The church, in a society of amnesia, has a deep responsibility to be a community of active, alert remembering. It can learn much about critical, faithful remembering from the practice of ancient Israel in the Old Testament:
1. It is crucial to remember the long inventory of miracles, God’s inscrutable gifts in which our common life and the life of the world are grounded.
The Old Testament has a rich vocabulary for miracle, a usage that attests that we are essentially receivers of God’s goodness:
On the glorious splendor of our majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. (Ps 145:5-7)
As is evident in the long Psalm 105, the miracles are regularly reiterated in order to remain rooted beyond autonomy wherein the miracles are forgotten or explained away. It is easy enough to be willfully autonomous and reduce faith to a passionate, uncritical ideology.
2. It is crucial to remember the long inventory of sin, failure, and idolatry that has abiding power, and that invites and requires long-term and sustained repentance. The long Psalm 106, closely matched to the doxology of Psalm 105, is an extended specific reiteration of a history of recalcitrance and refusal to trust God’s goodness. The ground of such resistance is “that they do not remember the abundance of your steadfast love” (Ps 106:7). The two Psalms together provide the core categories for remembering God’s graciousness and our refusal. Both belong to a community identified with the rule of God who is genuinely gracious and demandingly expectant.
3. It is crucial to remember in order to obey rightly. The memory of miracles and defaults creates an environment in which the community may think seriously about its identity and its practice in a present tense context. When the church fails to remember, it readily sinks down into an impatient moralism or it floats off into a fuzzy self-indulgence. Psalm 78, yet another catalog of remembering in ancient Israel, provides instruction in the socialization of the young into the core memory of the community:
… he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God. (Ps 78:5-8)
The immediate connection between remembering and obeying is terse and complete. The words of the Psalm suggest that deep, sustained obedience (in what might be termed “character ethics”) does not derive from commandments, but from the identity-giving lore in which the reality of God is embedded in a narrative that evokes response.
4. Remembering is the only basis of hope; without thick memory there is sure to be despair. Deep in the crisis of the exile, ancient Israel was lost and without hope in the world (Lam 3:18). But just three verses later, the same poet can say:
But this I remember,
and therefore I have hope. (Lam 3:21)
What is remembered in this instant is the substance of the three great theological terms of “steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness.” Israel’s memory concerns the God who is an agent of abiding fidelity in its life. Such remembering permits Israel to expect more fidelity from God in time to come, because the same God known in the palpable memory of fidelity inhabits the future.
5. It is possible to remember the wrong way, to dwell on old hurts and ancient angers, so that the community is devoured by resentments and grievances that it cannot relinquish. The star example of this wrong remembering in the Old Testament is Israel’s abiding hostility toward the Amalekites…long after there were no more Amalekites. In Exodus 17:14-16, Moses commands a remembering that will last to perpetuity with a vow to “blot out.” And in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, the final admonition of Moses concerning the Amalekites is, “Do not forget.”
It takes little imagination to extrapolate from that cherished, coveted resentment to many contemporary memories of defeat and humiliation that continue to feed aggressive policy and destructive social practice. In such bad remembering, the vicious cycle is never broken, and old wounds continue to recruit the young to continue the hostility.
6. Forgetting is essential to receiving newness. In the exile, Isaiah 43:18-19 famously urges the displaced community not to remember “former things” in order that they can discern and receive God’s new miracles in the present tense. It is possible to be so fixated on what was once God’s gift that we fail to notice or acknowledge God’s new gifts and God’s new challenges to us.
The texts I have cited, of course, all focus on ancient Israel. All of these tricky facets of remembering (and forgetting), however, are always in play whenever the church meets at the table and we “do this in remembrance.” In that treasured quintessential moment of remembering, we recall ancient miracles, we recall lingering defaults, we remember toward contemporary obedience, we remember “until he come,” and we engage in the unending work of remembering what must be remembered and forgetting what must be forgotten.
The stuff of text, tradition, and history is urgent in the church, for without such critical perspective we tend to absolutize things as they are, or as we imagine them to be. The church in U.S. society is a close replica to the crisis anticipated by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses could see that comfortable, self-indulgent affluence would surely evoke amnesia:
You eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.... (Deut 8:10-14)
When the faithful suffer from amnesia, they become vulnerable to every wind of doctrine, every easy pet project, every “convenient truth,” and every self-serving ideology. Memory provides critical ballast through which we affirm that
• We are not our own;
• We have nothing except what we have been given (1 Cor 4:7).