We all have a story.
We all have collective memories that we draw upon as a community every day, memories of shared historical events that may or may not have happened the way we remember them. But our collective consciousness is not shaped by what did happen so much as what we believe to have happened.
My high school teachers used to tell me, “History is a history of the victors.” As I flipped through my heavy (North) American history textbooks, that made sense to me. The natural selection of history: those who survive to tell it pass on their versions of it. And as I sat at my desk, highlighter in hand, memorizing the feats of Christopher Columbus and the founding fathers, I thought to myself, “History of the victors. That makes sense,” – because I always learned that the victors were always right.
Now I see that my logic was flawed. After all, when has the brute force required to snuff out the voice of another person been a sure sign of righteousness?
Johann Baptist Metz famously defined religion as “interruption.” In his classic Faith in History and Society, he identified three primary categories of interruption as love, solidarity, and memory. According to Metz, Christian memory must commit itself to remembering the underside of the so-called history of the victors, the side buried in mass graves and left out of obituaries. As such, it “resists the triumphalism of what has come into existence and remains in existence.”1 In order to avoid inducing fatalism and despair, this Christian memory must be practical: it does not try to make sense of the suffering of the past so much as to honor it and learn from it in striving for the eschatological end-point. In this sense, Christian memory looks backwards but also looks forward toward a vision of the future. It remembers and it hopes.
What is it that Metz’s idea of solidaristic Christian memory interrupts? To what is it dangerous? On the one hand, it interrupts a certain idea of time. On the other, it threatens the vitality of certain narratives propagated by the ruling consciousness. The one flows from the other. Metz rejects an evolutionary sense of time as illusory and damaging. Tied up in this sense of time time is the modern confidence in the human spirit of progress along a continuum. Hope in human progress as something that marches forward inevitably toward some attainable crux of perfection has largely disintegrated with the inundation of bad news – the Holocaust, endless warring, climate change, to name a very few – in the last century.
While hope in human potential has disintegrated, the evolutionary sense of time and history, however, has not. Rather, void of the conviction that perfection is just beyond our reach, time seems more like “an empty continuum, expanding evolutionarily into infinitude, mercilessly encompassing everything.”2 The persistence of an evolutionary idea of time partnered with the loss of confidence in human potential has led to a fatalism which characterizes the world today in which the “‘will to the possible’ is undermined by resignation.”3
An apathetic society is not a society that remembers, and it is certainly not one that actively participates in the discourse that shapes what is being remembered. When history is not actively contested, it is appropriated by the ruling consciousness with little resistance. The narrative is continually shaped by the dominant ideals of the culture. The abilities to consume, to protect self-interest, and to exert power are enshrined behind the lofty word “freedom,” while other freedoms are repressed: “the freedom to suffer another’s suffering and to heed the prophetic call of the stranger’s suffering …. the freedom to grow old …. the freedom for contemplation …. the freedom to bring into view one’s own life in all its finitude and uncertainty.”4
Metz concludes that the repression of such freedoms creates a society whose “eschaton is boredom, its mythos a faith in planning.”5 As such, society with its evolutionary idea of time precludes both a memory of suffering and, in the apathy it creates, a pragmatic memory that looks forward.
In contrast, Metz defines Christian memory as “a dangerous and liberating memory, which badgers the present and calls it into question, since it does not remember just any open future, but precisely this [Christian apocalyptic] future, and because it compels believers to be in a continual state of transformation in order to take this future into account.”6 This memory is dangerous because it is subversive: it refuses to settle for the idea of history purported by the ruling consciousness, and “it refuses to measure the relevance of its critique according to what a businessman, a bit drowsy after lunch, would take to be self-evident and relevant.”7 It refuses to let the dead of history be silenced.
Thinking back on my high school self, it occurs to me that that history of the victors made sense to me because it was largely my history. My ancestors were its protagonists, and their victories, couched always in the language of “sacrifice,” were direct determinants of the privilege I possess today.
I was recently catching up with a twelve-year-old girl on how her school work is going. She was born in El Salvador, but she now lives in the United States, and in school she had been studying the Civil Rights Movement. She asked me about it, so I told her about segregation, Rosa Parks, lunch counter sit-ins, and marches. She listened for a few minutes, nodding her head, and then, after reflecting for a moment, she asked, “What was the role of Latinos at that time?” At first I shrugged and said that I supposed that they weren’t really involved. Then I really thought about what she had asked, and I was a bit bewildered. What an excellent question.
I modified my initial response, telling her that I did not know the answer, but that she should never settle too quickly for the answer that Latinos, her people, were simply “not involved.” I guess if my people hadn’t been the ones writing history (or if my feminist consciousness had been a bit more formed to recognize that my people, in fact, were not the ones writing history), I might have felt the same way as she did. The question, “What about my people?” might have arisen more naturally.
As I begin to understand more fully the interconnectedness of humanity – that all people are my people – it’s becoming more second nature for me to interrogate history. What about my people? What about the underside of history? Where are the mass graves behind this victory, and what are the names of the people buried there? And how might I move forward with practical hope grounded in a solidarity with the suffering and dead?
The above text is an adaptation of an unpublished paper titled “Dangerous Memory: Looking Backwards and Forwards” and of a spoken introduction given as part of the speaker series “An Exercise in Memory: Re-thinking the Role of Remembering in an Age of Amnesia.”
1Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2007), 159.