Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pondering Remembrance

It is often said that it’s one of the jobs of historians to remember and help us remember the past to keep us from a repetition of the same mistakes. While I’m sure mistakes do often get repeated left, right, and centre on every continent and strata of society in one form or another, I would also say that there are ‘mistakes’ and ‘Mistakes’. There are events throughout our histories that have fundamentally shaped our worlds, altering their courses, for better or for worse. In these cases, ‘catastrophes’, ‘atrocities’, or ‘tragedies’ would be more appropriate in naming such events.

And now the predicament. For many reasons, in this day and age, our senses of time can seem unbalanced: one can be wistfully stuck in the past, blindsided to all but the here and now (the romanticized notion of ‘living in the present’), and/or fixated on the ‘not-yet’ (we have an inability to appreciate the past and present as we scurry from one activity to the next). Many of us do not know our country’s history, our family heritage, or even really what’s going on in the world at large. While I’m sure there are many factors that could account for this, what I’m wondering, as Remembrance Day approaches, is what power reflective engagement can have to transform humanity. I state that generally because I think I’m right in believing that remembering can transform not just individual lives, but ― as this act multiplies in the lives of individuals ― societies and even nations can be transformed.

At the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s conference I went to last Saturday, I heard a young woman named Rachel give a paper where she proposed a new model of working with Toronto’s inner city poor based on her experience with the outreach called ‘Sanctuary’. In particular, what I remember is her discussion of ‘memorial’ or ‘anamnesis’: a recalling, or more aptly put, a re-telling. What she found was that the more the community grew in friendship and trust and could share their stories of past hurt and present frustrations, the more healing was brought to them. They had to remember these issues and their own personal histories – to look them in the eye – in order to be free from the destructive powers of these hurts. In this way, remembrance led to reconciliation.

In Christianity, the Eucharist or ‘communion’ is a time to remember the sacrifice of Christ on our behalves. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes, “Eschatological hope for the future always also confers retroactive historical community” and informs that an inscription at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (the holocaust memorial) reads, “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”

I dwell on the act of remembrance because it is a possibility open to all life and all cultures – yes, I believe it is universal. But in what way might (what we might call ‘inauthentic’) remembrance obstruct reconciliation, healing, or positive transformation? That is to say, what distinguishes remembering that leads to freedom from remembering that leads to guilt of self and others? And how do other religions incorporate this primordial practice of remembering as well? What specific events ought never to be forgotten but indeed passed down from generation to generation? Quebec’s slogan is “Je me souviens” (I remember…), and the veteran’s memorial one is “Lest we forget.” Have we forgotten? Just as Paul in his letter to the Colossians solicited the remembrance of the church (“Remember my chains”), what voices in distress cry out to be remembered by those in freedom?


  1. This seems like a good discussion starter. Memory has ever been closely identified with human identity, both individual and communal. Plato sure thought so. Of course there are memories and there are memories. Some memories close down life, impeding one from passing beyond one sorrow or another, while others open things up in the sense that they contribute to an ordering of experience that allows us to pick and choose in a way that coheres with the very best of who and what we have been as we move into the future. Sometimes the good or evil is to be located in what is remembered and at other times in terms of how things are remembered. Some historians, Dominic La Capra, to drop a name, indicates the latter point by distinguishing between communal memory and communal trauma, between traumatic and healthy memory. Miroslav Volff picks up on the poetic inspiration of Dante at the end of his Purgatorio to suggest that forgetting is equally important to healthy memory. Nietzsche had made the point a century earlier in his Genealogy of Morals. Mnemonics Nietzsche insisted are soaked in blood and pain, sorrow and tragedy for only thereby has the brute in humanity been effectively chained (more or less) and civilized life imposed. But if they (mnemonics) are to have their civilizing effect there must be oblivion as well; how else to be able to pick and choose? The use of the strap in traditional pedagogies shares this intuition with Nietzsche. Volff too, for he insists that certain things central to the Christian in this life will need to be forgotten in the new heavens and the new earth if life there is to be a life of unalloyed bliss. Jesus' Cross for instance--Volff wants no monuments to the crucifixion punctuating heavenly horizons. For if the cross remains how is Christ to wipe all our tears away? His point seems itself to point to an intuition that seems counterintuitive. One has a Christian duty (if I may put it this way) to imagine the good without evil, to imagine an identity unsullied by the memory of wrong and harm or even the redemption that opened up the possibility of healing (for that is but a memory of wrong and harm in the end). The work of Christ recorded in the Gospels, sacramentally present on altars, commemorated by people of faith is utterly central to our experience of God and God's care for us creatures here and now but it is not utterly central in seculo seculorum. Christian identity will on some level have to transcend the Christ it is named for. What makes such a scenario feel counterintuitive is that our corporate identities seem so dependent upon the presence of crosses, memorials to the sorrows and tragedies of our corporate existence, especially if we belong to the vulnerable and the excluded--The Shoah, Wounded Knee, the Plains of Abraham. We ever tie our gratitude for freedom to memories of our servitude. Isn't that also true of our sense of what is good and what is evil? Can we live well here and now with out the mixed memories and identities Volff would insist can never be more than penultimate? And if not, is a world without tears, without tragedy and sorrow, is identity without trauma even really imaginable? Christians without Christ and Cross? But if we need evil to be good, the memory of evil to work toward good, can anyone ever wipe our tears away? And then what?

