From the Dean: Remembering in a Time of Forgetfulness

November 29, 2017

Column by Mark Markuly, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry

Over the past year, the Trump administration has been systematically undoing some of the legacies of previous presidents.  Regardless of what motivates these changes, one of the more tragic dimensions for me is that these decisions are colossal demonstrations of forgetfulness.  The Washington Post recently did an analysis on the current administration’s efforts to roll back eight key domestic policy areas of the Obama presidency.  There have been 62 efforts to roll back environmental protections, for instance, 26 in regards to labor and finance regulations, 16 in civil rights and health care issues, and 15 in worker and consumer safety.  Many of the challenged regulations protect the environment or students with disabilities. Others safeguard the immigration status of tens of thousands of immigrants and workers, or allow for a more “generous” number of refugees to enter the U.S. each year, although not so very generous compared to other nations.

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Whether or not you think the Obama administration tilted toward excessive regulatory action, many of the attempts to change rules and regulations by President Trump demonstrate a lack of memory for things that are important to our humanity.  A significant number of the regulatory practices slated for overturning represent the products of hard-learned lessons over decades or centuries by those who came before us.  Our mothers and fathers, mostly learning things the hard way, taught us that limiting some freedoms in our common life are necessary to create a more just, fair, safe, and healthy nation for everyone.  As we enter the holiday season, it would be great to take a break from such forgetfulness of the lessons of the past.

Perhaps our biggest liability as human beings is this inability to remember. We chronically forget, and we are particularly vulnerable to lapses in memory about all the things that are the most important to our own happiness and flourishing as individuals and as a people.  Some things are worth remembering.  But, others are essential to the endurance of our hope.  In our challenging times, when we hear so much bad news every day and are given so many examples of people acting callously or hatefully, too many people of faith are slipping into the most dangerous kind of forgetfulness: despite how it looks, regardless of how it feels, we have been here before. And, sometimes it has been much, much worse. 

I am increasingly noticing that more and more of us are slipping into a kind of religiously-sponsored despair – a sensibility that this period of history has no real exit from the pervasive negative forces that promote division, simple-mindedness, self-absorption, rage, and resentment.  But, this simply isn’t true.  We’ve been here before.  We need to take the antidote that every generation has used to combat the sinking, overwhelming feeling that occurs when encountering seemingly unconquerable odds.  The antidote is called remembering.  

We are completing the month of November, a special month of memory in both religious and secular time.  The Christian liturgical calendar begins the month of remembering on November 1 with All Saints Day, a special day honoring the exemplary people of faith from the past who practiced a special type of spiritual courage, selflessness, and focus.  We entered November 2017 with a particularly important day of remembrance – the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The School of Theology and Ministry marked this memorial with several special activities.

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On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, proposed 95 theses to his bishop that challenged several religious practices in the Catholic Church.  Luther’s action set in motion a series of cultural and political developments that are still rippling through the world, one of western history’s more powerful examples of how a simple act can have powerful consequences.  

Luther’s life still ignites the imagination for those willing to remember. In the last century, an American Baptist pastor from Atlanta named Michael attended a conference in Germany and heard compelling stories about Luther’s prophetic voice in the medieval world.  He returned home so moved that he changed his own name from Michael to Martin Luther.  His last name was King.  At the same time, the minister changed his five-year-old son’s name to match his own. This is how Michael King, Jr. became Martin Luther King, Jr., a young boy who lived up to his namesake and became one of America’s greatest social reformers.

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ElieWieselAs individuals, we have memories of the highs and lows throughout life that have marked our personalities and character.  We celebrate our births and anniversaries for this reason, and other family remembrances that are important to helping us always recall who “I” am.  We participate in broader community memories, whether school or church or town or larger groups, because they help us stay connected to our collective stories and experiences; and every country wraps its national identity in memory, using special celebrations, parades and fireworks, speeches and concerts to mark signature events, so we can remember who “we” are.  

Religions learned a long time ago that the best path to wisdom runs through our capacity to remember.  Our religious traditions are built on rituals and cycles of readings, activities, and prayers that we repeat over and over again in the hopes that they will help us remember the most important fundamental characteristics about who I am, who we are and where we came from, and who God expects us to try to become as individuals and communities. The Nobel-prize winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel knew this truth in his blood and bones, and he honored the cycles of memory embedded in his Jewish tradition throughout his life.  After surviving both Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and losing his family in the camps, he rose above his loss and pain and wrote 57 books and taught indefatigably about human dignity and human rights over a period of 68 years.  Wiesel summarized his life like this:  “I've given my life to the principle and the ideal of memory, and remembrance.”

