Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pondering Remembrance

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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 J├╝rgen 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?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Working Theory and Practice Together

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First I should start with an apology for the lack of new content in the last month—with the new academic year starting, other projects became urgent, and we at the Centre have been looking for a Junior Member to take over writing some of these posts. I am happy to say that we have found one, and Sarah will begin writing shortly. This will be my last full post for a while at least, but I look forward to introducing Sarah soon. Stay tuned for more conversation!

It seems to me that for those of us for whom scholarship is part of our calling, a re-orientation or renewed return to our context is sometimes needed. We are used to reflecting on texts, on ideas, on concepts, and such reflection is necessary for our work. But we also need to come back to all the messy chaos of practice from time to time, of what is happening in the world around us and what effect, if any, we are having on that world. The question has been raised here in earlier posts of what academics can really do in terms of working for social justice, and to my mind that is a question to which we must keep coming back. If we are going to take seriously the call, as part of scholarly vocation, that our theories and philosophical efforts must work toward engaging and mutually transforming this context in which we find ourselves (in terms of Reformational language, working for Shalom) then that question, what can we do as scholars to work for social flourishing, should be at the forefront of our thought. It should be one we struggle with regularly, one we allow to challenge our research and our writing, our teaching and our learning.  

This does not mean that we all need to become political theorists or philosophers whose sole research concerns are social justice. But it does mean, I believe, that we need to be able to give an articulate answer to the question of how our work contributes to wider social flourishing, and why we chose to do it—and we need to let those more practical questions influence us. I once had a friend, whose candour I appreciated, ask me “yes, your research is very interesting and I enjoy reading it, but how is talking about how narrative is used in philosophy (my research project) going to fill anybody’s belly? How is it going to address any real suffering? Is it really going to have any impact on people’s lives?” Those are important questions to be asked, and though I had already considered them a bit, being confronted by them in a constructively critical way, again and again, forced me to really reflect and articulate how this was so, how my work was working deeply both on a scholarly level and as connected to the real needs of my social context. It also, and just as importantly, forced me to continue going back to that context, to the nitty gritty details of life, to reading the news and knowing what is happening in the world around me and talking to those whose calling is more concerned with practice than with theory.

It’s that seeming divide we keep coming back to—the apparent gap between theory and practice. In the work I have done with this Centre over the last few years, a particular point has been brought home to me again and again: I, as a scholar, cannot leave practice aside. I cannot leave practical matters aside. I need to talk, and listen, to those outside of academia. We need to work together in order to make both our work better and in order to better reach a wider audience to effect greater and more lasting changes.

If I could draw a cheeky analogy with the theatre, what if we imagined a play that was collaboratively written by everyone who was going to be working on it, both onstage and backstage? In terms of such a collaboratively written play, could we think of activists and practitioners as the actors who perform the play and bring it to life, the people whose faces you see, while the theorists are like the backstage techs—people who handle lighting and costumes and set construction, etc? In the (metaphorical) play I’m talking about, both theorists and practitioners had a hand in writing it, and everyone has a hand in making it come together as a finished whole; as a work with hopefully transformative power.

More and more people are trying collaborative work like this. I’m not talking about writing a play together (though that would be interesting!) but rather designing a project, one that looks at a real and pressing social issue through the eyes of both practitioners and theorists together, and depends on everyone working together to carry it out. So, speaking now as scholars, how do we bring our work to bear on all the complexity that pressing social issues entail and with all the depth of engagement that good scholarly work should have? How do we do so in a way isn’t just paying lip service, and that also allows us, as scholars, to stay true to the more abstract work we are engaged in, that truly can be necessary background work without which practice might miss some important possibilities? And how can we work together with those who, from their concrete and day-to-day engagement with people, governments, agencies and issues, know the immediate context “on the ground” better than we do? It strikes me that we can accomplish more together than apart.