Yesterday I finally got around to seeing “The Butler.” While I had mixed thoughts on the film overall (although it was absolutely worth seeing solely for Forest Whitaker’s performance), I really appreciated how it invited the audience to remember. Part of the story follows Whitaker’s son, who is a key player in the Civil Rights movement, as he journeys through the fight for equality. Even though I have by no means forgotten that the Civil Rights movement happened, it comes to life so much more when it appears in a film. It is devastating to see the way humans treated other humans. It is hard to believe that this was the norm in many places in this country 50 years ago. I think that the easy place to land is this assumption that we’re so much more enlightened today. However, I can’t help but think what a dose of perspective would lend us as we explore our own present. Were people just evil till the 60’s till they suddenly evolved and became more tolerant? Of course not. I think being reminded of these atrocities in our past also brings a warning. Humans are capable of utter evil. Not just humans in a removed way, but you and I. I often find myself asking the question: what makes me different from those who sought to segregate African American people, or those who interned and killed the Jewish people in World War II? I hope that I would stand against injustice, and I hope that I do today. But when we remember, we realize the chilling reality that it could easily be us. What a humbling thought.
There’s the often quoted adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Side note: upon looking this up, I was able to find who first wrote that (Click here if you’re interested for more on George Santayana). I hate to be cliché, but there is such sturdy wisdom in that idea. Remembering our past acknowledges that we do not have all the answers. That progress is not the answer to every problem.
During my travels to Syria we visited a town called Hama. Before arriving, our group leader explained how the previous president had attacked a neighborhood in this town in order to quell rebellion back in 1981. Many people, including many innocents, died in the massacre. The neighborhood, which quickly had become a massive grave, was demolished and the government built a fancy hotel on top. That night we walked through the hotel. It was without a doubt one of the fanciest buildings we’d seen, but knowing the history of this place made us sick with despair. We prayed as we walked this burial ground, a literal symbol of a place forgetting its past. Our group leader told us how the older generations were so ashamed of the Hama Massacre and as a result, never spoke of it. Often, the younger generations had no idea it had happened. Yet, as we see the fighting and tumult in Syria right now, it seems clear that the truth will remain buried only for so long.
Yet, I find as a human that remembering is so flipping difficult! I forget all the time. It’s no wonder that God continues to call the nation of Israel to remember. He has them build memorials and much of the Psalms call Israel to remember who God is and what he has done. One of my favorite passages continues to be Joshua 4, when Israel crosses the Jordan and the Lord tells Joshua to have the people build a memorial (Josh. 4:5-7, ESV):
And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.”
These stones are a memorial to what God has done. So, memory is not just used as a cautionary tale of what could happen, but also a calling back to truth.
I think when we take the time to remember, we have the invitation to step into humility, to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. We are invited to see truth, which is often haunting. We can try to avoid our past, but humans weren’t built to do that long term without serious side effects.
What do you need to remember today?
Next post I’ll explore the opposite side of the spectrum, when we get stuck in the past.