Thursday, April 12, 2007

Constructive Forgetfulness

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension (Birmingham, AL). Lent 5C (March 25, 2007).

“Remember” is one of the most powerful and important words in the OT. In Hebrew zakor is the imperative verb “remember”. A friend of mine who teaches Jewish studies at Columbia University wrote an entire book simply entitled Zakor –“Remember.”

The OT is full of stories of how important it is to remember. At the end of the story of the flood in Genesis, the rainbow is placed in the sky as a way to help God remember not to annihilate humankind again. And the commandment not to work on the Sabbath is because Israel remembers that they were slaves in Egypt.

So, it’s at least a surprise and maybe even a shock when the prophet Isaiah says, “Do NOT remember the former things or consider the things of old.” Why? What value can there be in forgetting?

There is both constructive memory and destructive memory. As an historian, my job is to help people remember, to help them connect to the past in a constructive way. I very much believe that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, although we have to keep in mind that the past never repeats itself exactly. Karl Marx was wrong about almost everything but was correct when he said, “History repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce.” Think Nixon and Watergate and then Bill and Monica.

The opposite of remember is not to forget but to dismember, to be cut off from those things, events, stories that made us who and what we are.

However, there can also be a pathological remembering, a destructive connection with the past. We see this especially in the Middle East and more generally in militant Islam. In the Middle East, Arabs still refer to European as Franks. “Frank” was the medieval name of the French who were the most important group of Crusaders who invaded and massacred Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox Christians in the 11th century. Talk about long memories!!

Pathological remembering is most evident in people with mental and emotional illness. We all know people who cannot forget how badly they were wounded by their parents or by a wife or husband or by an employer. The inability to let go, to forgive, and in a sense to graciously and gracefully forget or at least act as though one has forgotten can keep us stuck and miserable.

When Isaiah says “Do not remember the things of old”, he was speaking to Israelites in captivity in Babylon. They were stuck. Mighty Babylon had invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, and carried them into exile. That was an enormous burden to carry around, and Isaiah invited them to let go of it, to forget the past, forget defeat.

Instead, Isaiah announced that God was doing a “new thing.”

Paradoxically, people who obsessively remember old hurts and wounds often do not want to let go of their unhealthy connection to the past. Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. But healing begins when they are able to change old patterns, to stop doing “business as usual,” to believe that God might do a new thing in their lives.

It can be frightening to worship a God who does new things but that is that kind of God we encounter in the Bible. God did a new thing when he called Abraham to be the father of a great people; God did a new thing when he called Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt; and above all, God did a new thing when he came among us as one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

However, there are many Christians who believe that God stopped doing new things 2000 years ago. I think they are wrong. I believe that God may still surprise us. How would we know if God was doing a new thing in our time and in our midst? I think we can recognize God’s hand at work among us by looking for several characteristics.

First, the new things that God does are likely to be counter-intuitive. In other words, I believe that God is most likely to work through the poor and disenfranchised than through the wealthy and powerful. Last Thursday night, we are studying Luke’s gospel and looked at the Magnificat or song of Mary. Mary tells us that God is going to exalt the humble and humble the mighty; to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.

Second, whatever new thing God does will be life-giving. We worship a God who frees the captives, who breaks down barriers. I believe that God did a new thing when the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet empire was destroyed. One of my college classmates wrote a note in our 25th reunion class book: “I danced on the Berlin Wall on New Year’s Eve in 1989 … to all my left-wing friends in college, you were wrong about everything!”

I am equally certain that God did a new thing when the South African apartheid system fell and Nelson Mandela became the first president elected by all the people of South Africa.

But the new thing God does may come with no fanfare. It may affect only one person or one family, rather than the whole human race. The new thing may be freedom from addiction, the healing of a broken marriage, reconciliation between parent and child.

So what Isaiah told Israel long, long ago I tell you. “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old… Behold, God is doing a new thing…”