Friday, March 18, 2011

Sacrifice Remembering at Altar of Forgiveness? A Lenten Reflection

I am not convinced that forgiveness can or does command our forgetfulness.  God made us with brains that have a memory function. We rely on the brain’s remembering function for short-term(recalling what happened to us in the last few minutes or hours) and long-term memory (childhood memories, milestones in our lives, etc.) [a third type is sensory memory]. The parts of the brain that transfer information to long-term memory shut down while sleeping. Thus, dreams quickly fade away when we wake up except for any parts of the dream that get stored in short-term memory. Some things we wish we could forget, such as the death of a loved one. We don’t want to forget that our loved one is actually no longer with us, but we do want to be rid of the pain that accompanies the loss. When my mother died two years ago, I didn’t think the day would arrive when I didn’t remember & feel with pain. But “the day” crept upon me like a cool east wind on a hot steamy day. I don’t know when it began to blow, but I felt its presence and the relief. For women and men who have been victims of child sexual abuse, the memory can be emotionally and physically paralyzing. And the forgiveness that liberates is not accompanied by amnesia.  If we cannot remember our traumatic experiences, what are we forgiving?  It is the remembering that commands our forgiveness.  The forgiveness, I think, allows us to live with the inescapable memories without the pain that can make the remembering unbearable.
Some experiences are so unbearably painful that the brain shuts down, represses memory, or splinters into schizophrenia. A repressed memory is unavailable for recall, but it has not been “cast into the sea of forgetfulness.”  The image of God in humans may partly include the ability to remember and yet forgive.  God continually reminded the Israelites to remember how he brought them out of the land of Egypt and how they had been slaves. This is not to say that God held all Egyptians responsible for Egyptian slavery; that God expected Israel to hold a grudge against the Egyptians; nor that God held a grudge against the Egyptians. Indeed, Abraham and Sarah had at least one Egyptian slave woman named Hagar prior to Jacob’s children becoming Pharaoh’s slaves.
We find many references to remembering traumatic and ugly events in the Bible so that lessons can be learned, so that the events are not repeated, and so as to divorce the pain from the event itself. Remembering the victims, the atrocities, and our part in the perpetration of crimes can be cathartic to both (actual and potential) victims and (potential and actual) victimizers. Remembering functions as an acknowledgement that what occurred was evil and should not happen again. Remembering~the Holocaust wherein millions of Jews were slaughtered, American slavery and the dehumanization of black people, the deficient levees in the 9th Ward & Hurricane Katrina, America’s history with Haiti & the recent earthquake in Haiti, etc, etc., etc. ~ says I acknowledge any part that humans played in perpetrating those events (and the events themselves) as real, horrific, wrong, and never to be repeated.
by Alexander Kimel- Holocaust Survivor.

Do I want to remember?
The peaceful ghetto, before the raid:
Children shaking like leaves in the wind.
Mothers searching for a piece of bread.
Shadows, on swollen legs, moving with fear.
No, I don't want to remember, but how can I forget?

Do I want to remember, the creation of hell?
The shouts of the Raiders, enjoying the hunt.
Cries of the wounded, begging for life.
Faces of mothers carved with pain.
Hiding Children, dripping with fear.
No, I don't want to remember, but how can I forget?

Do I want to remember, my fearful return?
Families vanished in the midst of the day.
The mass grave steaming with vapor of blood.
Mothers searching for children in vain.
The pain of the ghetto, cuts like a knife.
No, I don't want to remember, but how can I forget?

Do I want to remember, the wailing of the night?
The doors kicked ajar, ripped feathers floating the air.
The night scented with snow-melting blood.
While the compassionate moon, is showing the way.
For the faceless shadows, searching for kin.
No, I don't want to remember, but I cannot forget.

Do I want to remember this world upside down?
Where the departed are blessed with an instant death.
While the living condemned to a short wretched life,
And a long tortuous journey into unnamed place,
Converting Living Souls, into ashes and gas.
No.  I Have to Remember and Never Let You Forget.

