Culture and Remembrance

Debate about the place of Islam in the West is growing – particularly in light of the various struggles and terrorist attacks of the past decade. In places like America, that once had no consciousness of Islam outside of film and fantasy, a re-education is taking place as people re-learn the struggles of the past. Thus there is talk of a “clash of civilizations.” Western Europe is also witnessing the growth of opposition to a threat that once haunted their ancestors – a thousand years before.

Many nations have suffered many things – everyone has the story of their oppression and victimization. The West is often cast as the oppressor in these stories, but has now joined the ranks of those who have the voice of victims. As a planet we can be a “culture of remembrance.” The pain of our memories is something of a false memory, in that it will not last forever. Only memory that is grounded in the End of things – memory that is eschatological – has true significance. There are forces that are seeking to re-write history at this very moment. There are false believers who imagine that acts of violence can shape the outcome of history.

This is not so. The outcome of history took place in the Resurrection of Christ. Regardless of whatever madness we may imagine year by year, the Resurrected Christ is at the center of all things, He is the Alpha and Omega. He cannot be seen with eyes of hatred and anger. The vision of the Resurrected Christ is normatively given to the pure in heart.

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I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – are painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land several years back, and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. (feast day March 20). It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.

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18 Responses to “Culture and Remembrance”

  1. handmaid leah Says:

    much needed perspective Father Stephen. Thank you.

  2. todd harding Says:

    While many points in this are very valid and true, our culture of rememberance is quick to forget the atrocities commited in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Kurdistan, in Iraq, in Iran, In Saudi Arabia, In Malaysia, in Egypt, In sudan….the list goes on and on.. Atrocities committed against US Christians, by none other than the religion we are supposed to be embracing and tolerating as a friend and equal. I cannot agree that we should embrace them until such a time as the leadership of the Religion of Peace comes out and categorically denies and condemns any and all atrocities committed against non-Islamic peoples. Yes we are the religion of Love and this is the message of Our Saviour, but He also tells us to be as Wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I think we have done the dove part well enough for the past 1000 years. Its time to wisen up and refuse to accept being killed and maimed because we feel its the right thing to do.
    Anyone who denies that Christ is the Son of God is of the antichrist. Need I say more.

  3. Zosimas Says:

    The subject/challenge/threat of Islam is one of the most pressing of this or any age. I agree, Father Stephen, that we must strive to allow our remembrance of the past (perhaps especially of wrongs committed in the past) to be transfigured by Christ into a proper — as you put it — eschatological culture of remembrance. In the case of Islam, this is all the more urgent, and for that transfiguration to take place requires that Christians educate themselves about Islam (to fight against forgetfulness). And we Orthodox have the fullest education to partake of and to offer in this area. In our day, when one reads of Episcopal priests practicing Muslim rituals for Lent, and Christian groups allowing Muslims to hold their prayer services in their churches, the fullness of Orthodoxy holds out truth, light and hope, and a much needed corrective to the trends of apostasy all around us. I recently completed a book on Islam (Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church has to say about the Religion of Muhammad), which sets forth a direct theological refutation of its claims based on the Scriptures, Patristic writings, and the Islamic source texts themselves. Throughout I try to separate our reaction against Islam from our outreach and approach to individual Muslims we may meet in our daily life, for we simply must present the Gospel of Life to them at every opportunity. My final chapter deals with the Importance of the Holy Neomartyrs for us today, for they enfleshed the eschatological thrust of our Faith by bravely confessing Christ and dying for Him. Many of them were Muslims who converted to Christ, and we see many Muslim conversions to Christ in our own day (see the Journey to Orthodoxy site for statistics and personal testimonies). You are welcome to visit my website if you are interested in the book. The full table of contents, preface, foreword plus endorsements are there, and it is available for online ordering. Forgive me for plugging it here, but this is such a timely topic. in Christ ~ Zosimas

  4. Michael Bauman Says:

    Al’Masiah qam with arms spread wide is the Christian response to Allahu Akbar

  5. Zosimas Says:

    Haqqan qam! Indeed He — Jesus Christ — is Lord!

  6. Yannis Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post and its message, F. Stephen.

  7. María G. Says:

    Dear father:
    These words in italics from your last post:
    “The pain of our memories is something of a false memory, in that it will not last forever. Only memory that is grounded in the End of things – memory that is eschatological – has true significance. There are forces that are seeking to re-write history at this very moment. There are false believers who imagine that acts of violence can shape the outcome of history”
    Please, what is the source? Are they yours, from a previous post? They hit home with me. So very healing. Thank you

    María

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Maria,
    They are my words – from a previous post as you guessed.

  9. Yeamlak Fitur Says:

    Islam is a huge threat, as it has been in history. People who came from where Chrisitans are being persecuted are all around us and they are the victims. We do not have to look too far, just recently in Egypt the Copt Christians are suffering and being persecuted.
    In looking at History in Turkey they have left their birth place and churches to live in peace elsewhere.
    Many of the early Christians, escaping from persecutions in Jerusalem, came to what was previously Asia Minor and is now Turkey. Most early disciples of our Lord settled and carved caves for their churches there. First Ecumenical Council was in Nicea in Turkey. Gradually, Christianity in Turkey disintegrated, so that when the Islamic Ottomans conquered it was inevitable that what had been a predominantly Christian region would be no more. Now in 70 million populations, Christians are only 100 thousand rest are muslims in Turkey.
    This is just one country and all others in the middle east have their own history on how much Islam has pushed the Christians, and this is violently burning churches and Holy books. In Ethiopia where I came from where it was mostly Orthodox Christians lots of churches have been burned in the early times, and there is still the threat just recently there was news where churches are burned.
    But here in the US the Muslims are the ones seen as victims. This is because we do not know much about the history of what happened in those first Christian countries.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Yeamlak,
    I do not want to be misunderstood. I understand the seriousness of the threat, both historically and in the present, represented by Islam. My point, however, is still that we should not abandon the Kingdom of God for the Kingdom of man, even if that kingdom should be nominally Christian. Our hope and our victory are in Christ crucified.

