Memory and the Trauma of History

What does remembering tragedies like September 11th accomplish here and now? What do we channel […]

Ian / 9.17.19

What does remembering tragedies like September 11th accomplish here and now? What do we channel in remembering, and what dangers are there in it?

“Remembering,” I once heard a minister claim, “is the art of the mature.” I wrote it beside the second verse of Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of his benefits.” That Sunday was the eleventh anniversary of the attacks, and his invocation of their significance to us culturally seemed to collapse the time between the two.

Whether or not I was one of the mature, I felt the kinetic energy of that assertion. I could not picture anything else but the room Choir and Orchestra shared at Parker High School back in Janesville, Wisconsin. I could see Mr. Bowman’s nervous rush to the television set by the door leading out to the commons, the disciplined frenzy of his fingers as they reset the TV’s input, his hushed voice that elicited more alarm than a hundred decibel bellow — something about a plane and the World Trade Center.

He stared at the screen as the image took form, panic and picture becoming more palpable with every second of silence. He spoke again, mercifully ending the suffocating sensation that something monumentally important was taking place and yet knowing almost nothing about it. A fearful unknowing seized the circle of students congregating around the television, clamoring for facts. Facts would act as sandbags holding back the flood of frightened speculation, but for the time being, confusion was king. Mr. Bowman heard that the plane’s collision with the tower may have been an accident, but it was far from conclusive.

Theories and foreboding flurried through everyone’s minds. We were released to our second hour classes, but the entire school’s attention was fixed on the news, enthralled and dismayed as footage of burning and bedlam buried our suddenly out-of-date, Midwest-shaped presuppositions. Panic seized many of my classmates as we watched the South Tower collapse: nowhere was safe, nowhere was impenetrable. We were under attack, but by whom? And why? Why were we witnessing such reckless hate? Would things ever return to the ways we had known before? No answers were forthcoming, and we feared they never would be.

No one remembers September 10, 2001, but with preternatural precision we can recall almost every detail of the following day because of its unparalleled, apocalyptic horror: towers crumbling, machines of war coursing through the sky, devastating cultural symbols. The attacks of September 11 are far from the first epoch-defining event in American history, of course — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger disaster, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Pearl Harbor immediately spring to mind as case studies in days no one will ever forget. It’s strange to consider there are undergraduates who have no experiential knowledge of September 11 whatsoever — it’s already as far removed from them as Pearl Harbor is from me, in a sense.

September 11 is now a national memory like others we commemorate in holidays and moments of silence, collective efforts to “remember” things many of us have never seen before as though we were right there when they were taking place.

The significance of these memories is found in the fact that we remember and recount them as stories. Stories define who we are, define our purpose, and orient our priorities in ways that isolated, impersonal historical moments cannot. In his article “Story in the Old Testament,” R.W.L. Moberly sheds helpful light on how shared stories make sense of the world:

…a story can provide a pattern or framework for understanding life and experience. For many, life and existence on the purely historical plane may appear random or chaotic, without purpose, meaning or dignity. A story can so arrange things that pattern and meaning can be seen. The biblical story purports to be a true story. This means that as the reader recognizes in it the patterns of how God works, he can then find pattern and meaning for his own life and experience of God.

For example, life for the Jews in exile and the diaspora when they were deprived of all those things that had previously been central to their faith and identity — land, temple, king — must easily have appeared hopeless and meaningless. Stories such as those of Daniel and Esther do more than just show how life under God can be a reality in such situations. The way the stories show, both explicitly and implicitly, that God is in control and that what people do does matter makes the stories a powerful medium for creating trust in the wisdom of God and in the meaning and significance of life even in difficult circumstances.[1]

Moberly emphasizes the positive impact of story and storytelling, of organizing and making sense of what seems, on the surface, meaningless. None of this is incorrect, unless it is asserted that this is all stories do. If the Chronicler recounts the good providence of God in preserving a remnant out of Israel, then the author of Kings unremittingly portrays the absolute disaster the Northern and Southern Kingdoms plunged themselves into. The stubborn rebellion of the covenant people is just as legitimate a story to tell as that of the generous, long-suffering God who preserves them in their exile and returns them to their homes.

One consequence of remembering is that we are able to fan into flame the meaningfulness of the story we find ourselves within, both on societal and personal levels. At times, the two are intertwined into a single point in which corporate and individual realities are irrevocably altered and re-injected with fresh significance. There is a gravity to these events; they draw us into their orbit. Often, the pathos of a shared event has a potential energy waiting to be harnessed through recollection; when we bring it to remembrance we draw from its surplus of meaning and invite it to flow into our present.

