I was raised in a part of the world where we learned about the Holocaust on a regular basis in school. The words “Never Forget” were central to the lessons; the idea, like the philosopher George Santayana wrote, was that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it; this was and continues to be an essential life lesson. Remembering where we come from, we are often reminded, keeps us grounded and gives us empathy, especially if we come from modest or meager means. In the Christian Sacrament of Holy Communion, one of the central parts is called “anamnesis” – don’t forget/remember. So, it isn’t the remembering that is controversial, it’s how and what we remember that seems to be at the center of our disagreements.
It always surprises me, then, when people want to change the way history is taught in our schools. Some of the very same people who cling to the memory and mythology of the American south want to change the way enslaved people are described. For example, the State of Texas was formed when that territory seceded from Mexico in 1836. Why? Because Mexico had abolished slavery, and Texas wanted to keep that evil institution intact. Texas has also changed the word “slavery” to “involuntary relocation” in many public school textbooks. Other states have moved in ways that are meant to soften the realities of American history that make them (as white people) look and feel badly about themselves. Because telling the truth about people like us from hundreds of years ago convicts us? That is an immature and dangerous attitude. I am mostly of German descent, but I am not to blame for the Holocaust. I still need to remember, however, how and why it happened. Just like slavery and the attempted genocide of Native Americans. Just like legal misogyny. Just like anti-immigration attitudes that have permeated our entire existence as a nation.
Meanwhile, we see some politicians demonizing certain groups in this country, much like the Nazis did in the early 1930s. It isn’t that these American politicians are all fascists, but it is a reminder that decisions and behaviors often have unexpected and deadly consequences. And basing legislation on religious beliefs only leads to death and disruption, unless those values are universal and meant to benefit everyone. Laws based on bigotry only benefit the bigots; restrictions based on archaic moral codes only take us backward. We only need to look at history’s failures to be reminded of our weaknesses as human beings.
We can find ways to heal ourselves that don’t include purposeful denial of the truth. We can find ways to move forward without forgetting the past. And though our education can never include everything that has ever happened, it should include those lessons that remind us of our greatness as well as our failures. This is how we learn. This is how we never forget. This is how we become more than we have ever been.
Prayer – You, O God, tell us to remember the times when we suffered so that we can have empathy when others go through the same things. Help us to never forget, so that we don’t repeat our same mistakes. Amen.
Today’s art is “Childhood Memories” by Andrea Banjac.