How We Remember the Past Shapes Our Future
Remembering has been getting more difficult these days. I’m not talking about remembering where I put my car keys (on the seat of my car) or where I placed my eyeglasses (on top of my head). Rather, I’m talking about the reality that how we remember past events shapes our future.
The people and experiences we remember contribute to who we are . . . and who we are becoming. Remembering enables us to learn from our mistakes. Philosopher George Santayana noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Remembering also motivates us to do better. “Remember the Alamo” was the rallying cry for the Texan freedom forces following Mexico’s defeat of Colonel Travis’s army.
This week Americans are remembering 9/11: the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks responsible for the deaths of nearly 3000 people in New York City, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
But what should this remembering lead to? Do we remember so we can “give back as good as we get”? Is remembering about keeping score to stoke hatred for others?
Before I continue, it may help to point out that the Bible clearly defines different roles for individuals and for government. It is the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens (Romans 13:1-4). We rely on our government to take precautions for our safety and defense.
However, as individuals we are called to walk in humility and forgiveness and to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-28). Granted, when we read verses such as these, it’s much easier to support them in theory than it is to apply them to those who have hurt or betrayed us, or who openly espouse our destruction.
Like us, the prophet Jonah struggled with the delicate balance between national defense and individual forgiveness. The ancient kingdom of Israel had to be on her guard against Assyria, a cruel enemy. Yet it was to this same enemy that God called Jonah to preach a message of repentance and forgiveness. Of course, Jonah did not want to go. He responded as many of us do when God calls us to do the hard thing. He ran in the opposite direction. The Assyrians deserved judgment, not forgiveness! When they finally repented in response to Jonah’s message, God chose not to bring judgment. Rather than being happy with the success of his mission, Jonah became angry with God (Jonah 4:1-2).
Nineteen years after the 9/11 attacks, our culture is roiling over a different kind of remembering. Racial injustices, abuses of power by some in authority, and economic inequities are just a few subjects that have led to escalating hatred and violence, especially against law enforcement officers. We need to protest and curb abuses of power whenever they occur. But condemning every member of law enforcement for the crimes of a few is not right either. Have we so soon forgotten 19 years ago when law enforcement officers joined firefighters running into the burning rubble of the World Trade Center when everyone else was running out?
Yes, we must work to eliminate injustice wherever it is entrenched. And we should strongly and peacefully protest wrongs that still scrape our collective and individual emotions raw with grief.
Still, personal hostility undermines and contradicts our Christian witness. It sends the message that we’re willing to stoop to the lowest levels of those we consider our enemies. That we’re more interested in showing superiority than we are in sharing salvation.
This week we remember a terrible anniversary. And our nation is also remembering other portions of our history—practices that oppressed entire segments of our population. But let’s remember in a way that honors those who died or were injured, while not dishonoring Christ, the One whose name we bear. It can be done, but only as we depend on the Holy Spirit for His enabling.
How will your remembrance of 9/11—and other sad portions of our history—shape your future as an American . . . and as a Christian?