We know this and practice it in our civil liturgies: our Independence Days, our Veterans Days, on the anniversaries of September 11, 2001. But there is a shadow side to this. Problematically, we do little to challenge what Columbus Day enshrines; we celebrate Labor Day with the final distractions of summer and forget the Haymarket Affair, forget that it is a substitute holiday, crowding out May 1 — International Workers’ Day. There is no remembering here, only whiling away the days that melt into one another, forgetting those whom the cultural machine has crushed along the way.

And so it is that stories not only bind up our experience into something able to be narrated; they also can be (and regularly are) used to dispel legitimate fears and disquiet, to assure “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14), to promise that our situation is more stable than it actually is, and that we are in control in spite of evidence to the contrary. They are also regularly weaponized into myths of indignant superiority and calls to arms, assuring us that we are on the “right side of history” and it is time for us to take action and claim what is rightfully ours. One need only recall that a version of what happened on September 11th was used to fund a suspect “War on Terror” as well as the dismantling of civil liberties. Storytelling of this type is demonic and is to be resisted.

The church rehearses the history of God’s saving acts in her liturgy and her lectionary so as to live bi-focally and make the history of the covenant past contemporary with the present. It isn’t nostalgia we’re after in such an exercise — it’s the realignment of our expectations of what is possible with that which has redefined reality. But we must be cautious in our rehearsals so as not to weave another tyrannical metanarrative of inevitable victory. As Ernst Käsemann noted, “In no case should what we call the divine plan of salvation be absorbed by an immanent evolutionary process whose meaning can be grasped on earth, or which we can control and calculate. This would make the divine and the human interchangeable and would allow the church ultimately to triumph over its Lord, by organizing him instead of listening and obeying.”[2]

Some Christians have claimed that the effort to identify corporately with the American experience of September 11th is analogous to the church’s burden to remember Jesus’ cross work, and to identify with the long line of the redeemed community reaching back to the patriarchs. Are there formal similarities? Some, certainly. But materially what is remembered in these two stories is so drastically different as to be incomparable. The aims of remembering are also entirely different. Why should we remember the events of September 11th? Because human beings died. Because our cultural moment has next to no room for corporate grief of any sort. Because we do well to remember the truth that we were so much more vulnerable, more susceptible to attack and to collapse than we let on to the world and even to ourselves.

But we mustn’t pretend that remembering will in and of itself steel us against the oncoming traumas of history. Habakkuk remembers God acting on Israel’s behalf, and his remembering spurs him to beg for God to act once again: “In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known” (3:2). But this doesn’t automatically result in the kind of pacific serenity the prophet goes on to describe in 3:17-19, where, in spite of the impending disaster God has disclosed to him, he can say:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

I don’t mean to suggest such a torrent of confidence is impossible for God to summon up. But I do insist there is no infallible mechanism that can be relied on to conjure that feeling. Reciting what God has done in the past doesn’t equip anyone to “joyfully submit” (as some who are not incredibly-pastorally-sensitive proclaim and promise) to imminent hardship. (And it’s almost certainly imminent.) This is not the power of remembering.

Remembering, when it is touched with the darkness-cancelling propulsion of the Spirit who raised the dead Christ out of lifelessness, ignites hope. And hope does not leave us ashamed, because the love that God is is being poured into our hearts (Romans 5:1) in and through that hope. This mode of participation in Christ doesn’t applaud the powers of human remembering but rather the tenacity of Immanuel — God with us. Yes. But that is an uphill stride against the wind and almost never the reality-negating basking-in-the-bath-of-joy that some Christians advertise as normative.

The reconciliation and redemption of image-bearers is always an interruption of what is “normal” and expected; grace always comes to us as an alien force intruding into and exploding our plausibility structures. There is no through-line from Israel’s entry into the Promised Land to the salvation of any sinner. Narrative is important insofar as Jesus Christ comes into the world, to those with whom he had already been in covenant, as the Deliverer they had been promised. Apart from the texts of Israel’s Scriptures which witness to the saving acts of their God, Jesus Christ is not comprehensible as the one he is. “The Word made flesh is never encountered without textual mediation,” Francis Watson notes, “for Jesus is only recognized as such on the basis of a prior textuality.”

