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Good Remembering

Posted on: November 11, 2017

Category: Theology

Good Remembering

Good Remembering

One of the major insights arising from early 20th-century biblical scholarship was form criticism. Forms critics noted literary constructs that survived in oral tradition and came to be written down, particularly word plays, poetic repetition, and irony. The book of Ecclesiastes is full of irony, and a Jesus saying like, "how happy are the poor" is also ironic.

Irony occurs when something has a double meaning: it's apparent or natural meaning and its second or hidden meaning. The Jesus saying is ironic because the natural meaning of poverty does not go with happiness, yet the saying mixes the elements of poverty and joy together. It is hard to know what a saying like this means because it can be taken as sarcasm or it can be taken as description. The historical Jesus was a master of irony in this way.

But irony can happen in unintended ways. When irony happens unintentionally, a social act of some kind can become disconnected from its original meaning and start to mean something else entirely. The Irony of American History was and remains an important book by Reinhold Niebuhr. The irony he tries to point out lies in the American notion of exceptionalism - the idea that God has blessed America in particular among the nations. But, of course, the American nation constantly demonstrates how it is anything but exceptional. In many cases, it is the opposite of exceptional but will still carry on with the notion of "greatness." It can be fairly pointed out, too, that America does not hold a monopoly on this trait found among nations.

What is harder to admit is how important things in life sometimes are remembered poorly and become, in faulty memory, instances of unintended irony. I remember my dad as a great man, but it hurts to recall that my memory is skewed and that at times in my life I had to learn how to be a better person because of the pain my father's "greatness" caused me. To remember him well means to remember him honestly, for honesty is the act of love. To remember him poorly would be to persist in thinking he was great and to forget he was only human.

It is an oddly similar situation recalling the death of Jesus. The earliest followers of Jesus did not see his painful and tragic death as a victory. They did not think the crucifixion was great. They had to come to grips with it, understand that it was part of the integrity of Jesus, and learn from that awful happening that there were redeeming qualities. Finding redemption in something awful is one of the worst tasks in life, but we do so because life is about hope. When we recall the death of Jesus, it is important to remember that the earliest followers understood his death with integrity and hope. They did not praise the crucifixion. They accepted that it marked a path people of hope may often be forced to walk. This ancient understanding is a far cry from modern Christianity and its use of the cross, its glorification of the death of Jesus, and its insistence that victory rather than integrity are to be noticed. In this way, the poor memory of Christianity makes the death of Jesus an unintended of irony. People interested in this problem might want to read Arthur Dewey's new book, Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered.

Today, November 11, is Remembrance Day in Canada and Memorial Day in the United States. It is a day to remember a nation's participation in international conflict and to remember the countless number of men, women, and children whose lives were lost, deeply affected, and indelibly changed. It is not easy to have a good memory of war because a "good" memory in this case really means to understand the depths of tragedy. War does not just affect individuals. It affects generations and it changes the potential direction world events may subsequently take. We all carry the scars of war even if we have never directly participated. We carry the scars because we must live in a world that has been affected by war - a world that has learned distrust, suspicion, and fear as motivation factors for shaping our tomorrow. To remember war and to say "never again" can become an unintended irony if, in fact, we have not changed our way of living. Without such change, never again will really mean always again.

I would like to take from this Remembrance Day a few lessons about remembering in good ways. I would like to love those whose lives were lost, to remember their frailty, their fear, their uncertainty, and their suffering. I would like to recall a nation whose judgments were not always sound and whose rhetoric was sometimes false. I still want to uphold that despite all this, the vision at play during the World Wars was still one of freedom and dignity. But I do not want my memory to become ironic due to forgetting honest history, and with that, my humanity and the humanity of all who suffered.


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