Committed to Memory

Our global story is not yet completed, Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on, But, as narrators find their memory gone, Homeless, disterred, these know themselves defeated. — W. H. Auden, XVI from “Sonnets from China”

I recoiled in horror at the scenes coming out of Charlottesville, at the torch-lit faces of the marchers, indistinguishable from the clean-cut young men of Nazi-era photographs. There was the same glittering intensity, the straining throats and clenched fists, the bodies taut with anger, the adrenaline stiffening their limbs. Then came the images of the car plowing into bodies, bodies that were tossed and flung up into a frozen moment in which we could see every detail suspended in time. Did that man sprinting to the left make it to safety? Where did the body land that was upended and flailing in the air above the car? Did the driver think of his mother in the moments before impact? Was his face contorted with hatred or was he a masque of cold ruthlessness?

In a summer redolent with memories of World War II, it is astonishing to see Nazi flags and salutes in the streets of Charlottesville. These are self-identified “blood-and-soil” foot soldiers whose primary myths reek of violence, hatred, and mayhem. Separately, these people might be merely obnoxious and irritating: together they are more than the sum of their parts. Together they are the dark, atavistic, blunt force which has caused such trauma to the body politic through the centuries.

It was a spiral of violence that inevitably hit its crescendo in Trump’s first remarks. If ever there was a time when the better angels of our nature should have been hovering over the president, this was it. In a moment of genuine grief and justified anger he could have opened his heart to the nation and called out the evil so evident before him. He could have played the man and unequivocally denounced by name the self-designated forces of hatred and racism. He could have exercised leadership and called us to remember our higher values. But he didn’t.

When he finally made a fuller statement some days later it was delivered with all the empathy and expression of a child forced to apologize. And then, in a press conference which stunned even the commentators at Fox News, he raised the moral equivalency stakes even higher. Asserting that there were good people among the Nazi marchers he charged that the counter protestors, many of whom were clergy leading in nonviolence, were just as violent as the white supremacists, the KKK, and the Nazis, who poured into the city from all parts of the country for the protest. It was a bridge too far, even for some of his allies who had gritted their teeth through the interminable months since he took office, and by mid-week after the protests enough CEOs had resigned from the President’s economic advisory councils that he abolished them.

It is clear this president cannot be the moral leader that the position calls for. He has chosen that which benefits him personally over that which the country needs to rise above this present shame. The President’s unwillingness to call evil by its right name is a trigger warning for all of us. It means we need to face up to the racism that pervades our system and to recognize that no one—none of us—is free and clear of this poison.

* * * *

Racism is endemic to human nature because it feeds our fear; if we understand the fear we may have a chance to rise above this—but only if we are both constantly self-aware and consciously focused on a love for others that can endure the fire. To rid ourselves of this poison we need to reflect, renounce, and announce.

We reflect on our past—not just our own individual past, but that of our country and our world. We remember through history, scripture, drama, poetry, film, music, and art the painful stories of our long love affair with violence. We recognize—re-cognize—that any of us could be the face of violence and evil for another person.

We renounce our fear and our inability to see others as people like ourselves. We have to set aside our gut reaction to dehumanize others when provoked. And we have to put away childish thoughts about stamping out evil by killing the millions of us who are tainted by it. Evil is a cord that runs through all of us, tying us and our enemies together in a chain of mutual destruction. The way we cut the cord is to recognize it in ourselves and give ourselves over to God, Allah, a Higher Power, whatever we call that Being which is being itself and which gives us life.

We announce to ourselves the commitment to the effort and struggle to love each other. It is a struggle, mostly because the easiest thing is to ignore the humanity of those we fear and hate. Making that claim each day to ourselves makes it real. In a strange reversal this is one case in which “saying makes it so.”

* * * *

We do not live in the present only, but always with a glance over the shoulder to our past. When we are not simply preoccupied with ourselves we also look up ahead to where we think we ought to be. This is how we make and remember history, not just “one damn thing after another,” as Henry Ford is reputed to have said, but a perspective on human action that involves making order out of our myriad choices. We live at once in these three worlds of past, present, and future, although we scrutinize them separately.

The present moment is indefinable: is it truly a “moment” or does it stretch like putty to touch both the past and the future? The question matters because our always-on social media shrinks the present to hours, sometimes minutes. “Here is the latest on the stories we are following right now,” says the news host, genially taking us by the hand before shoving us off the curb into heavy traffic. Thus, we are ceaselessly borne downriver, to change up the metaphor, desperately clutching at anything we think will define and preserve the moment we just saw.

It is memory that keeps us alive and alert. Memory that functions to string together the millions of droplets of time that make up our sense of continuity and that define the boundaries of our experience. Memories of our personal history and our collective histories. Augustine likened memory to a long hallway with rooms off to each side, each one containing moments that defined us in time. Those moments are who we are today, but not what we may yet become.

Let’s not forget who we are, who we wanted to be as a nation of people. We remember when we write it down. Writing it down becomes a commitment to remember and to be accountable to ourselves and others and God. “I want to enact the truth,” said Augustine, “—before you, by my testimony; and, by my writing, before those who bear witness to this testimony.”

