This is the text of a talk I delivered at the Briercrest College chapel, November 10, 2011.
I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, but tomorrow is a pretty cool day as far as calendars go because the date will be 11/11/11. It’s one of those rare dates that when you see it in print, you don’t have to ask, “Now which is the month and which is the day?”
Of course, beyond the coolness of the date 11/11/11 to numerologists and collectors of numerical phenomena, tomorrow is Remembrance Day—an annual national holiday that we have been observing since l919 to commemorate the end of the Great War, World War I. A cascading wave of thousands of people across various time-zones will pause tomorrow at the 11th hour to remember specifically those men and women who have served their country and fellow citizens by seeking to be defenders of the defenseless. Of course, special honour is given to those who lost their lives in the call of duty while serving.
As we draw near to this year’s Remembrance Day, I want to pause to explore two questions. First, “What does it mean to remember?” And, second, “What might this act of remembering mean for us as we shortly come to this Remembrance Day?”
First, what do we mean when we say we are to “remember”? Now, at one level “to remember” means “to recall or bring back to mind.” In the most basic sense of the term, “to remember” is simply an act of brain power in which we mysteriously dig into the reservoir of brain cells or mind (I’ll let the philosophy students decide whether mind and brain are the same thing…), pull out a memory, and temporarily reflect upon it, only thereafter to file it away again deep into our neural filing cabinet. Such remembering, we might say, is a form of selective recall for a particular purpose. When we ask, “Remember that time when we went to Banff for breakfast?” or “Remember when you actually had to ‘dial up’ to get on the Internet?” we are “remembering” for a particular occasion and for a particular purpose. For a moment, we ponder, cherish, or maybe even cringe at the memory. But then, a few minutes later, the memory returns to the depths of our brain where it may never surface again.
That we have to “call up” our memories indicates that we can’t remember and reflect upon everything that is in our brain all of the time. In fact, we are created in such a way that we “forget” more than we remember. If we did remember everything all of the time, we would, quite simply, go insane with information overload. We humans simply could not cope with such all-encompassing, ever present recall of everything we have experienced and everything that we have learned. (We as professors, of course, remind you that when it comes to exams, we do expect you to remember everything. Just don’t ask us to.).
Now there is a right and proper place for this “recall”-type of remembering. And I think there is a sense in which Remembrance Day is at least, in part, an opportunity to exercise this basic kind of recall. Although none of us were personally involved in the World Wars, most of us have learned something about it in school or from parents or grandparents. Having an annual day called “Remembrance Day” allows us a regular occasion to “recall” something that for the other 364 days of the year, we simply may not call to memory. It is important, in other words, to periodically and intentionally “remember” that so many people have served on our behalf in ways far beyond our ability to comprehend and understand.
That said, I am well aware that people in this room most certainly have varying opinions on Christian involvement in war, but there is something important to realize that many Christians and non-Christians alike responded in ways they felt were right and just in the situation. And for that, we do well to be grateful for them, despite the fact that we may personally disagree with their decisions.
But this little discussion of remembering at the first level has, I think, shown itself to be an insufficient, or at least unsatisfying, account of remembrance. For if we allow that there is very likely deep difference of opinion even in this room on the appropriateness of military action from a Christian perspective, there is no way to avoid the reality of history. Men and women have served and died on our behalf, and men and women will continue to serve and die on our behalf. In this regard, we do not simply have the option of “un-remembering” them. Nor is there a way to prevent them from acting on our behalf. They do and they will. Consequently, it seems to me that we cannot merely answer the question of what it means to “remember,” but we have to dig a little deeper and seek to answer the question, “What does it mean to remember rightly?”
In putting it this way, of course, I am assuming—and I hope that you will bear this assumption with me—that there are right and wrong ways to remember. For remembrance, you see, is not neutral. For in one case, remembrance may be practiced to extend honour and to enact justice (the Bible might calls this “confession”, an act which is encouraged), while in another case remembrance may be practiced to heap disgrace and to bring about revenge (the Bible calls this “keeping records of wrongs” and clearly discourages it.) Obviously, then, for Christians who live in a country where Remembrance Day is commemorated, we cannot simply “not remember” but must ask, “How, then, should we remember rightly?” (I acknowledge the subtitle of Miroslav Volf’s book here: The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.)
There is probably no people group who have done a better job of reflecting deeply upon what it means to remember (or at least, to not forget) than the Jews. The fact that Jews have had to endure centuries of persecution, the pinnacle of which was the Holocaust of World War II, means that they have had to find ways to ensure future generations “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust. I am convinced that their ability to think deeply about remembering has come about because of a deep theology of remembrance that echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible—a theology which continues has inform even those secular Jews today who no longer claim to believe in the God of their Scriptures. So in the brief minutes we have, I’d like to outline just two components of a biblically grounded view of “right remembering”—a view of remembrance that I think can be helpful to us as Christians even as we come shortly to Remembrance Day.
