Essay

Refusing to Remember

By September 22, 2016 2 Comments
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by Kate Kooyman

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

This was said by George Erasmus, who is an aboriginal leader from Canada. (I learned this from Mark Charles, who is an advocate for justice, a nationally-known speaker and author, and a part of the Christian Reformed Church. He is Navajo. He writes a brilliant blog. He teaches me to think differently and better, and most of this post is based on stuff he already said.)

My city, Grand Rapids, is suffering because its residents do not share a common memory. We made national news this week over the waving of a Betsy Ross flag and two very different stories about what that means. For some, the football game was a chance to show patriotic pride and school spirit and a political preference. For others, that flag and the suburban community that waved it were powerful reminders of a long history of well-thought-out policies that separated, impoverished, and oppressed the black citizens of Grand Rapids, and continues to do so today.

I don’t know how we heal divisions that we cannot agree to define.

My country is suffering because it does not share a common memory. So when two more black men are killed by police officers, white folks have amnesia — insisting it is another isolated incident, the facts aren’t in yet, and we cannot put selfless public servants under immediate and unfair scrutiny in an increasingly impossible job.

And we refuse to remember. We do not tell the story of more than 4,000 black men who were lynched in this country, a death sentence enacted without evidence or investigation or trial or process (or crime). We do not tell the story of centuries of media portraying black men as “brutes” and criminals, training all our subconscious brains — cops included — to see black skin as a weapon.

We do not have a shared memory, so the phrase “Make America Great Again,” or the site of a Betsy Ross flag, or the sound of the National Anthem, or the nation’s founding documents do not have a shared meaning. And this is a big problem — especially for the church, which is called to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Phil 2:2)

The people in our Scriptures were people who shared a common memory. It’s how they built an identity, how they made sense of their world, how they declared their hope. They developed a common memory by telling and retelling the same stories. And they were often ugly stories, political stories, offensive stories. Those stories gave witness to a God who liberates, who “brought down the mighty,” who hears the cries of a traumatized people.

White American Christians: When we refuse to tell the truthful story of our past, when we refuse to put today in the context of yesterday, we refuse to participate in the Christian life — which is a life marked by community.

We cannot be community if we have no common memory.

Kate Kooyman

Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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