People have mixed feelings about the past. For many reasons, the past is painful, so we want to forget it entirely. The ability to forget can be a blessing and relief. We feel regret and sorrow that can be real and continuing pain. The regret can be so heavy that unless we can forget, we are burdened in the present and cannot live beyond the mistake, the evil, the loss—they are like sores or wounds that do not heal unless we cover them up and forget them. We may have good reasons to forget the past, but there are also good reasons to remember.
On an individual basis, I find the past easier to bear the longer I live. I see God’s providence inclusive of my regrettable mistakes, folly and failures. There is still room in the way I see God’s providence for continuing to regret and sorrow about episodes that I blame myself for. God’s work of good results by means of, or despite my failures mitigates the regrets and makes me grateful to God.
I expect that continuity of personal identity in the resurrection includes memory of all that we did and experienced in this passage through the old creation, the present evil age (Gal 1:4). I expect that my appreciation of God’s kindness to me for salvation will have as continuing background knowledge the evidence for why I do not deserve to enjoy him. He himself will be balm for my painful memories of wrongs done to me and wrongs I have done. The compensation of enjoying with God will not entirely eclipse the memory of pains, but they will no longer be painful in any sad way (Rev 21:4). That may be difficult to imagine now, but most aspects of the resurrection are difficult to imagine. We hope in what we do not yet see, but we have been promised that it will be good, and enough good to compensate us for all the pain we bear with now.
On a collective basis as a people, the past can be so hard to bear that we block it out entirely or deny it. Perhaps we avoid collective evil (such as American slavery, Germany’s attempt to annihilate the Jews, or incest in a family) because we cannot face the guilt and shame for our part in some evil. Perhaps we avoid memory because the severity of the wrong done to us is compounded by our solidarity with many others who were also devastated by the abuse, the genocide, the discrimination, or some other aspect of horrible evil. Both perpetrators and victims may escape through forgetfulness.
A collective memory can be good to keep in mind, or at least to keep in mind how much a collected memory may affect our perceptions and functioning in the present. When in Germany recently among several brilliant theologians, the familiar elephant in the room for many theological topics was the Nazification of Germany and the holocaust. Some German theologians seemed to embrace the memory of this national horror so much that biblical teaching had to be invalidated by the so-called third person perspective of our theology. “How do I say this to the Jew whose entire family was killed by the Nazis? How can I say that God ordains history and works for good?” The statement of God’s providence in Romans 8:28-29 was impossible for them. As an American, I could state it as a clear starting point for understanding life in the world. For them, the past eclipsed their vision of God entirely.
The gravity of collective memory of past evil was so heavy that one German theologian I met recently was unwilling to agree that the cross was ordained by God. “Permitted,” he said, “Yes, but not planned. I could never say that.” Conveniently, higher-critical exegesis could be used to dismiss any biblical passages that contradicted an interpreter’s intuitions about what must be right and wrong. In this case, it seemed to me that memory of the past evils became partially blinding for theologians. Process theism and Open theism become increasingly appealing and plausible. Traditional teaching becomes impossible, even for Roman Catholics. Such is the depth of their wound and the gravity of their painful memory.
I noticed that modern Germany maintains physical memorials to the genocide evil in their past; perhaps Americans would do well to do the same. Some things we need not to forget so that we remember our ongoing weakness in ourselves and consequent need of God. Individual examples in the Bible are Jacob’s injury that made him to limp, a memorial to rely on God instead of his use of deception, and the Apostle Paul’s so-called thorn in the flesh, which perhaps was a problem with his eyes as having been damaged when he was blinded on the road to Damascus. Whereas Paul had been spiritually blind in his attacks on Jesus (through persecuting Christians), now that he was made able to see spiritually he continued to bear a physical memorial of his former spiritual blindness.
Two suggestions come to mind by way of application for me. First, some films and books do a needed ministry to us for memorial of evils in recent history. Particularly for people like me who have not experienced racial discrimination, film can transport us into the history to experience, to learn, and to remember momentarily evils that crushed and continue to damage many in our current society. They inform and build our empathy. I think books make longer-lasting impressions, such as we saw with the effects of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Since we are in the age of flickering screens, movies can be appreciated for how they shape our intuitions. Movies are a welcome complement to reading books, both narrative and history. Hollywood has produced several works that put us in touch and make us to remember dark things. Usually, these films end with everything very nice, which takes the spin off the need to remember the grit.
Second, many people have noted the effect of parents on our view of God. Not only do parents influence by their teaching, but they also unwittingly demonstrate God to us. I celebrate with anyone who has many positive attachments to God based upon how a mother or father modeled for a child God’s acceptance, provision, compassion, trustworthiness, affection, forgiveness, and etc. I hope for that positive modeling as a father to my children. Sadly, whether they intend to be so or not, parents are the templates for our children to know God. This is the great dignity and trouble that extends to the church broadly—God has chosen to make human beings the advance representatives of who he really is.
Where there is parental wounding instead of parental warmth, the forgotten or numbed memory warps a person’s perception and experience of God. Warping can be compounded from one generation to the next. Of course, God overcomes these distortions, but often is the case that warping obstructs us from God so much that we cannot get past the distorted modeling to the reality of a good God who is our loving Father. Memory clogs the soul and dims perception. God has us, but we know it only a little the safety of being his children. God delights in us, but we do not experience his delight.
As with all things that truly matter, accurate theology is the cure for the effects of sickness due to warped theology. Pain can warp our theology, and pain can wake us from continuing to sleep under the sentimental charms of a warped theology. Perhaps this is one reason that God uses difficulties, “various trials” (James 1:2-5), “our tribulations” (Romans 5:3-5), “various trials” (1 Peter 1:6), “your testing” (1 Peter 4:12-19), and etc. to put to flight our illusions, warped theology about moral performance and Prosperity Theology. By making our warped theology to fail, God attacks these obstructions in us so we may know him in truth.
All of historiography is interpretive, and we often get it wrong, just as we do with our personal biography. God makes us able to see things we could not or would not see, to remember things we had forgotten so we may see them through the lens of the cross. This is our hope, whether we are the Jew who lost his entire family in demonic and Nazi holocaust, or if we are the descendant of enslaved Africans who were institutionally degraded for centuries on a land where we were born. The suffering of Jesus, bearing an excruciating Hell for us, brings the hope of compensation for all our suffering. Here, through the cross, memory and promise may be held together. Otherwise than Jesus, we have only memory and our attempts to avoid the pain, guilt, and the grey, gnawing, and hopeless dread of our lives as ultimately meaningless and useless.