Turn with me to the book of Deuteronomy where I will be limiting our focus this morning to a couple passages. First, Deut. 5:15: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” What might this passage have to say about “remembering rightly”?
1) To remember rightly is to speak truthfully of our history.
You will likely recall from your Pentateuch or Old Testament Literature classes that the book of Deuteronomy was written to remind the Israelites of the Law an earlier generation had received from Moses. As this new generation of Israelites was on the cusp of entering into the promised- land, they needed to be reminded of the requirements of the Law that God had set forth to them. As they prepared themselves to enter the land, in this verse God tells them to “remember that they were slaves.” Indeed, God repeats this reminder at least six times in the book of Deuteronomy (5:15; 6:21; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18; 24:22). So as they stood on the banks of the Jordan, ready to receive the rich inheritance God had promised to them, God expected the Israelites to “remember” (or “never forget”) that they had once been slaves in Egypt.
This reminder to Israel does not merely stand alone as a description of her past or as a bare fact of history. Rather, God goes on to remind them that their rescue from slavery was by his hand. You see, God wants Israel to remember that their rescue from slavery was not as a result of Israeli military commandos dropping in to rescue the people, nor was it a result of political diplomacy—as much as Moses and Aaron tried!—but it was as a result of the YHWH’s direct intervention that Israel was freed from her slavery. It was a result of YHWH’s mighty hand and outstretched arm that Israel was delivered. “Don’t forget,” God says, “It had nothing to do with their efforts.”
But God goes on and commands Israel to do something very specific. He says, “Therefore, keep the Sabbath day.” Now what in the world does keeping the Sabbath have to do with remembering that they were slaves and rescued by God? I think the connection is as follows. I think God is saying this: “I want you to remember you were slaves, freed by my hand, and not by your effort. Therefore, as a regular act of remembering this fact, I want you to keep the Sabbath day, for it is on the Sabbath day, when you do no work, I nevertheless continually provide. As you pause each week from your labour, you remember rightly that I am the God who rescued you. And by keeping the Sabbath day holy, you simultaneously acknowledge, over and over again, that though you were once slaves, by no effort of your own, I delivered you and saved you from your enemies.”
I find this particular call of God to remember highly instructive for us. I find it telling that God’s command to Israel to “remember” was one rooted in God’s historical action toward them. And I find it especially telling that throughout the OT, the prophets continually are calling Israel to remember their own story of having been slaves and being freed from slavery by the mighty hand of God. The work of the prophets, in other words, was not only to tell Israel what God was saying, God’s present mouthpiece, as it were, but they also help Israel to remember and speak truthfully of their own history.
But, of course, the tragedy was (and, I think, often still is) how quickly and how often Israel “forgot” this story. Their failure to keep the Sabbath (and therefore their failure to remember rightly) meant that they forgot that their freedom was not won by their own hand, but by the hand of YHWH. Beyond this, how often did Israel attribute to idols that which YHWH alone had accomplished? Even before Moses had come down the mountain when he was receiving the Law, the people were already remembering their story wrongly and bowing down to a golden calf—claiming that it was this calf that had brought them out of Egypt.
So, I think, the first lesson we need to learn is that right remembering is to speak truthfully of our own history. You see, God knows that with the passing of time and due to our own fallenness and human pride, we have a tendency not so much to forget our history as we have a tendency to rewrite our history in such a way as to either emphasize ourselves, our own accomplishments and works, or to emphasize the idols of our own choosing as the most important pieces of our history. But of course, either way is still idolatry and is still a failure to remember our history rightly.
As for us, as we stand on the eve of Remembrance Day, there are two equally harmful ways that we may fail to remember rightly by failing to speak truthfully about our history. On the one hand, it may be tempting for us to ignore our history altogether, to pretend as if our national involvements in the terrible wars of the past century were simply to be forgotten, or worse, to be despised. But such a dishonest non-telling of our history is to pretend that somehow, God had abandoned his people, the Church, in times of great distress. Whatever your personal theology of war and military involvement may be, to fail to acknowledge our forefathers’ and foremothers’ involvement is to inadvertently to insist that for a period, at least, God’s providential hand had been lifted from his people, and indeed, from this world. For in the end, whatever justice was served, however minimal we may perceive that to be, to fail to speak truthfully about our history is to fail to give glory to the God who brought us through.
On the other hand, and this is probably the bigger temptation for many these days, it may be tempting to so glory in the feats of heroism and victories over perceived evil that those who served the military become idols themselves. To tell the history of these global conflicts in such a way that all glory is given to military strategy, to battles, and to individual heroism is itself to remember wrongly. For there is no political authority except as set up and torn down by the hand of the Almighty, Sovereign Lord of Creation. All authority in heaven and earth has been delivered to the Just King, Jesus, alone, and to tell stories of military might as the primary means by which justice is delivered is to remember wrongly. Just as Israel was commanded to keep the Sabbath day—a day when they did no work—so, too, for us, to remember rightly means that in the midst of, and sometimes despite, military heroics and dictatorial heinousness, God alone reigns. In our day, to speak of freedom won on our behalf but to forget to mention the God of freedom is already a wrong remembrance. Thus, we remember wrongly when either annihilate from memory those men and women who served, or to set those same men and women up on pedestals as idols to Western freedom. But we remember rightly when we honour the service these men and women played, while continuing to give God glory for any and every justice that was won.