Jesus is initially acknowledged as Christ and Lord because that which takes place in him is said to take place ‘according to the scriptures’… Without these prior writings — the ‘Old Testament’ — this understanding would be impossible. The life of Jesus does not take place in a text-free vacuum in which his followers are able to enjoy immediate experiences of the divine.[3]

But his coming is not the denouement of a plot anyone within the wreckage of history could (then) or can (presently) apprehend apart from faith. Within the chaos of history, all that is perceivable is disorder and the myths that are marketed to us to keep the ensuing fear and dislocation at arm’s length. Stories promise us coherence, order, and an outcome. Because that happened, now this is taking place; if we would only do this, we would finally arrive at this destiny we know ought to be in store for us.

Apart from the human ability to construct narrative coherence, our experience of the world would dissolve into a torrent of frightening incomprehensibility. This capacity shouldn’t go unappreciated. For the apostles and evangelists, though, story isn’t the thread of continuity which renders the world stable and predictable: it is the flabbergasted and sometimes horrified testimony that this God has acted in this way to rescue his creation from Sin and Death. The cross of Christ may, retrospectively, be the climax of the covenant, but much more is it the life and light and love of God puncturing the Sin-dominated screen of the dying world.

As significant as it is that we remember what really happened so as to align ourselves with reality, in the end it is vastly more significant that God remembers us and aligns himself with us in our plight. God’s remembering Noah (Genesis 8:1), Abraham (Genesis 19:29), Rachel (Genesis 30:22), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19), and his covenant with the family of Abraham (Exodus 2:23-25) is the textual indicator that he is about to act, in time, on behalf of his creatures. Our remembering how God has acted in the past doesn’t coerce God into acting in the present: but remembering reconfigures the plausibility structures within which we operate and spurs us to pray for God’s acting again. Remembering and contemplating are forms of prayer. And he does act again; in spite of how regularly we are disappointments, God regularly acts to save and to heal. He does so knowing exactly what we are. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). Our remembering (verse 2) and God’s (verse 14) meet in the flesh of the God-Man.

The antithetical poles of man’s nature as “the glory and scum of the universe” (Pascal) were dramatically cast that day in the sharp relief of selfless rescue workers and hijacked jets colliding catastrophically with one another. Who can understand the dizzying polarities of human beings? Though capable of outstanding heroism and charity, we are at the same time sick with sin, twisted inwards, corrupting whatever we touch. There is a hideous, self-inflicted gouge in the visage of our race; our dignity is marred, and only a pale reflection of the nobility we possessed for one brief, shining moment.

A glorious and sorry lot we are; enviable among creatures (“the paragon of animals,” Hamlet rhapsodizes), yet pitiful in our distinct, nauseating way. The miracle is that God sees our state and pities us. He too is grieved by the death of his finite and fallen image-bearers — his heart is moved for the plight of those whose lives were extinguished that day eighteen years ago. God looks at the toxic stranglehold sin holds upon the universe, and His compassion burns in unison with his hatred for injustice. But in Christ and the Spirit, God turns to his creation in compassion. He sees every living creature subject to sin’s tyranny, the cosmos writhing in pain due to its subjection to the dominion of Sin. There is unspeakable tragedy in the reckless hate with which Sin seeks to destroy human lives, a tragedy that God himself identifies with concretely in the humanity of Jesus Christ. God has consecrated himself in eternity past to the eradication of the cosmic dissonance that tarnishes his good creation, and he has held nothing back in that campaign of liberation.

But he doesn’t send suicide bombers or uniformed troops to carry out his purpose: he assumes our places as the fitting recipients of the consequences of the actions we carry out under Sin’s enslavement and absorbs the nothingness that is Sin’s reward to its slaves. The Cross is the divine intervention into the tragedies and trauma that typify our existence as humans and the subversion of all Sin’s mechanisms. The drama of the cross exposes the apparent meaninglessness of the drama of history as both real (and therefore in need of defeating) and as not-ultimate. A final word has been spoken to the brokenness of the cosmos: Jesus Christ. And memorials of this word and this drama will not suffice to save us — we must participate in them.

We all live within stories being told by the cultures we form parts of, and if we are Christians we live from and live within the story of Jesus. Not all of these stories present themselves for easy literary analysis — it takes studious diagnosis and asking question after question to reconstruct much of the discourse that governs our lives as stories of some sort. But the story of Jesus Christ as the true story of the world is not the apologetic for this group’s bids for power or that group’s imperialist claims. The true story of the world should disabuse us of our presumptions of control, not fuel them.

Is remembering, then, “the art of the mature”? Not in and of itself, no. For the mature principally remember their composition; they remember they are dust: vulnerable, moldable, and prone to wander. The mature remember to resist being coopted into stories of propaganda. It’s a skill to hone and mature as we seek to participate in the apocalypse erupting out of Golgotha into our present. May we remember and participate in the holy cross which delivers us and our world from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. Amen.