    1. Hi Bob, thank you for your insights.

      You ask some intriguing questions and I won't be so bold as to attempt to answer them all (perhaps someone else would feel more qualified). I do, however, feel that I would need to stop Volff (and perhaps yourself too) in his tracks before we could press further into them. It doesn't sit well with me to think that to have "unalloyed bliss" one needs to forget all the gunk of the past. That there can be no memory of the Cross, etc. ... I cannot sympathize because my own experience tells me that once I've experienced whole healing and final freedom from some hurts/wrongs from my past - that have never really been past but have carried their throbs and stings into my present and threatened my future - once I've experience freedom from all this (and these occasions are not commonplace), this freedom brings a new kind of joy - a deeper joy. I reckon it's the kind of experience that takes place between us and our closest friends/family members. Through the power of forgiveness (authentic, humble, reaching into our depths), anger can become laughter, bitterness can be made sweet; and after the pain has subsided, we experience a remarkably mysterious new dynamic with this person; a greater understanding of them. Transformation has taken place.

      I think this is so in order for us to learn first-hand that life is stronger than death and light banishes the darkness. We don't need to forget there ever existed such realities (or privations, however one would like to describe them) as death and darkness. We simply need to realize that they cannot hold us down; they can only rob us of our freedom if we are complicit. I know I am personifying death and darkness, but maybe this is not so problematic.

      I think this also explains why so many verses of glorification and praise are concomitant with words of remembrance. For example, Psalm 30:11-12,

      "You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
      You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
      that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
      O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!"

      Now, I understand that in the new heaven and new earth there will be no room for disaster, and that is pretty awesome. But must it follow that there be no room for the remembrance of disaster and how God was triumphant? Not necessarily. Like you said, Bob, too much of our identity (perhaps all of it) is our history, and if we were to extract the bad bits from the good bits, there would be naught but a pretty pathetic person remaining. I do agree that there can be oblivion of memory too - and if it were not so, many of us would suffer irreparably from psychosomatic illness. In fact, I believe (and correct me if I'm wrong) the majority of psychosomatic illnesses are borne from either an over-obsession with something from the past or an inability to come to terms with something in it (and so authentic guilt can form or no authentic forgiveness can take root).


  2. At the Art Talks lecture the ICS co-sponsored on October 13, Richard Kearney made a distinction between wounds and scars. Wounds are irreversible, as past traumas cannot be undone. But scars are the present memorials of past traumas, and these can be transformed. Scars can change shape and fade as healing takes place over time. So, while I appreciate the insistence on the importance of forgetting put forward by Nietzsche and Volf (unlikely bedfellows), I would put their point differently. I agree that it is important not to remain mired in the past, stuck in melancholy. In order to live fully we must work through experienced trauma; we must first transform our melancholy into mourning, in order for our mourning to be transformed into dancing. Sarah astutely reminds us that this therapeutic process of working through trauma is precisely an act of re-membering, a re-telling that frees us from the grip of the past's destructiveness. So, when we have successfully worked through an experienced trauma, have we then forgotten it, or simply succeeded in remembering it differently? Hasn't it simply acquired a different meaning? From my point of view, I don't think we can take serious stock of our human condition without recognizing all the tensions inherent in the fact that we always find ourselves 'between past and future'. So I, too, am leary of the language of forgetting, although I do recognize the need we all have to be freed from the grip of a destructive past.