I remember sitting in a feminist interpretation class at Harvard Divinity School when the insignificance of remembering American slavery among some of my classmates was painfully apparent.  We were asked to prepare group projects for presentation to the larger class. One group decided to perform a ritual called “Never Again” in which they named the atrocities that need to be remembered so that they never happened again. I listened certain I would hear the two words “American Slavery”; but they never came. I squirmed and then with a righteous indignation raised my hand in objection. The group consisted of white females. I was not the only black female in the class, but I was the only one who noticed and objected. This was even more disturbing. I asked how could they fail to mention American slavery given its significance in American history. The response was more telling than the omission.  “We did not have time to mention it.” Mind you they were only engaged in the NAMING of the event not a reflection or essay on the event. “American Slavery.” – took me about two seconds to say. Too often blacks and whites think the only way beyond America’s enslavement of black people is to never mention it again, to sweep it under the proverbial rug. But the dust piles up and when you walk on or shake the rug, the dust rises and settles in unexpected places.  Forgetting is not forgiving or cleansing. And forgiving does not required forgetting.
In her book A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela [Thank you Rita Nakashima Brock for this reference] writes : “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a strategy not only for breaking the cycle of politically motivated violence but also for teaching important lessons about how the human spirit can prevail even as victims remember the cruelty visited upon them in the past. If memory is kept alive in order to cultivate old hatreds and resentments, it is likely to culminate in vengeance, and in a repetition of violence. But is memory is kept alive in order to transcend hateful emotions, the remembering can be healing” (103).  We help keep memories alive through communal and individual rituals and by talking about and writing them down.
Remembering gives power to the present–power to take a different and better, more humane, route; power to more intelligently name the past without making excuses for it; power to lay a more truth-full foundation in the present ensuring a healthier future for all. Remembering gives voice to those victims long gone who cannot tell us about their pain, but who died struggling and who wished a different future for their heirs. Remembering releases the perpetrators from remaining in a state of guilt-full-ness and gives them permission to focus on reconciliation. Remembering empowers those perpetrated against giving them space to have their say and to move beyond being victims to being productive agents of their own happiness and promoters of peace despite the memories. Daily, I need to choose to forgive even while I remember. Being open to the future does not require that we sacrifice history; history that shows us how we got here, to this place, with this mindset, with these wounds. I choose to remember while I forgive.


PamBG said...

Excellent, thank you.

To not remember gross injustices seems tantamount to not recognizing them. Also cultural memory is not as short-sighted as our own own personal memories. A hundred years in the course of the history of a culture is but a blink of an eye.

WomanistNTProf said...

Thanks Pam. Yes, yes, yes.

Chris Cahill said...

Thank you also for your reflections on forgiveness and forgetting.

As a pastor I've often advocated that forgetting should be included in forgiveness because I've often witnessed people who, in "forgiving" others, seem to put their desire for revenge into a secret pocket, ready to be retrieved instantly and used to beat the perpetrator with the memory of the event, even when years have gone by. It seems that perhaps the "forgetting" that I've been advocating is a "forgetting" of that concealed weapon, rather than forgetting the event itself. ("Oh, I can't beat on him today - I left my revenge in the drawer.")

Here's the other thing: you are right when you say that when God told the Israelites to remember that they had been slaves in Egypt He was not encouraging them to hold grudges against the entire Egyptian race for all time. I want to grab the other point you mentioned, as I think it is just as important.

When God told the Israelites to remember their slavery in Egypt it wasn't merely to remind them of their slavery but also to remind them that it was He who "brought them out with a strong hand and a mighty arm." Again and again in the histories and the Psalms the events of the Passover are recalled in order to remind the people of the great goodness of the God who had chosen them out of all people and had made an everlasting covenant of love with them.

Sometimes it is hard to see where God acted in the tragedies that have wounded us in the past, but surely if we remember those woundings at all will we not ask the Holy Spirit to remind us how good and gracious our loving God was in being there alongside us, even in those terrible times?

WomanistNTProf said...

Thank you Chris. I agree. I have evolved on this; I once thought that forgiving required forgetting. And then I ended up beating myself up because I couldn't seem to literally forget!! And then there were those people in my life who I felt wronged me and a minute later never remembered (and never apologized). Some people are wired to "easily forget" both being wounded and wounding, so they say. But the forgetting, as you say, is the letting go of thoughts of revenge, etc. Yes, as we remember, we remember how God has been with us; that even in the worst of situations we can locate God's mercy and love; maybe not always immediately, but by and by, in this life. Thanks again, Chris