over time. I questioned what it meant and tried to put it into perspective.
'I now believe it's why God blessed me with my twins. Male and female energy was able to coexist and grow in my blood for the first time. I pray that I am able to break the generational curses in my family and that my children will have less complicated lives.'
Beyoncé's theology might be a bit fuzzy – what's that 'male and female energy' thing about? – but the idea of the generational curse is current in some parts of the church. For instance, one website specialising in deliverance ministry says a generational curse is 'basically a defilement that was passed down from one generation to another'. 'For example, if your mother has been heavily involved in the occult, then she has become quite defiled (polluted or unclean), and has opened herself up to various demons to enter her. The Bible tells us that the sin of the parents can cause that same pollution to be handed down to their children.'
There are also plenty of Bible verses that seem to support it – Exodus 20:5, Numbers 14:18, or Deuteronomy 5:9, which speaks of God 'punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me'.
You can see the attraction. We are programmed to look for meaning in events, as Beyoncé does with her ancestors' love story. And if life is hard, and things keep going wrong, and you can see that pattern repeated down the generations, it's easy to think there must be something 'meant' about it. A higher power – God or Satan – has it in for your family.
At one level, this is not much different from the extreme Calvinist view of the sovereignty of God, which teaches that absolutely everything that happens is a result of his inscrutable will. But the notion of a curse is more subtlely pernicious. It's personal: someone is targeting you. And it's hard to think of anything more damaging, or more calculated to destroy hope that things will ever change.
From a biblical point of view, the idea of a generational curse is plain wrong. It's contradicted by the Bible itself: 'Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin,' says Deuteronomy 24:16; while Ezekiel 18 is a whole chapter devoted to the theme.
What's also clear, though, is that in the Bible sin is corporate, not just individual: it has consequences. And in the context of succeeding generations, this means that parents – as Philip Larkin memorably observed – are prone to passing on their failings to their children. New generations can learn how to be violent, faithless, neglectful and abusive, because that's what they've grown up seeing. But it is not inevitable. It is not a curse. We have choices. Some of us – brought up in ways that don't give us the best start in life – need more help to make the right choices, but there is no malign spiritual power working against us.
And that – on the level of the purely personal – is true enough. But it's not the whole story. Beyoncé's reference to generational curses was inspired by her own family history of slavery. And in our own time, there's an increasing acknowledgment of how centuries of slavery shaped the lives of black people today. In America, it impacts mental health, racial inequality and poverty, among many other things.
The seeds we sow today bear fruit for centuries – and we already have cause to fear what will ripen during the next few decades, as new generations are growing up hopeless and traumatised in refugee camps across the world.
So yes, there is a generational curse. But there's nothing magical about it, and it's only 'spiritual' insofar as it's a product of fallen human nature. It's what has been done to us and our ancestors and has shaped what we are today, and it's what we do to those who come after us.
It's not, in fact, a very helpful expression, because it implies we can't shape the future. But Christians believe Christ came to remove the curse of sin. We are a new creation, called out of darkness into his marvellous light.
And it's this fundamental message of hope that's missing from talk of generational curses. We can choose to act differently and make better choices – for ourselves and those who come after us. 'Rid yourself of all the offences you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit,' God says through Ezekiel. 'Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!' (Ezekiel 18: 31-32).
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods