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John Thatamanil Headshot

The Work of Memory

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The phrase "Never forget!" is vacuous or dangerous, either meaningless sloganeering or a provocation. The vital question is "Why remember?"

Many, especially in New York, remember 9/11 because they cannot forget; the traumatic grip of memory is severe and unrelenting. What can "Never forget!" mean for those who have no choice in the matter?

For most, pausing to remember requires an act of deliberation. We who elect to remember must ponder our motivations. Do we remember to nurse grievance, to fuel Islamophobia, to divide neighbor against neighbor? Or do we perform the work of memory to honor the dead, support the traumatized living, and to recommit ourselves to the difficult and delicate work of healing? Given the enormous power of memory, everything depends on the why.

Perhaps the chief reason to be deliberate about the work of remembering is that our memories are never solely at our disposal. They can be activated and then manipulated by those who know that memories can be mobilized to public ends not of our choosing. The rawness of memory -- its capacity to render the flow of time meaningless and cast us back into a past that never passes -- has the power to inflame. Mindful of the malleability of memory, we must refuse to cede the labor of remembering to those who volunteer to perform that work on our behalf.

The memory of violation also brings with it the abyss of meaninglessness -- that first moment in which we ask, "Why is this happening?" and no answer comes. An open wound that cries out for the consolation of meaning is a precarious site on which the calculating and the opportunistic routinely build. The fires of false patriotism can be fanned, fears mobilized against those whom we cast as other and wars can be launched.

Some few seek to find meaning in suggesting that our wounds were well deserved, that American imperialism met its due reward on 9/11. But this is too thin a tissue to weave over so vast a wound. It seeks to anneal the absurdity of violence by a narrative that consoles no one, not least the families of those who died of no fault of their own, save that they worked in or near the World Trade Center. Such assertions even seem akin to the claims of some who are abused who elect to say that their suffering is deserved rather than acknowledge the wanton and meaningless cruelty of abuse. One does not have to embrace the myth of national innocence in order to recognize the futility in speaking of 9/11 as just deserts for American imperialism.

As a Christian, I am mindful that my tradition is constituted by the work of remembering the wounds suffered by a man who lived 2,000 years ago. It is a matter of perpetual mystery that the tradition insists that even the resurrected body of the Christ remains open. Into his side, Thomas inserts his hand. The resurrected body eternally bears the mark of its wounding.

Tragically, the wounded body of Jesus has itself over these millennia been deployed to wound others, most especially his own people, the Jews, who were accused of being Christ-killers. Christians have sought to close his wound by means of retaliatory violence. Even the injuries of the one whom Christians name Love Incarnate has been deployed in the service of hate. No site of wounding is safe.

But others have found in his wounding the power of a love that refuses to violate in return. Remembering his words on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," his followers, Christian and non-Christian (like Gandhi) alike, have transfigured the work of memory to wondrous ends. Bearing in mind that he elected nonviolence as his tool of resistance against the enemies whom he loved, these followers refuse any path that would transform memory into justification for violence. Rather than wound those who wound, these few have testified to the binding power of love rather than the shallow consolation afforded by narratives of suspicion and vengeance.

In the end, no justifying narrative can assuage the wounds we suffer as individuals and as communities, certainly not narratives of vindication through violence. Perhaps Christian narrative refuses to close the wound of Jesus but leaves it open because only a body that remains open to the world in love is an adequate response to violence. The only power that can console is love, a wise love that takes care to remember our common vulnerability and so stands disarmed and open to a future beyond retaliation. The memory of the suffered wound becomes the occasion for a commitment to putting an end to the cycle of violence.