    I would agree that peoples have a right to self-defense, but self-defense will not accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God.

    The greatest threat in the world today is Christians who are not praying, who put their trust in themselves rather than in God. For if we do not pray for the world, how will the world be sustained. Sodom was lost for lack of less than 10 men. Those who rejoice at its destruction do not have the heart of Abraham who interceded for God’s mercy.

    How many faithful at prayer should there be today, such that God sustains the world? Without faithfulness, we find ourselves overcome by the world, whether it be mammon, or false religions.

    God help us to pray.

  11. Eleftheria Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Eulogeite!

    We live in Cyprus, home of the last divided capitol in the world, Nicosia. The northern third of our island republic remains under the occupation of over 40,000 Turkish troops and its demographics have been altered by the influx of over 160,000 Turkish nationals.

    The more than 500 churches, monasteries and chapels that are located in the northern occupied part of Cyprus have been transformed into: casinos, bars, and barns for storage and barns for animals. Their icons have been ripped out, sold or shattered, and every single cross on every single grave in every single cemetery has been broken.

    Here, in the southern part, the government refurbishes – every year – mosques and minarets (although most are not in use), as well as the cemeteries adjoining them. Daily, our nightly news relates stories of the ongoing tensions between our government and the Turkish government; and daily we face threats by Turkey – in spite of its bid to join the EU of which Cyprus is a member nation.

    And yet…here we are: by the grace of God. Indeed, Father, prayer is the ONLY way to survive Islam and any other threat – prayer for faith and prayer with faith.

    A blessed lent and a joyous Pascha to all!
    Eleftheria

  12. Ingemar Says:

    Blessings, Father.

    I do not know how to respond. On the one hand when looking at the encroachment of Islam in historically Christian lands, we can say that their victory comes at the heels of our failures (morally, economically, politically, spiritually, etc.) On the other such speculation, when shared with people like Eleftheria and Yeamlak becomes trite when we understand that they are simply to accept that their suffering is “their” failure when they did nothing wrong.

    Are those who are suffering now guilty of possessing a “false” memory? Are those who are having their faith and practice stolen from them supposed to be content with it? If that is so, then we all should politely accept an eternity in Hell for the failings of our father Adam.

    Ingemar

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Ingemar,
    I’m not advocating passivity – indeed – the struggle presented to us at the present requires that we be quite active. I would not want to say that those who are suffering are guilty of possessing a “false memory,” but there is always a struggle to be present to what is truly present and not treasuring the bitterness of past wrongs. But without a truly active spiritual life we will see the world around us slipping away towards one thing or another (sometimes violently – sometimes quietly). T.S. Eliot described the modern world (formerly Christian world) as a “wasteland.”

    It is interesting, but there are some amazing stories of conversions to Christianity within the Islamic lands – much of which is occurring “below” the radar for reasons of safety. But it underscores the importance of a vibrant Christian life.

  14. When History is a Prison « Caelum Et Terra Says:

    […] I wrote last week that we cannot allow history to become a prison; here is Father Stephen, on a similar vein: https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/culture-and-remembrance/ […]

  15. Yeamlak Fitur Says:

    Forgive me Father. I understood your point as talking about history and culture …as your point in the beginning calls out ..Many nations have suffered many things….and carried on with it. How Western Europe is also witnessing the growth of opposition to a threat that once haunted their ancestors – a thousand years before. That is where, I got carried away with talking more on threats.

    The only way we overcome and survive is when we pray more and more. In fact that is what happened in the places where Orthodoxy survived for a long time is where the people prayed more. Most history books in Ethiopia tell us how before they go to wars to fight and defend, they carry out huge services where the people just get together and pray. They Bless the soldiers before sending them. They mostly literally take the altar to the war front and do services. That is the Orthodox way. Hence how and why it survived all these years. The church services are the most important thing in Orthodox countries, no matter in what situation we are in we pray for the day and life we are Blessed with.

  16. Darlene Says:

    What is regrettable and tragic is when Christians fight Christians in battle because they answer the call of their government. War is a result of the fallen state of humanity. There is nothing glorious about it whatsoever.

  17. Todd Kagey Says:

    ‘Civil War’? ‘War between the States’? In the south, I thought it was called the ‘War of Northern Aggression”…

  18. Darlene Says:

    Todd,

    You are right about that. The Southerners most zealous for their cause spoke of the war as being “Northern Aggression.” To them it was Lincoln’s war and they wanted no part of it, but were forced to defend the cause when each southern state successively seceded from the Union.

    I was not raised with a consciousness of the Civil War, mainly I think because none of my ancestors were even in the U.S. yet, but still over in Europe.

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