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Collective Memory

By August 21, 2017 3 Comments

Is there anyone left who still thinks we live in a post-racial society because we elected a black President?

Surely the events of the past years with the Black Lives Matter movement, peaceful demonstrations and violent riots, and the events of the last week in Charlottesville have clearly illustrated the lack of healing and reconciliation in the United States. And yet, I am amazed by the pushback. Black Lives Matter activists are just like the alt-right. Really? Is calling for equality the same as calling for the supremacy of one race over another?

The storm of controversy over the meaning and significance of national figures and monuments has created some national space for a conversation about collective memory. In the cover story of Christianity Today, D. L. Mayfield explains the history of Christianity and lynching, and Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association has been making the rounds on the news to explain the finer points of historical memory. Americans make decisions about what to remember and how to remember it. But the role of historical context is also significant.

Why do we choose to remember certain aspects of our history? For when we choose to emphasize some things, we necessarily choose to forget and gloss over aspects. There are hundreds of monuments that commemorate Confederates throughout the country. How many memorials are there to commemorate slavery or lynching? There are many monuments to Presidents and leaders, but how many memorials are there for regular Americans? This is not only a question of what we choose to remember and why, but also a question of what we choose to commemorate and how and when. Most of the monuments to the Confederacy were erected in the 1890s, at the height of Jim Crow oppressive laws and practices toward black Americans, and in the 1950s, as a response against the push for segregation of schools. When was ‘In God We Trust’ placed on our currency? And when did the Pledge of Allegiance become a standard recitation in schools? During the 1950s Cold War as a statement against the godless communist threat and as a ringing endorsement of loyalty in a time of communist spies.

In our faith journey, what do we choose to remember and why? And when? Deuteronomy 4:9-10 reads,

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.”

This passage reminds God’s people to exercise their collective memory of both the good and the bad. Our liturgy in communion reminds us of the need to remember our sins and Christ’s sacrifice. Our annual church calendar event of passion week reminds us to remember Christ’s work on the cross as atonement for our sins.

We are a people who forget, but we have a God that keeps reminding us to remember, as a community. What do we, as American Christians, need to remember? How do we deal with the sins of the past that keep presenting themselves?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Randy Buist says:

    Lately I’ve been wondering how much the financial wealth of our backgrounds keep us from considering our history? i.e. — Why have we been so slow to speak out about hoarding wealth? Given that wealthy donors give to our churches & schools, it seems we hesitate to condemn the massing of wealth in any form… thoughts?

    • I think that, in more recent decades at least, communism and socialism are such buggaboos and libertarianism so acceptable,particularly among orthodox Christians, that thinking anything other than unfettered capitalism is “godly” is just out of the picture. I can’t remember hearing many sermons on wealth, money, or the poor …

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