2) To remember rightly is to exercise yesterday’s justice today.
Turn quickly now to a second passage in Deuteronomy, this time 15:15. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.”
For this verse, it is especially important to look at the immediate context because it gives us further clues about what it means to remember rightly. The verse falls in the middle of a chapter describing the practice of the Sabbath year. Every seventh year, under the Law of God, debts were to be cancelled and slaves were to be freed. The reason? Vs. 4 – “There should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” Notice that God wasn’t saying that the Israelites weren’t allowed to lend to one another, nor was he even explicitly forbidding the ownership of slaves. What he is forbidding, however, is a system where the poor and the slave have no opportunity to break out of their poverty or slavery. The Sabbath year (at least in theory) was supposed to free the poor from debt and the slaves from being slaves—and all this as a sign of the generous blessing of God to the Israelites as a whole.
Thus, when we get to verse 12, we find out that if a fellow Hebrew, for some reason, fell into hard times and had to sell himself as a slave to make a go of life, God required that such a state of affairs would be only temporary. Every seventh year slaves were not only to be set free, but also, upon being set free, were to be given a liberal supply of livestock and grain so that he could go and start supplying for himself in the years to come. I want to suggest here that this is the essence of biblical justice—generosity to the disadvantaged and down trodden, to the ones who were incapable of supplying, and dare I say, defending themselves. Justice is not about the government making sure everyone is equal; justice is about making sure that those who have are being generous toward those who don’t. To be just is to be liberally generous to those who have nothing to give in return.
It is in this sense, then, that God finally reminds the people (back to verse 15) that they were to practice the Sabbath year (an extension of keeping the Sabbath in chapter 5) and that this practice of cancelling debts and freeing slaves served as a reminder to them that they, too, had been slaves, and that because the Lord had freed (or redeemed) them, they were to do likewise to their fellow Israelite. So, the Israelites rightly remembered when they passed on justice to their countrymen as an act of participation with the justice they and their forefathers had, in an earlier generation, also received directly from the hand of God. In short, to remember rightly is to exercise yesterday’s justice today. Just as they had been slaves and freed from their slavery, to remember rightly was to participate in the history of their forefathers who had been freed from slavery yesterday and today to free others who were under a different form of slavery. In other words, the principle of extending justice as generosity to others was the same, even though the context was different.
It is a sad thing that during WW2, a war in which the allies sought to battle against the crazed ideologies of the racist actions of a megalomaniac against the Jews, that in North America, Germans and Japanese-though fortunately not taken to the incinerator ovens, were nevertheless sometimes rounded up and put in concentration camps, wrongly accused and mistreated. It is amazing, in other words, how justice served across the seas was justice denied in our own back yards. (For more, see How Silent were the Churches? Canadian Protestantism and the Jewish Plight during the Nazi era.) In the struggle for justice that many were called upon to undertake on foreign soil, it is all too disconcerting to think about the injustices that we stood by and allowed to be perpetrated here on our own soil. This doesn’t negate the fact that there are cases of extreme injustice against which we are called to fight (however you might define “fight”), but right remembering acknowledges that we, too, have a role to play. The danger is that in lauding and remembering justices won in the past, we far too often stand aside and are complicit in the face of our present-day injustices.
As we extend that thought, the historical context in which we find ourselves today is obviously quite different than the context in which our forefathers and foremothers found themselves during the wars of the twentieth century. For us to remember rightly on remembrance day is not simply to recall, as a matter of historical curiosity, what justice our forefathers were fighting for and to give them a virtual “atta boy!” for a job well done. Such a “remembrance” is paradoxically in danger of lulling ourselves to sleep and thinking that justice has already been won. On the contrary, today we remember rightly when we identify justice that has been served in the past and then seek to extend justice to those of today who are defenseless and voiceless, who have either voluntarily or involuntarily given themselves over to slavery of all kinds.
And so, as uncomfortable as it is to ask, we must ask: How many unborn, defenseless, voiceless children will die in Canada and the US today? How many young girls and boys will be sold into the slavery of prostitution on the streets of Moose Jaw, Regina, Vancouver, and Toronto today? How many children without parents or stable homes will need to eke out an existence on the street today? We remember rightly when we not only acknowledge the works of justice won yesterday, but when we participate in acts of mercy and justice today.
So tomorrow, let us not fail to honour the role that our forefathers and foremothers may have played as instruments of God to serve justice against evildoers, as Paul seems to indicate in Romans 13. But in remembering their role, let us not then fail to seek to do today, by God’s help, what is merciful and just and right. For to do so will be to remember rightly that we too were slaves to sin, to corruption, and to injustice, but we have been now freed to be servants of righteousness, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.