  3. Thank you for the timely post Sarah. My generation grew up in the shadow of remembrance. Relatives and friends of family were living reminders that the two world wars were real and worth remembering -- remembered both to keep faith with those who put themselves (or were put) into harm's way "for us" and to keep alive the resolve that we must never allow such conflicts again. The latter purpose of remembrance played no small part in the feelings of my generation as it gave birth to the peace movement under the pressure of the Cold War and of course the Viet Nam War.

    Remembrance of war, with its attendant honouring of veterans and tears for the victims and "the fallen", has sometimes slipped into a kind of fetishisation of remembrance. The solemn posture appropriate to remembrance can become a bonding ritual affirming "us vs. them" kinds of views. The act of honouring can become glorification.

    Outside of the context of war, remembrance of social ills can sometimes also slip into a kind of fetishism, with undesireable results. Instead of lamenting the criminality that can emerge from poverty as an injury to the poor, we can glorify gang culture and in a subtle way approve the law-of-the-jungle narrative that leads to the injustice of poverty in the first place.

    If remembrance is to have meaning it cannot be at the expense of the feelings of sorrow and loss that properly accompany it, but we must stop short of dwelling in those feelings and also remember that we pause to reflect upon the wounds of the past for the sake of the future.

  4. Well I can see that I managed to stir the pot. Volf does seem to arouse strong responses. I remember the consternation he inspired when he gave one of his Christianity and Learning Lectures at ICS around the millenial turn. Memory and identity are definitely hard to separate. But maybe we can hear Volf a little if we think of his proposal as a thought experiment and possibly as an unsuccessful thought experiment. What I mean is: We can probably all agree that a world-made-right would be a very different place than the world we live in now. Much would have to change in order for such a world to become our world. In any process of change there will be discontinuity and continuity; discontinuity for otherwise there is no change, continuity for there is something that changes and it must be the same both before and after the change has taken place--something changes. One can emphasize the continuity or the discontinuity of the coming of the world-made-right. Volf emphasizes the latter. It is as if he is attempting to perform how much will need to become different if the world is truly to be at last what it was always meant to be. The question is: Does this discontinuity or this level of discontinuity, yet allow us to see the continuity? If one says no, fair enough. You do, Sarah, and you have your reasons. But surely, the discontinuities between our world here and now and the world-made-right will be gigantic? Is there anything in our present experience that can give us a sense of it? Don't we need to try out thought experiments like Volf's as part of the process? How else do we make ourselves available to move in the right directions in all our transforming changes? Or are such moves ever destined to lead us astray? And if so, can we ever really imagine the world-made-right or are we ever to practice a sort of Derridean patience in its constant deferral, in its ever present absence? And if the latter, where do we get the sense of normativity that will allow us to posit and work for the social good?

  5. Perhaps I can (very cautiously) enter the discussion here with a suggestion. I too am critical of Volf's proposal, but, like Bob, I wonder whether it doesn't have a ring of truth to it when seen as a thought experiment like Bob suggests. Volf has a deeper understanding of all it would take to really "make things right," and his conclusion that we would actually need to forget the heinous wrongs that have transpired is an acknowledgement of just how disruptive those wrongs are. It's that acknowledgement of the severity of the situation that I appreciate about Volf, even if I come to different conclusions than he does. I don't think forgetting is either possible or desirable. To forget, to me, would be the deepest betrayal of those who have suffered, a refusal to walk with them on their journey to healing--which journey often, sadly, only happens with their memory, since it begins after their traumatic death. But something else Bob said twanged a chord of memory with me, and I thought it might be relevant here. Bob asks whether in fact we *need* to try out thought experiments like Volf's as part of a process of "transforming changes." So I ask, what might such thought experiments toward transformation look like aside from Volf's suggestion?

    I once wrote an academic work that offered an analysis of effecting social transformation of damaging contexts. At the very end of the work, as the last thing I said, I included a small poem because it was able to succinctly say much that I felt I could not yet speak. Unsurprisingly, one of the questions I was asked when I presented the work was "I love it, but what made you include the poem at the end? Why a poem instead of prose?" I was not able to articulate a good answer then, but I've spent time thinking of it since, and came to realize that I could only speak positively of release and healing and transformation in the realm of poetry, set slightly apart from mundane reality.

