Monday, July 22, 2013
The Memory of Violence
by Charity Erickson
A few years ago, I worked at a coffee shop on a college campus. There was a German Masters student and first-year language instructor—a thick-necked, plaid-and-khaki-wearing bro if there ever was one—who liked to sit at the bar and chat up the younger baristas while “grading papers” (i.e. friending his female students on Facebook.)
He was a dog, that’s for sure, but every so often he would engage in thoughtful conversation. One day I asked him, “In German schools, how do history teachers address the Holocaust?”
“They never let us forget,” he said. “We had to go to presentations all the time.” And he rolled his eyes, ever so slightly.
I was put off by his nonchalance, but his answer also intrigued me. It was clear from the rest of our conversation that, at least where this young man was from, someone felt it was important to make Germany’s dark history personal for the next generation of young Germans—lest they become detached from a crucial part of the country’s national identity.
I found this to be an unusually mature way to address a painful and difficult issue. Where I attended school—in frosty Minnesota—we (me and my social circle of white suburbanites) allowed ourselves the self-righteous luxury of detachment from the dark episodes in America’s past. The sins we did admit were those we could hold at arm’s length, because they happened in a distant part of the country. We saw the South as the stronghold of slavery, and therefore, America’s stronghold of evil.
It hasn’t been until quite recently that Minnesotans have begun to acknowledge our state’s own grizzly past. The relationship between the Native Americans and American immigrants in the state is complex and tragic, characterized by exploitative and dishonest government dealings, death marches, mass hangings, and all-out war between the indigenous peoples and settlers. Museum exhibits, public television specials, and front-page articles in the Minneapolis newspaper have brought the story into public consciousness.
It is a good attempt at honestly acknowledging the past, but I’m afraid it will take a much more conscious effort on the part of Minnesotans—those with whom I share a regional identity—to truly believe that all this evil is our heritage, to own it, and regard it as something that we need to deal with.
This is what a mature public consciousness would desire: to deal truthfully with the past, to resist the delusion that who we once were has no bearing on who we are now, and to deal with the ramifications of the past so that they don’t cause more damaging problems in the future.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going here. This isn’t just a principle for building healthy regional communities. Looking into the dark, confusing rooms of the past is necessary for the achievement of health and maturity in individuals, families, and faith groups.
This point has become increasingly salient to me as a Christian: when we are tempted to explain away Old Testament violence, New Testament intolerance, or the minefield of dark and evil passages in Christian history, we must resist the tendency to detach ourselves from the wrongs committed by our Christian ancestors. Christianity that refuses to recognize and thoughtfully address dysfunctional manifestations of the faith will never be mature. It will be delusional, or childishly dense, like the toddler who assumes you can’t see him when he covers his own eyes.
We cannot view ourselves as separate from these chapters in our faith’s history. Maturity does not seek separation; it seeks healthy relationships and radical wholeness. Ephesians 4 tells us that spiritual maturity does not come by giving an account of the faith through well-thought-out teaching—explaining away our faith history by saying, “We’re not like that anymore!”—rather, maturity comes through the reconciliation of the community of Believers, past and present, taking on the sins of our fathers and making things right. It will not be pretty work. It will be neither efficient nor clean. But it is necessary. And it is right. We must never forget.
Charity Erickson and her husband Lance live and work together in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
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