Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Purpose of Remembering

“September 11, 2001  Never Forget!” Those are the words of the opening slide of a YouTube presentation of 9/11 photos declassified in 2009 and widely circulated last week around the tenth anniversary of that terrible tragedy. (For those of you who haven’t seen those sobering photos, the link is here.)
This past weekend there was repeated emphasis on remembering the terrorist attacks. But for what reason? What is the purpose of remembering?
One important reason to remember past catastrophes, of course, is in honor of the many people who were victims of the attacks. Remembering the deceased, as well as remembering and offering condolences to their families, is certainly a commendable thing to do.
To remember for the sake of preventing similar tragedies in the future is also of great importance. Working to prevent future atrocities is perhaps as important as binding up the wounds from past acts of violence.
Eric Freed, a Catholic priest who teaches at Humboldt State University in California, wrote “Purpose of Remembering,” which was published in The Japan Times in August 2009. Fr. Freed said, “My understanding of the Japanese response to Hiroshima is that it is remembered in order to understand the profoundness of the tragedy and to prevent the tragedy from ever happening again.”
In an e-mail from Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, one of my Thinking Friends I hear from most often, wrote, “If we remembered in the same way the horrors such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I think the world would become a better place. We don't need memories to rev up our national hubris.”
Fr. Freed went on to write about the appropriateness of remembering on the part of those involved with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Then he says, “As Americans we have frequently remembered in order to get vindication. ‘Remember the Alamo,’ ‘Remember the Maine,’ ‘Remember Pearl Harbor,’ ‘Remember 9/11.’ These are the slogans that we have taken to wars.” Indeed.
This past Sunday morning I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Miroslav Volf speak. He is a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, and his lecture was based largely on his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006).
In his book, Dr. Volf mentions the possibility of remembering sadistically, “guided by a vindictive desire to repay evil for evil” (p. 11). In “Memory: A Shield and a Sword,” the second chapter, he reminds us that “the protective shield of memory” can easily “morph into a sword of violence” (p. 33).
But Dr. Volf encourages us to remember “rightly” in order that “memory may become a bridge between adversaries instead of a deep and dark ravine that separates them” (p. 35).
Ironically, Dr. Volf was speaking in New York City on reconciliation at the very time of the terrorist attacks on the morning of 9/11/01. With this, and other atrocities in mind, in the Afterword of his book he contends that “the proper goal of the memory of wrong suffered – its appropriate end – is the formation of the communion of love between all people, including victim and perpetrators” (p. 232).


  1. A focus on forgiveness and the love mandates are needed again within the Church. Especially the Church, especially the American Church.

    That does not negate the need for the rule of law. However, in our pursuit of the latter, we have added some interesting ones of our own: Thou Shalt Not Smoke; even one Warren Murphy posed in the '60's - Thou Shalt Not Get Away With It; and so many others from all spectra of Christendom.

    Hopefully this week's blog will be caught and transmitted beyond realm of Baptists.

  2. I find it interesting to compare the recent blog discussion we had on remembering the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, and what this means to us today, with the much narrower range of memory involved with the recent anniversary of 9/11. We are still so much inside the 9/11 experience that we lack the perspective to understand it, and to build upon it. After a decade, 9/11 returned, hot, close and trailing security fears behind it.

    One of the few such perspectives I saw was a list of ten events more important than 9/11 that have happened since then. (See this link: As humble as the rise of the cell phone, and as great as the ascendency of China, they at least give us a place to start.

    Memory is such a vast canvas, the very stuff of our souls, it almost defies defining an "end." Yet, self-awareness drives us forward, as does the knowledge that various propagandists are hard at work, shaping our memories for their ends, not ours. So we nurture disciplines of history, logic, psychology and so forth, trying to fathom what we can of the depths of reality and meaning, even as we heed the warnings of the post-modernists that perhaps we cannot know at all.

    While we often follow the search for ethics and politics, they are only part of the path to truth. Only when we use all our arts and sciences, the totality of our being, are we likely to get near the "end" of memory. We must use our total being. We are non-linear beings. Our best approximation of the truth must be non-linear as well.

  3. Thanks, Leroy, for this thoughtful piece. It's a challenging subject to treat in such a short space. Nice job.