    Perhaps this is what we need, the thought experiment required--not a Heideggerian retreat to poetry, but an acknowledgement that by poetic or narrative or artistic means, we can begin the transformations required in order to turn (as Ron said) wound into scar. Volf does so by imagining a world in which the memory of those harms are gone, no longer affecting us with their damage. I posit that we might try imagining a world or worlds in which the memory persists, but its meaning, the way it is taken up in our lives, has been slowly, carefully, collaboratively and respectfully transformed.

  6. I like this a lot Allyson. I remember when ICS's Interdisciplinary Seminar took up Volf's Exclusion and Embrace the issue of healthy and traumatic memory came up. Ken Van Wyk it was who wondered whether what Volf called memory might better be called trauma or better post traumatic stress syndrome. The latter phenomenon is less memory than a constant reliving of the events that produced the syndrome. Hence there was no moving past the damage but only a re- or further damaging of the already victimized. So one could say that the "memories" that must be moved past are those phenomena of traumatization that cause a furtherance of our suffering rather than our redemption and being made whole. One could then say that the forgetting Volf insists upon could be renamed the reduction of traumatization to healthy memory. Maybe something like this is what Dante was struggling to express poetically by the presence of the river Lethe in paradise. After all, Dante does share in one of the most radiant of ancient and medieval acts of imaginative piety. He too imagines the scars of the martyrs are preserved and transformed to become the very jewels by which their glorified bodies are adorned. And I suppose that such imaginings are properly thought of as belonging to the poetics of faith by which "the memory persists, but its meaning, the way it is taken up in our lives, has been slowly, carefully, collaboratively and respectfully transformed"--to quote a sage.

  7. I quite like the idea that crosses or memorials to the cross should no longer punctuate the horizon in the new creation. To state the obvious though the cross is hard to come to grips with. As a Christian it almost feels essential to the life of faith. We are enjoined to take up our own cross and to follow Christ. It is also something that Christ willingly entered into (as if there was something right about it) even as he later called for the forgiveness of those who crucified him (as if there was something wrong about it). As such I think Bob's comments around change and preservation (or continuity and discontinuity) are extremely pertinent here. I wonder, can the cross be broken up into component parts, one of which is essential and must be preserved and the other of which will pass away and be forgotten in the new creation, never to punctuate its horizon again? In other words, can the crucifixion be taken out of the cross? Or is this cruel and violent aspect of the event part of its essential character and our life as (suffering) Christians?

    I'm inclined to say that what is essential about the cross is that it is an act of nudity. It is Jesus' voluntary exposure and revelation of his substantial nature, which is itself a (if not the) fundamental posture of the life of faith. What is not essential about the cross are the nails and spear that pierced Jesus' exposed body and pinned him up in mockery of his (sacred) display.

    In the new creation then an act of nudity such as that committed by Jesus when he took up the cross, or by Abraham when he ascended Moriah, will no longer be accompanied with the crucifixion or threat of death. Naked bodies and souls won't need to fear being pierced or oppressed but like children they will be able to take a carefree joy in their existence together. In sum, in the new creation there will be the way of the cross without any more crosses or crucifixions.

    Just an idea anyways. I know I tend to be on the far side of conventional understanding! (Which in this case would see the cross as some kind of blood debt being paid.)

    1. Bob, that last quote you used... what a wise Allys... person! It is precisely what I am looking for, so thank you [both]. Daryl, with what you said, I think that it is no longer a question of "to remember or not to remember"; the task is to do so in a way that honours, that upholds the past for the sake of the future. This is meant to preserve commun(human)ity and the intrinsic worth of memory and should preclude a violent utilitarian teleology. Ron, thank you for bringing in Kearney - his lecture was actually the one to prompt me to write on remembrance as I left that day myself feeling quite empowered (not entirely 'elated' haha) by his spoken words.

      I think Allyson also touches on something incredibly important when she draws on the power of art/poetry/story to heal (turning open wound into scar tissue). It is as Elie Wiesel has done in his writing. It took him at least 10 years to be capable of sharing the horrors he experienced in the Nazi death camps. But once he did, he along with others were able to receive healing and redeem the unprecedented wrong that had been committed against them. Perhaps we have a duty to carry our crosses; a duty to pave the way for continuity without severing the ties between past and future. For, "to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time" (Wiesel's words). I think things like art therapy work to create the conditions for processing traumatic experiences without causing the patients to relive them in equally jarring ways. Perhaps, Jared, this is how the cross is to function in our walk of faith - as a reminder of the sacrifice that has been suffered for our sakes, and to forget would be akin to crucifying our Christ a second time. Surely this has been for our freedom.



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