Christianity is Rooted in Sacred Memories
When it comes to remembering rightly and to pursuing the peace that comes from doing so, Christians have an enormous advantage: our faith is founded and rooted in two sacred memories, both of which have the power to shape how we interpret and remember the events of our own lives.
Imagine for a moment that you and your family have been enslaved for many years. By an extraordinary sequence of events, you have managed to escape your captors. Now you are free, able to decide the course of your life. So many choices lie ahead. One of them involves how you will remember your past enslavement. Will you look back with bitterness, cursing your captors and determined to become among those who dominate rather than those who are dominated? Or will you move forward, thankful for the gift of freedom and determined to help others who have suffered as you have? Will your dominant memory be about your enslavement? Or will it be about your deliverance?
This was exactly the choice facing the Israelites after their departure from Egypt. How would they remember their bondage? As they moved into the future, would they be defined by memories of how Pharaoh had abused them or of how God had delivered them?
Fortunately for the history of the world, their faith was founded on the memory of their deliverance. Over and over in their Scriptures they praise God as the one who delivered them from their enemies. God, too, seemed fond of reminding them of this truth, repeating again and again, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 20:2). Even their laws reflected the lessons he wanted them to learn from their captivity:
Love the aliens in your midst because you were once aliens.
Help the poor because you were once poor.
Observe the Sabbath day and allow your servants to observe it because you know what it's like to be a slave never able to rest.
Even today, if you ask Jewish people which event in their Scriptures was most pivotal, most will instantly identify the exodus, because this is the one event that has most profoundly shaped their history. Instead of shaping them toward cruelty, their experience as slaves in a foreign land has often shaped them toward greater sensitivity to the needs of others.
But what does this ancient, collective memory have to do with us today? As Christians, our faith has grown from Jewish roots. The exodus story is our story too. Like the Jews of old, we have come to know a God of mercy and power. We may have suffered greatly or perhaps only slightly. Whatever the scale of our hurt, we have the opportunity to be dominated not by the memory of what was done to us but by the memory of what was done for us. If we ask God to help us, our gratitude for his delivering hand will sooner or later eclipse the hurt we suffered. In the process of this deliverance we will find him reshaping our hearts, making us more like him as we learn to show mercy to the wounded, kindness to the poor, compassion to the stranger.
How might that work out in your life? I have a friend whose child suffered for many years from a mental disorder before being effectively treated by medication. Over the years she's had to educate teachers, friends, and family members who have at times shown disdain for her son, little realizing that a flaw in biology and not a "bad heart" is at the root of many of his behaviors. At times she and her husband have felt judged by others who are clueless about the difficulty of raising a child who has a neurological disorder.
Several years ago, as she listened to the news reports of a multiple shooting by a young man with the likely diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, she decided to write a letter to his mother. Telling her how very sorry she was about everything that had happened, she explained that she too had a son who suffered from a neurological disorder. Realizing that people tend to blame the family whenever anything goes wrong with a child, she tried to offer some solace, promising to pray for the family and their imprisoned son.
While the country was fixated on the suffering of this young man's innocent victims, as it should have been, at least one woman realized there were other casualties of this terrible tragedy. After the shootings, more than one public figure characterized this couple's son as evil and deserving of death. Though my friend wasn't in a position to judge the level of this young man's culpability, she knew that a rush to judgement helps no one. Had she not had a child who suffered from a significant disorder and had she not endured the harsh judgments of others, this mother may never have thought of reaching out her hand to a stranger in a time of tremendous need.
All of us know people whose memories of suffering have shaped them toward mercy and positive action rather than toward bitterness and rage.