For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to take my girlfriend for a date through the Pulitzer Prize photography exhibition in Philadelphia. She is much more artistically-minded than I and we had talked before about visiting a gallery or museum sometime. I love photography and thought that the exhibit would be a classy and apt hybrid between our interests. What I had forgotten was that the Pulitzer Prize is awarded for photojournalism, which meant that though each shot was notable for composition and technique, they primarily represented the biggest (and often most tragic) news events of each year. This meant that our “date” consisted mainly of silently studying the most graphic, gut-wrenching photos of every major war, famine, and natural disaster from 1940 and onwards. There were photographs of Iwo Jima, of mass graves in Rwanda, of the World Trade Center exploding, of soldiers in Vietnam and Aleppo and Syria and Zimbabwe and Cambodia, of funerals and caskets. There were photographs of assassinations, of executions and prisoners, of burning and bloodied bodies, of race riots and shootings, of lynchings and genocide, of women buried under mudslides and earthquakes, of children with mangled limbs and gaunt skeletons and napalm-seared flesh and in body bags. In essence, it was a collection of the world’s most provocative and inarticulably dense depictions of human emotion.
It was not the most romantic of venues.
We are both “internal processors” of emotion, so we took a break partway through to get some coffee and decompress. Sitting quietly in the cafeteria, we talked absently about the photographs. “It reminded me of Ecclesiastes,” she said, and I thought about all the futility and sorrow and frustration encompassed in that book:
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 4
New Years is usually the time in which we stop to remember major events and milestones. It is often said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but is the act of remembering really that helpful? The rallying cry in a post-Holocaust world has been “Never forget,” but as my brief trip down the world’s memory lane reminded me, such retention does not necessarily beget a just and civil society. Though memory can serve as a sober reminder and ward against injustice, it also has a way of twisting over time, warping the narratives of our lifetime experiences in ways that promote vengeance and actually perpetuate injustice. We can all think of traumatic events in our personal lives that have degenerated into bitterness and spite over time; how much more has this been possible in the national or international consciousness, in Kosovo and Syria and Afghanistan and the Congo and Palestine?
Miroslav Volf takes a surprising and arresting approach to these questions in his book, The End of Memory. He begins with a vivid and harrowing experience: his own unjustified interrogation by a military general. The experience leaves Volf with mental scars and he accurately notes that to remember is an act that relives the trauma, often in ways that are not positive or encouraging. But he also notes that, if we are exacting in the methodology of remembering rightly, it can offer the possibility of redemption. If we remember history rightly, we remember that Jesus Christ suffered the atonement for all our sins and crimes, that no person or nation stands otherwise justified before his throne. We can then choose not to act in retribution, and in so doing to “forget” the transgression. In this way, both victim and perpetrator freed through this act of “forgetting” are liberated from cycles of vengeance even as their injuries remain fully acknowledged. Such remembering and forgetting does not mean that the hurt of such actions is erased from our consciousness so much as it means that it no longer has power over us. This is perhaps what Scripture means when it says that God forgets our sins:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more. – Hebrews 8
One picture in the gallery that stood out to me was 1963 winner “Aid from the Padre,” a photograph of a chaplain giving last rites to a solider bleeding to death in his arms as they stood in the midst of machine gun fire. The priest looked down the street at the source of rebel of sniper fire, his face stunning as an expression of alertness without terror or malice. In our world of horrors, what will we choose to remember and how will we choose to forget? What will it mean to look back upon the grief of the nations and maintain the courage to look forwards even as we embrace the weak, the dying, the killers, the now and future dust of the earth?
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut — when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low — they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets — before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. – Ecclesiastes 12