Theology 101: Dangerous Memories

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By: Candace McLean, University of Portland

Faith, as an encounter with God/transcendence, leaves a lasting impression on we who participate in it. Our encounter with the divine is personal, but there is also a tremendous communal aspect that forms who we are as people, how we imagine God, how we worship, and how we respond to the relationship that includes ourselves, all creation, and God. Our personal and shared experiences from the past are held before us presently in our memories. Memory is a tremendously complex topic that integrates disciplines as diverse as neurobiology and psychology with philosophy and theology. What we remember and how we remember shapes, not only our narratives of the past and who we were, but who we are now and where we are headed.

Philosopher Walter Benjamin—a sometimes member of the philosophical group known as the Frankfurt School—affirmed that “history is written by the victors,” expressing the reality that what is often remembered, and the stories that keep those memories alive, is determined by those who survive the conflicts of history, emerging in a social and economic position of security to craft an explanation of why things are the way they currently are. These dominant narratives usually bolster the status quo, subtly or obviously claiming that the way things are, is the only way things should be. There is a vested interest by those in power or positions of privilege in keeping the system that benefits them in place.

But what about all those whose interests are not represented by the current system? What about the countless people who have died prematurely and unjustly, on the underside of history? Everything in the current situation is not just. Hope and the aspiration for the full recognition of all humans’ dignity requires us to strive for something more than what is currently in place. This is where the notion of dangerous memory emerges. Dangerous memories—first proposed in the secular philosophy of Herbert Marcus of the Frankfurt School, and then initiated into a theological context by German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz—are the subversive memories of the victims of history. Kept alive by the narrative retelling of communities who witnessed the lives, struggles, and deaths of the defeated, these unofficial memories keep the possibility open that reality, institutions, and societies could be other than they currently are. They are dangerous to those in positions of power because they are the seeds of resistance and change, and markers of identity, personhood, agency, and hope to the marginalized.

In the secular context, dangerous memories open a space for creative thinking. In an industrialized context, where everything and every living being is assigned a price and undergoes commodification, the memories of the defeated who struggled against the current system stand out as something without an exchange value. There is no price, no “benefit” or advantage in remembering the defeated. Simply to mourn those who have died is an act of defiance of the commodification system. The dead have no exchange value—they can neither earn nor produce anything, so they are considered worthless. But to remember them still, asserts a value that defies the current measurement of value as money and profit. To tell the stories of those who resisted and died emboldens those who remain to pick up the standards and agendas of the fallen and advance them once more.

So far there is nothing expressly religious or theological about this notion. Dangerous memories take on a distinctive dimension, however, when the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are considered, passed on by the Christian church. Johann Baptist Metz, impacted profoundly by his own experience of the loss of his childhood friends in one night during the Second World War, and then his awareness of the egregious suffering of the Shoah, initiates dangerous memory into a specifically Catholic-Christian perspective. Unlike the secular version, Metz’s appeal to the dangerous memories of all of history’s victims ties into the central dangerous memory of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This paradigmatic memory does function as one of resistance and hope, but it also offers more than a purely secular version can. Before a God to whom all are alive, even those who die prematurely and unjustly are not lost permanently. The dead, in this case, are not just reminders of how things in the present and future could be different, they also have intrinsic value of their own—a promise yet unrealized, hope for a healing and restoration that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard.” To remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to remember that God has not abandoned anyone to final humiliation and defeat. There is still a future for the dead. The new life and creation illustrated in Jesus is offered to all. We are part of a community that transcends time, space, life, and death. Consequently, there is still a relationship that continues between the living and the dead. We who still act in the realm of history are responsible to one another, but also to those who sacrificed and came before us. They accompany us in the struggle for a more just and humane creation. When we remember them and tell their stories, we are transformed. We are formed by the stories we tell, establishing solidarity between the living and dead. Solidarity means making the concerns, agenda, and lessons of a particular group our own. To allow our actions, goals, hopes, and agendas (both personal and political, or public) to be influenced by the hopes, truths, and goals of the victims of history is what Metz calls anamnestic reason. Those who have passed beyond our immediate, tangible senses are nonetheless really and truly present, exerting a moral and palpable force in the shaping of the present and future, if we will freely choose to participate.

One of the key moments of contact for anamnestic reason is the liturgical encounter that takes place at the Catholic celebration of mass. In the consecration of the Eucharist, in saying and doing as a community what Jesus charges his followers to do “in memory of him,” all the faithful are present in an instant that transcends ordinary time (chronos) and enters into God’s eschatological moment of encounter (kairos). Dangerous memories, therefore, ought to be nourished by communal and personal participation in the sacraments, emboldening us to see and change what is unworthy of the Reign of God.

But dangerous memories are not the only forms of memory. There are nostalgic or pacifying memories, which are ways of remembering that try to dull the impact of truly interruptive experiences of injustice in history. Pacifying memories tend to play into narratives of continuity and satisfaction with the way things are. They want to skip too quickly to resolution, resurrection, and healing—glossing over or minimizing the unacceptability of real aspects of situations and narratives that are disturbing and demand lamentation and repentance instead of comfortable rationalization. These memories promise only more of the same—an unending perpetuation of situations of injustice. There is also what I choose to term “poisonous memories.” Metz does not speak of these but I think they too must be acknowledged. These are narratives of remembering that foster only hate, revenge, and the perpetuation of violence—the inversion of one unjust situation for another, in which the victim becomes the victimizer. To remember poisonously ultimately means only more violence without lasting change or hope for those who have been wronged. Dangerous memories do leave open the possibility of repentance on the part of victimizers, forgiveness extended by victims or received by perpetrators, and even reconciliation, but they do not demand or enforce them, nor project any particular timeline.

From a psychological and scientific perspective, it must be acknowledged that human memories are always fallible. We cannot process all the sensory input from a situation, nor can we know all the motives involved. We are limited, and so too are our memories. Over time our personal memory faculties fail, sometimes loosing important memories altogether or fabricating details that never were. Do these realities mean that memory is never to be trusted? Does this diminish the need for or utility of dangerous memories? At the least, this increases our reliance on community as the bearer of memory. Even if one of us should falter, others can carry the narrative and memory on. Theologically, there also must be some reliance and appeal to what might analogously be termed “God’s memory.” Although not identical to human forms of memory, grounding what we remember with a humble appeal to an infallible knowing of all things—even those people and stories that no living person is aware of any longer—provides a provisional way to enter into a discussion of the enduring value of human remembering for salvation.

For further reading on these and related topics, I recommend:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 83-109. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968.

———. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 253-64. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968.

Caygill, Howard, Alex Coles, and Andrzej Klimowski. Introducing Walter Benjamin.  Trumpington, NY: Totem Books, 2000 (1998).

Metz, Johann-Baptist. Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. Translated by J. Matthew Ashley.  New York: Herder & Herder, 2007.

Volf, Miroslav. The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.  Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006.

——

Candace McLean is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Portland, Portland, OR.

This page originally appeared, and was last updated, on December 11, 2015.  

4 responses to “Theology 101: Dangerous Memories

  1. Very well written discussion. I teach psychology at a Christian university and often I use the Eucharist as a means of helping students understand a type of “presence” just in the act of recalling the event. Now, I am not Roman Catholic so I do not necessarily hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation but I do believe in a real presence at the Eucharist. Part of the many things that converge to allow for that real presence is the psychological act of remembering. Just as the Jews make present their escape from Egypt at their Passover meal I believe we make present Christ’s salvific act when we have Eucharist and part of that occurrence happens simply because we remember. Thanks for this very good article.

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