The Need for Communities of Memory and Hope
Bishop Stephen Neill lectured at the seminary I attended in St Louis MO in 1965. One of the lines I recall from his talks is, “Christianity is always one generation away from extinction.” The faith is grounded in history, and if you lose the historical memory, then the faith flickers like a candle in the wind. You can pretend to keep it as a system of ethics or morality, but that’s not central. Central is the life and teaching and death and resurrection of Christ, as reported via those who experienced that history. The Quaker writer Elton Trueblood said, in the 1940’s, that we were in a “cut blossom society.” He meant that the roots of the Christian ethic had been severed from the church’s faith, and it would not take long for the blooms to die, as do all cut flowers.
I am concerned with the conservation of memory. I don’t mean my own memories. They are important to me, but not in the grand scheme of things. It is important to me as a pastor of the church to keep the story going, and I do mean Christian story and history. It is important to locate myself within that history. These moves are important because the church is a community of memory, of identity, and of belonging – and first of all it is a community of memory. So are, each in its own way, the Mosque and the Synagogue.
Memory is central to the Israelite story. When Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan into Canaan, for example, they set up twelve stones for a testimony. When their descendants would ask, “what do these stones mean?” they were told of Israel’s entry into Canaan “on dry ground.”
Memory is central to Christianity: the chief act of worship, the Divine Liturgy, recalls Christ in word and bread and wine. In the middle of that worship is the “memorial” prayer at which we remember the life and death and resurrection of Christ. This prayer points two ways: one is to remind God of our presence; one is to remind us of God’s presence. They are intertwined.
Prayer in Islam is also known as “remembrance.” The faithful remember the presence of God through the recitation of God’s names. “But keep in remembrance the name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him wholeheartedly” says the Quran (73:8).
All the Abrahamic faiths thus recall God and their place before God.
Forgetting is a serious problem. You can lose your history by forgetting. In Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he talks of the communist attempt to “airbrush” certain Czech leaders out of history. Enforced forgetting was the rule, so that patriots were forgotten and bureaucrats remembered. This erasure of memory goes back centuries. At the end of the First Century AD, the Romans tried to erase Emperor Domitian from history. They pulled down statues and cut his name out of incised columns, so hated was he by his own people. Recent history is full of examples of this “condemnation of memory.”
Memory is, we observe, tied to hope. This was as true for Milan Kundera as it was for Moses. Hope is grounded in remembering promises made: “You will be my people and I shall be your God.” “Lo I am with you always even to the close of the age.” We remember the future, so to speak, as we recall God’s promise to be present in our lives and in our history. Our communities of memory are important; they ground our faith and prepare us for our future. They lay the ground for our hope.
published 05 Aug 2011