Wiesel devoted his life energy to helping us not forget.  He reminded us we need to remember people like Karl-Friedrich Stellbrink, a Lutheran pastor, and Johnnes Prassek, Hermann Lange, and Eduard Müller, all Catholic priests in the small town of Lübeck in northern Germany, the first Lubeck-Martyrs-300pxcity to endure saturation bombing by the Royal Air Force. All four men, who are known as the Lübeck Martyrs, preached and taught about the evils of the Third Reich. Although they lived in a time of religious division between Catholics and Lutherans, they became close friends and confidants as early as 1941; and, they faced execution together on November 10, 1943, beheaded within a few minutes of each other, their blood intermingling at the base of the guillotine, which became a symbol of the forces of ecumenism among post-war advocates for Christian unity.  On November 16, 46 years later, a military squad stormed the Jesuit campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador.  They executed six Jesuit priests: Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López, and Amando López, as well as Selba Ramos, the community’s housekeeper, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Celina Ramos.

We’ve been here before, and it has been much worse.  In some parts of the world, it still is.  Elie Wiesel would want us to remember.  So would Stellbrink, Prassek, Lange, and Müller.  So would the six Jesuits and Selba and Celina Ramos.  Forgetfulness is dangerous to our spirits.  It dishonors those who came before us and sacrificed everything; and, it robs us of the energy and hope that every generation needs to resist the perennial forces that seek to diminish us.

Of course, November also shrouds us in shared secular memories that knit us together as a nation. On November 11, America reflects on the memory of those who have served in the armed forces.  Veterans Day reminds us of the cost of earning and protecting freedom, and later in November, the nation pauses for Thanksgiving Day.  In his 1863 Proclamation for a national day of Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln noted the need to take a special day to remember our blessings because we forget them so easily, particularly in times of trouble and stress. 

Lincoln intuited something that Sigmund Freud popularized several decades later – we do not only have memories that are easily accessible, but also “memories” that slip beyond our immediate reach into forgetfulness.  Yet, these memories have an equal, if not more powerful, effect than many of the things we can recall easily.  Our forgotten experiences also shape our personalities and become a hidden motivator for many of our choices.  Freud began an exploration of this “unconscious” region that continues today with other researchers using more sophisticated methodologies than the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis had at his disposal.  We can’t remember, for instance, the first time we were treated with acceptance, gentleness, and kindness, despite our bad behavior, yet those early experiences laid the foundation for the boundaries of our ability to give and receive mercy.  The mortician and poet Thomas Lynch captures some of the mystery of the impact of our ancestors on us in his poem, “The Grandmothers.” 

“A hundred sixty years of lucid memory sit

under a plump umbrella on the patio –

two widows nursing whiskey sours argue politics:

my grandmothers …

 Sometimes I think of them as parts of me …

I think their ageless quarrels come to roost

like odd birds with an awkward plumage in my blood.”

 

Our ancestors may leave us a mixed legacy that sometimes feels like “odd birds” in our blood.  But, this is the reality of the world, isn’t it?  Imperfect, broken, annoying, disappointing, disintegrating.  Yet, every generation is also stretching endlessly toward the hope and dream of perfection, wholeness, delight, fulfillment, and integration.  One of the great gifts of psychotherapy and spiritual direction is that it brings deep memories from the dark to the light of the conscious mind.  In so doing, forgotten experiences that have made us and broken us can become greater sources of wisdom and wholeness.  Ironically, remembering is one of the sacred tools for transforming heart-breaks into their opposite. Memory teaches us that we’ve been here before, it has been much worse, and the only path to transcendence and salvation will come down the path of an indomitable spirit and unquenchable hope. This does not mean becoming a Pollyanna, and is one of the reasons our religious traditions have created educational and formational experiences that help hope and optimism live in dynamic tension with the harsh realities of life.  In a very unique way, this is what a student does in a theology degree.  The information from the degree isn’t the most important learning outcome.  Developing an indomitable spirit and unquenchable hope, however, is.

Oscar Wilde once said: “Memory … is the diary that we all carry with us.”  Elie Wiesel carried a diary loaded with lots more reasons than we have for giving up on hope.  Yet, he didn’t.  In 2011, Wiesel wrote a profound little book called, Coeur ouvert (Open Heart).  It is a reflection on his experience of undergoing emergency open heart surgery, and the collage of life memories that it surfaced - a mixture of unimaginable pain, loss, and grief and the glory of love, purpose, and meaning.  “I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind (sic).  And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either.”  After a lifetime of fighting racism and inhumanity, and questioning how much he actually accomplished, Wiesel’s hope was not extinguished.  Instead, he transformed his memories of a “a tale about despair” into “a tale against despair.”  What do you carry in your diary?

Elie Wiesel author page on Amazon.com