Tag Archives: memory

Elements of Reconciliation – Memory

I have trouble sometimes trying to describe what I do – I educate others on the work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation? they ask, Like in marital situations?

Well, not really. Think bigger – like people groups and on issues like immigration, race, class, you know?

And then, I get a few nods and oh’s and Okays. And then the conversation peters out.

I try and return the vocation volley, so what do you do?

And the answers usually can be divided into two categories, those that deal with the present – selling homes, technology consulting, writing, etc.; And those who work towards the future – insurance, community development, teachers, researchers, etc.

Reconciliation falls into a different category because it is somewhat a work that deals with the past, it is historical work that is trying to tie up loose ends with the present; but because we who live in the present are preoccupied in the moment or in the transaction at hand, or we work towards the future, reconciliation seems like a step backward, a constant, nagging pull keeping you from taking the next step forward. Which is why I understand it when people grow weary of the discussions necessary, but we are dialoguing with the past, a past that we cannot change, but neither does it go away without being addressed. Our pasts have a way of coming back to haunt us if we are not careful. And Christians who have been associated with power and influence, particularly being historical bedmates with power, really need to be transparent about that past – whether it  was Constantine, the Crusades, the Holy Roman Empire (which by many historian’s accounts was neither holy, Roman, or an empire!), the Great Schism, the Inquisition, the wars, the conquest, the bloodshed, the imperialism, the slave trade, the nativism, the silence, the exclusion acts…all that. If you call yourself Christian, then you have to own this history to some extent. Why?

Because Christians have to remember what happened because history, personal and collective, is that which puts a  backbone in our posture of confession. Confession is an act of remembering the past. Reconciliation can only be had with confession. In other words, reconciliation requires a good memory.

That is why even now, when you tell someone the full story of the gospel, you have to go back to the beginning – at some point, you must explain the story of a garden with two trees. Then the story of Christ as messiah makes sense. Because reconciliation is what adds symmetry to the story back in the beginning – Christ hung on a tree. The death that was promised to Adam and Eve was fully owned and purchased in the person of Christ. And we are taught to remember that story for it is also at the genesis of our stories. For like crack babies, we were also born with an addiction we inherited, and addiction that came from the curse of one tree, and at the intersection of two other trees, we are now the recipients of grace. We remember because reconciliation requires that we remember who we were and what happened and why we can lay claim to the new.

Without memory, we cannot understand the reason for a Savior; without remembering our worst moments in church history, we dismiss the ghosts of the past as though they had no bearing, no place to land in our lives now; but you cannot confess what you do not remember, and you cannot be forgiven if you have no awareness of the gravity of the infraction; a key part of reconciliation is the purposeful act of bringing the past before our very eyes and ears so that we might fully have the opportunity of being the new creation we are promised to be.

Here’s Desmond Tutu recounting why bygones will never be bygones without our ability to face it. Listen closely and enjoy.


On the MLK Dedication

This past weekend we stopped to remember the legacy of MLK.   Or to be more accurate I should say some stopped.  I was surprised by the lack of coverage.  Really it was considered another “ho-hum” historical moment in the news cycle.  For instance compare the MLK dedication coverage to the rabid coverage of the death of Steve Jobs.   Or the Conrad Murray trial for God’s sake.

I thought about reasons for this.  On one hand maybe it’s because he has been covered so much already?  Maybe there is nothing much left to cover, as around his birthday in January and Black History Month in February he receives his just due.

On the other hand I thought that MLK is becoming just another postscript in history.  But make no mistake about it he was far more than a postscript.  If you think about it, really it’s kind of crazy that he is accepted by both liberal and conservative circles alike nowadays.

Obviously I wasn’t around when he was operating but even a cursory look at his life reveals the man was a polarizing firebrand.  One clear example can be found in his famous essay Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  Dr. King wrote his essay while serving out a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham.

It was a response to the public appeal made by some Alabama clergymen to let unjust local politics decide the denied rights of African American people.  King issued an indictment that their faith was too attached to American civic concerns to see the plight of his people through a biblical lens.  His response was to make a biblical appeal to the righteousness of civil disobedience.  An excerpt:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.  It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abendengo to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved.  It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

King wrote that the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.  It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo.  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they (unjustly) are.  This is not your average Sunday sermon, but rather prophetic and polarizing.

But King is viewed as very mainstream now.   Have we lost our prophetic understanding of King?  I wonder.


The Art of Disaster

The waters that swallowed and devoured Japan were black and full of horror. The Hebrews have their Leviathans, the Mayans their serpents, but the Japanese – just black water. It has haunted them for centuries. The Japanese artist, Hokusai, tried to capture the horror and agony in his art, this terrifying black water in his 1830 woodblock that inspired the image above and below the original:

I wonder if when Hokusai originally painted his work, if the people appreciated it or if they recoiled with sadness or anger or agony. The world recently watched in agony as the black waters ravaged entire villages. The art which reflected a tragedy takes us back to a memory in the midst of the new tragedy.

Some of us tend to minimize tragedy and memory for fear that others are living in the past, unable to forgive, unable to acknowledge the progress made, but I wonder if those others are simply “living” artifacts – pointing out what was, in order to warn us of what will be.

Those of us who looked at Hokusai’s work and only saw it for its beauty failed to recognize that this piece of art was not born of his imagination but of the horror that he saw. We put it in our museums or reprinted it for our walls, studied it for his use of color or his technique, but we did not heed its warning or listen to what the art was saying; we gazed and then looked away.

$308 billion worth of damage; quite possibly the costliest disaster to date. I’ve read that this was a hundred times worse than Haiti. Tens of thousands dead and tens of thousands without homes. When art reflects pain and tragedy, those of us who seek reconciliation must not only look at what we see, but remember to hear the messages and the memories behind it. It may be a pretty picture, but it must be heard, not merely admired.