There Is No “Should”
The more severe the wrongdoing, the more likely we are to react rather than respond, to act toward wrongdoers the way we feel like acting rather than the way we should act. – Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World, p.8
It was the evening of the first day of the new Administration, January 20, 2017, when newly installed Presidential Press Secretary came to the podium and, rather than welcoming the press to a new Administration, harangued the alleged misconduct of the press by presenting as fact the relative smallness of the inauguration crowd when the Trump Administration insisted it’s crowd was far larger than either of his predecessors. Of course, everyone in the room, presumably including Sean Spicer, knew it was bullshit. The gathering for the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States was comically small, made even more ridiculous by the days-long obsession with denying this very obvious reality.
In the months since, we have come to accept that no words from this Administration or those who have roles of authority within it have any value whatever. Our 45th President has not even a glancing acquaintance with the truth and feels no need to improve his eyesight. We are nation gaslighted on a daily basis by a small group of (mostly) men who believe that reality is so malleable that mere repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them true.
And this is no odd occurrence. It is, rather, the outcome of nearly two decades of FOXNews presenting its alternative reality to a shrinking cohort of Americans who just want to count. Few things are as threatening as the complicated reality within which we live, a reality that less and less abides a single narrative voice speaking from one perspective to offer any authoritative commentary upon it. Building upon the manipulations of one of Richard Nixon’s original rat-fuckers, Roger Ailes, and aided and abetted by the spread of toxic “talk radio” in the voices of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and others, there are millions of Americans whose view of the past two decades is not only radically different than the majority’s; it is a castle floating in the air, supported by the comforting tones of white men repeating a mantra that everything can be good once again, once we silence those other voices that aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t like us.
That the past is contested space isn’t a new idea. That’s precisely how historians present the ethical dilemma of their work: as best as possible to present the past as it was for those who lived and moved and had their being in the past. Rather than history, however, our reactionary fellow-Americans are far more content with a noxious nostalgia stripped of any humanity or meaning other than to bolster the fading power of a white cultural and political voice. Particularly with the rise of African-American history, feminist historiography, histories that bring to light hidden realities from the past whether that be the treatment of the native nations of North America or how Chinese immigrants living on the west coast were treated as viciously as African-Americans by a nation ungrateful for the labor they provided building our continental railroad system. We don’t like to hear or see things that upset our tranquil view of America as a beneficent provider of freedom and opportunity to the world. Such histories, however, darken the far too clean edges of our official memories.
I was sitting down to read Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory, already disturbed by the subtitle, Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. The idea there is “one right way” to do the necessary individual and social act of remembering is an idea that no longer carries any weight. Individual memories, as psychological studies have shown over and over again, are malleable things, sometimes presenting us with false memories either to console or disturb us. That our collective memory has long been contested space is something historians take for granted. To offer, then, a view of “remembering” as something to do “rightly” seems difficult to sustain. Human communities, including religious communities, are not immune either to the false god of nostalgia or the weakening of hegemonic discourses leaving confusion about what is and is not true and right. We in the churches find ourselves struggling in the midst of rapid social and cultural changes for which the assertion of “should” has no moral or pedagogical weight. There are only communities and the various ways they embody remembrance, including most especially the remembrance of violence, injustice, and persecution, as part of their practice of faith. Whether it’s in the liturgy, the pastoral, the missional, or theological expressions of the faith, we can no longer pretend there is a single answer to the question, “How should we Christians deal with memory in all its variety?”
Even more troubling, however, is Volf’s stated intention to present an ethic of memory that “goes beyond” justice (p.10). It is in remembering that the hunger for justice is kept alive. Memory is the enemy of any official statement, be it sacred or secular. The messy realities of human life, too often denied by our national or church leaders, are the one thing that keeps us from succumbing to the constant barrage of falsehoods either from secular leaders creating a false narrative and reality, or some in the churches who would insist that only doctrinally approved memories are fit grist for our theological mills. In a time when the very act of remembering denies the truthfulness of our public officials; when some would silence the memories of faithful lives lived outside sanctioned lifeways; living in such a moment when the very fabric of reality seems, at times, to be the main battleground, to demand an ethic of “right” remembering, rather than celebrating the varieties of remembering that keep alive identities too long denied and never fully satisfy the hunger for real justice that can only come by a transformation of our institutions. This doesn’t mean the past will somehow cease to be contested space; it will always be such. It is only to assert that remembering is a contested political act and contested act of faith. To declare the contest over by the mere assertion of how we “should” act, including remembering as an active ethical concern of real individuals and communities is a kind of religious imperialism that can only land within the already contested areas where memory and history, where real human lives and communities struggle to assert their full place within our collective consciousness.
I don’t regret not being able to get much beyond p. 12 or 13 of Volf’s work. The entire premise – there is a single ethical stance Christians should take regarding memory – is a house built on sand. That this sand is the all-too-popular idea of a transcendent, peaceful, “liberal” Christian “tolerance” (always a disparaging, derogatory stance) of The Other, even when that Other has done violence to oneself or one’s community, it is easy to watch the beautiful house crumble as the bloody flood of history rises and destroys it. To claim that we as Christians need to move beyond justice rather than always hold it before ourselves as a necessary part of true reconciliation is a blasphemous attempt to silence those whose history is one of official repression, denial, and murder in order to keep our histories and memories clean and male and white.
Now I just need to find something else to read . . .