Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Struggle to Remember

Continuing to think today of the struggle to remember: the struggle to keep in memory. I think that the churches have not reflected sufficiently about all that is entailed when they proclaim that the heart of ecclesial vocation is to keep the memory of Jesus alive in the world.

Do this in remembrance of me: when I hear those words in light of the many victims of history—those who have died without voice, those not given a chance to make their contributions, those whose lives have been snuffed out by powers and principalities that do not wish for these voices to be heard—I think of the imperative verb “do” with which the statement begins.

Remembering is doing. It is doing something. It is doing something quite specific. Remembering, within the Judaeo-Christian theological context, is committing oneself and one’s commemorative community to keep alive the memory of those whose voices have been silenced.

By its very nature, remembering is a subversive act, since the ones who most demand to be kept alive in memory are those whose memory powers and principalities most wish to suppress. The Christian church draws together in daily worship to remember a man who died as a common criminal, executed on a capital charge at the behest of the power brokers of his culture. This was a man whose end was supposed to signify the end—the definitive, all-silencing end—of anyone whose life made people think that something else was possible. The Romans learned from the Persians to splay the lowest kind of criminals out for all to see, on hilltops outside cities, near city gates, to splay them out on a cross as warnings of the fate awaiting anyone who subverted the status quo.

Remembering those whom we’re supposed to forget engages us in struggle—both the struggle to keep alive a memory and a voice that is supposed to remain silent, and the struggle to eradicate all those social conditions that permit the classification of some people as throwaway people, the social decisions that justify crushing some people and forever silencing their voices.

It is easier to forget. It is easier to sanitize our religious consciousness of what we really imply when we speak the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It is more comfortable by far to allow Jesus to remain in the tomb, turning his command to remember into a comforting ritual of coziness, in which we gather around the table, our table, the table belonging to family and friends, and eat and drink—without doing anything else, without committing ourselves to do in remembrance.

This option is easier. It also betrays the fundamental significance of Christianity and its common table. It betrays the Jewish sense of commemoration-as-commitment that forms the theological foundation of the Christian eucharist: the Passover meal, at which the youngest child of the family, the least significant and most easily overlooked one, asks, “What happened to us on that night?” At Passover, the liberation from slavery is remembered not as a past event—what happened to them—but as a present event—what happened to us. We who are alive carry on exodus, moving in our own life journeys from slavery to freedom, committing ourselves to assist others in the same journey.

Of course, I am thinking of all of this in light of what happened to Lawrence King. I am thinking of how easy it will be to forget—of how easy it will be for me to forget. It is easier to write a condolence check, shake my head in disbelief, and go on.

But that is not remembering. That is not doing in remembrance. Forgetting participates in the conspiracy of silence that requires us to be amnesiac, because otherwise, we would recognize that things might—that they must—be different. Otherwise, we would have to wake from our easy slumber and recognize that remembering involves us, implicates us, forces us to make choices to keep alive the memory of those whose voices the powers and principalities have sought to snuff out forever.

What shall we do, those of us who seek to remember Lawrence King? How will we keep memory alive?

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