So . . . listen, reflect, write, and speak out. Start a blog, keep a journal, write a paragraph of encouragement to your friends on Facebook every day. Share what you write with the rest of us; in the writing we will keep the memories of these times alive for ourselves, those around us, and the people we are still to be in the future.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods, on August 18, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com / Brad Neathery

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8181

Thank you, Barry. It’s always fascinating to me which Spectrum blog posts receive the most discussion. Often the amount of chatter appears to be in inverse proportion to the subject’s true importance.

So take great peace in knowing your words matter greatly, that actively walking with Jesus will along the way invite scorn and discomfort, that joy is not dependent on circumstance, that hope flourishes through defiant optimism, that love always stands up against bigoted hatred.

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Thanks, Chris. Every author wants to be read and discussed. Your words gave me the encouragement I needed to keep writing and posting in spite of the vast silence! It’s interesting to me that I posted this to my Linked In account, as I usually do with my posts, and so far the viewing and comments are about four times what they are here on Spectrum. You never know what will hit and what will miss with an audience! Thanks for your words.

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Barry ,your words embody the essence of what must be our attitude as humans to give us a chance of avoiding repeating the folly of the wars of the early to mid 20th century. I believe that a major part of Jesus’ mission during his Ministry in the Middle East was to set the example of patience, compassion and love though we may be sorely pressed by circumstances of daily life. He, no doubt could have called for help resulting in the complete and utter destruction of tormentors , but he refrained from doing so. My concern is that it is nearly impossible for humans, at currernt stages of Conscious awareness andMental Development to emulate the actions of Jesus, which are our only hope of human survival. WW3 is looming. NKorea is determined to cause as much damage as possible to America and its allies even as it commits national suicide. They claim that There seems no way out of this peacefully; the US started to 1950 War and over a million civillians and soldiers were killed. They therefore HATE America. Human NATURE? What do we think would happen if blacks had the bomb?: The difficulty is this: it is one thing to pontificate , as it were, about the wisdom , and indeed the salvational neccessity to hold Jesus’ teachings and actions as the gold standard of human behaviour to others of our species but in ACTION how does this stance really work? I am struggling with this concept of how “oceanic” all-inclusive goodness/righteousness(if you will) could be implemented in my/oir daily lives. To exemplify the teachings of Christ even if unilaterally, is our aim, but this may well lead to physical destruction, as was the case with Jesus , for example. We can smugly determine to live non-violently as in refraining to becoming frontline soldiers to confront a hostile would-be invader, for example, but our survival will then depend on the actions of those who do bear arms on our behalf. Either that or we sit by as our wives, children, and ourselves be murdered or enslaved. I do not believe any sane human being would refrain from fighting in such circumstances So what then is the answer? In my take on this I firstly hold that humans, and indeed all intelligent lifeforms in this galaxy and beyond, are dualistic. There are parts of the neural heritage which are concerned with survival, as a priority, and will always seek to see to it that the individual will take axctions to ensure survival, even by acquiring and excess of those things which will assist survival , if even as lavishly as possible by acxquiring the possessions of others. The Ten commandments address this built-in tendence —the document outlaws even attempting to acquire other peoples mates, possessions,or torture, lynch or commit murder, torture and so on inter alia. We now KNOW from in utero studies, and even adult MRI scans how the brain stem , called the reptilian complex sue to its similarity with the most primitive basic layers of thelowerr anim,al kingdoms , and even that these sections cannot display ANY high level of REASONING POWER, and that the brain stem organs are more influential in human behaviour than neo-cortex at most times. We depend on the organs there for maintaining autonomic processes(breathing, instANT reaction to threat etc)
The purpose of morality teachings is therefore to give neo-a chance… It is thereforeVERY EASY, and often more comfortable, to HATE .Although genome scientists xay that there are no biologically discrete human “races” humans will seize on every little difference to try to acquire advANTage. If there were REAL RACES humans could not interbreed with normal results. Even the revered EGW ignored and even taught doctrines contrary to the express commands and the teachings of GOD himself when she advocated SDA racism in opposition to NUMBERS CHAPTER 12. The Bible , our revered guide, gives us multiple examples of this dual side of human nature, and brings it forcibly to our attention by STORY format, some literal, other times as object lesslons, The KKK/Neo Nazis therefore feel impelled to take steps, even if forcefully, to regain loss of former status. They feel hard done by in these times when their very iconic power symbols are under threat of removal/ destruction. This, when their former status was to terrify blacks routinely and cause great concern in the Civil War which almost split America. The only way to act by counter demonstrators is to STAND for even further justice in the body politic, non-violently, if possible. They SAY that “race” matters but it really does not even to themselves. The persons targetted by a sneak attack at Charlottesville whe 99% Caucasian. Hitler was happy to murder as many white Europeans as he clould, and the world can be happy that he lacked military vision. When prersented with plans by his scientists to develop an atomic bomb , ne nixed the idea, considcdering it a waste of effort which would be better spent developing conventional weapons. In the end we, as SDA’s, should strive to stand on the side of greater morality, and strive to exemplify Christlike wisdom, peace, and non-violence whereever possible, unless in need to defend ourselves. SDA church i s trying, best it can to struggle with dualistic human nature (the NATURAL behaviours mediated by bfrain stem structures called SIN). God help and further enlighten us, please.

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