Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of my brother Simpson in 1991. His was one of several family deaths at which I'd be present during the decade 1991-2001. As I noted in this posting in 2008, I wrote the poem above in 1989 when a brilliant young Dominican priest whom I had hired to teach theology when I chaired the theology department of Xavier University in New Orleans — Stephen Goetz — died suddenly as he was working on his doctoral studies at Yale University. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament organized a memorial service for Stephen at Xavier, and I wrote the poem as my contribution to that service.
But since one death after another in that grim period of American history when young men were dying in droves from AIDS blends together in my mind — my brother's death due to years of severe alcoholism, Stephen's to a sudden heart attack, many of my friends' because of AIDS — when I remember my brother's death, I inevitably think of this poem I wrote for Stephen two years before my brother died. I'm sharing it today in remembrance of Simpson.
Remembrance: the struggle to remember. The obligation never to forget, if we expect to retain any shred of humanity. These are themes that were constantly in my thought in these years, as my best friend through childhood and high school, Joe Moore, died of AIDS a few years after my brother died, and as other close friends died in the same period.
Do this in memory of me: remembrance is at the very center of the Christian movement. Remembrance is the living impulse from which the Christian movement flows — the call to remember Jesus not as dead but as living, the call to re-member the Risen Lord through our liturgical remembrance and in our lives of discipleship as living members of the body of Christ.
We do a very poor job of remembering, and that's part of the theme of this poem. Culturally, we Americans are far more inclined to forget than to remember. Powerful currents in our culture obliterate memory and cast aspersion, even ridicule, on those who struggle to keep memory alive. Particularly when what is remembered is painful memory that militates against the shallow, taken-for-granted truisms of the status quo . . . .
White American Catholics, the tribe to which I belong religiously, do such a dismal job of remembering Jesus that their witness to the gospels has become, to me and I suspect many others watching the behavior of those followers of Jesus in the political arena of late, a counter-witness to the always dangerous memory of Jesus and the gospels (Johann Baptist Metz). We white American Catholics remember Jesus in our political witness very badly, so dismally that, for many of us who want to remember Jesus in a living, organic way that connects our lives to the gospels, there is no choice except to distance ourselves from our religious tribe, from its bishops who have led us down this path of counter-witness — and from the popes (John Paul and Benedict) who set all of this counter-witness into motion for white American Catholics.
I offer this poem to you today in remembrance of my brother, of his painfully short, very unhappy life, and of all those who also deserve to be remembered.
(Clicking on the poem should enlarge it and make it easier to read.)