A powerful moment of remembering took place across the U.S. last weekend.
The 20th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 occurred in the midst of unprecedented challenges on many fronts that consume mind, heart and will, making constructive and cooperative progress difficult.
And yet, we have paused to remember – the shock of such an atrocious attack, the heroic courage of victims who most probably saved the US Capitol, the superhuman strength and resilience of responders, and the grief, personal and collective, of the profound loss.
From the images and the testimonies from that fateful day, we have been to 9/11 again.
A statement that headlined many of the calls to remembrance was an emphatic “We will never forget!” – a reminder to those whose sacrifice was most direct, and to the rest of us, that this experience would forever be part of our identity as a people.
This has led to some reflection on the nature and function of memory, both personally and collectively, which has been a powerful component in human history.
Our ancestors in the covenant faith remembered their liberation from Egyptian bondage, preserving and reliving that memory in the observance of Passover. Early Christians crafted the gospel narratives around the collective memory of their experience with Jesus.
Communities of all sizes frame their identities around patterns of memory that are embraced as definitive. Yet, despite these foundational memories, the ease with which historical mistakes, even colossal ones, can repeat themselves suggests the risks and consequences of memory failure.
When the dynamics of a historical catastrophe, such as the one that engulfed Europe less than a century ago, are repeated and embraced again seemingly without awareness of their consequences, we might notice how much of a problem “historical amnesia” can be.
In a sermon titled “Remembering Tomorrow,” Fred Craddock suggests: “Whoever cannot remember any farther back than his or her own birth is an orphan.”
“Our memories tie us to life that precedes our own birth and extends beyond our own death,” he asserts. “[Our] identities, the meaning of our lives, our futures, and our purposes entail being enrolled in the story that is larger than our own personal story.”
And he laments contemporary indicators of such “orphaning.”
We remember well in the short term: the offense, the slight, the unkind word, the derailment of a project, the opposition to an agenda.
Such memories can be the agent of grudge and retaliation, such as a political leader who threatens revenge on media companies who comply with a request to preserve phone records. “We will remember you when we are back in a position to retaliate.”
Or memory can be narrowed and skewed to create a reality that serves a current ideology or agenda by neglecting significant components of a history.
Resistance to the 1619 Project and the weaponization of “critical race theory” are examples of a memory tailored to exclude inconvenient aspects of a people’s history.
The gift of memory, like many of life’s gifts, requires careful nurturing, lest it fall into abusive hands that exploit limited forms of it for less than holistic purposes.
Memory that is preserved and marketed with historical blinders can promise a restoration of a more comfortable time, even one blighted with injustice. But such a promise comes with a price: the proliferation of more subtle forms of injustice.
The biblical testimony portrays a covenant community that struggled with the preservation and the loss of its essential memory. The prophetic voices in many ways speak to the loss of remembering who (and whose) they were and how they came to be a people of the covenant.
The lament from exile that strains to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land holds onto the memory: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalm 137:5-6).
“Co-memoration” is a community’s pause to affirm a feature of its memory that serves to define its soul, and we have done that, however briefly, on this 20th anniversary.
The remaining question is whether we will return from time to time to the various shrines of this part of our heritage, or live lives of faithful stewardship of this part of its legacy.
That choice will define us as a people in the coming days as we return to the multiple challenges that surround us.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).