At the beginning of Desmond Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness, which narrates his experiences of chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, are the words, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ These words were originally written by American philosopher George Santayama and can be found today on the entrance to a museum to commemorate what happened at Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp near Nuremberg. Santayama’s words and the places where they have been quoted are reminders of the power of memory. Our memory of the past affects the way we live in the present and the way in which we view the future.
Memory functions like the rear-view mirror for a car driver. If, as we drive, we only look in the rear view mirror, we will not go far forward before we crash. If we disregard the rear view mirror, we may be able to keep going for quite a while, but there will be problems as what is behind will catch up with us and there may be accidents as it tries to overtake in unexpected ways. When we are clear on the direction in which we want to travel, we can use the rear view mirror so that we can be aware of and negotiate with what is behind so that, in turn, we can move forwards positively and confidently.
Memory and Identity
While memory is a powerful factor in shaping identity, it qualifies rather than defines who we are. Our identity does not depend upon our experiences of the past. A Christian’s relationship with God defines his or her identity. If anything less than a relationship with God is allowed to define identity, then deep turmoil will follow when that ‘less than God’, be it a person or a cause, lets us down or is destroyed. When Ignatius of Loyola was asked whether he would be disappointed if the new religious society (the Jesuits), which he had spent so much of his time and energy in founding, were to collapse, Ignatius replied that he would spend some time praying about it and then not think about it any more. Ignatius did not view his identity as being based on him as founder of the Jesuits (even though others may have regarded him as such) but rather his identity was based on his relationship with God which nobody could remove.
It is the same with memory. Although memory of the past can have a powerful effect upon a person, it need not define a person’s identity. Thus, the more we are defined by our relationship with God, the more the grip of the past on our identity is broken.
Liberation or slavery: remembering rightly
For reconciliation to be a possibility, let alone a reality, remembering on its own is not enough. It is important to organise the memories and remember in a way that will enable reconciliation: there is a need to remember rightly. If we do not remember rightly, there is the danger of being locked in the past and repeating the problems of the past. It is important to ask: for what purposes am I remembering – what am I gaining and what am I losing by the way that I remember? Are other people gaining and losing by the way I remember? What or whose need am I meeting when remembering in this way? Do I need to remember in this way? Am I liberated or enslaved by my memories?
Archbishop Robin Eames tells of a woman he met in South Armagh who lost her husband in the struggles of Northern Ireland and kept his picture on the wall. When she looks at the picture, dragged down by the pain of his loss, her demeanour becomes sharp and haggard and she refers bitterly to the ‘terrorists’ who killed him. No way forward here. A past which is unredeemed affects the present, it becomes a means of excluding others from oneself and an opportunity of demonising the other.
Compare that to the way that Nelson Mandela viewed the past on his release from prison in South Africa. The many years of incarceration could have resulted in his emerging a twisted and resentful man plunging South Africa into a bitter and bloody conflict, but the way he emerged and remembered the past must be one of the miracles of the 20th century. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say this has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning. (Mandela 1994, 617)
To put it starkly and simply in order to highlight the contrast, the way we handle memories and remembrance can make them either stepping stones or millstones. If they are the former, we are enabled to engage with the present and move into the future: if they are the latter, we are held back in the past.
If the past is used as a stepping stone, remembering rightly enables new (liberating) possibilities rather than merely repeating old (enslaving) patterns; in other words, a thorough engagement with the past can open future possibilities which would not be available if the past were neglected.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.
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