Dangerous Memory

by Bishop Ross Bay

(Based on John 20:19-31)

On Wednesday evening just after Easter I joined the Auckland Jewish community for a memorial service for the Shoah, the Holocaust. During the service, the words “Never forget” were spoken many times. It is an exhortation to an active remembering with the purpose of ensuring that such an event can never occur again; and not just that there could be no such horror again, but that that the seed bed of hatred and discrimination that leads to such things cannot be allowed to be fostered in our society. A necessary exhortation, because ant-Semitic acts in New Zealand have doubled in recent years, and as we so vividly know from Christchurch those attitudes are not confined to Judaism.

The idea of memory is vital then. Memory is not just about holding on to moments of the past that in the recall of them help us to recapture feelings of joy or melancholy. Memory is an active thing that affects the present and the way we choose to act in the present. It’s what the Catholic theologian Johann Metz, who died at a great age just a couple of years ago, called “dangerous memory”. Metz was German and grew up through the years of the Second World War and thus the Holocaust. His theology is influenced by those early experiences and the loss of nerve of the Church in the face of National Socialism. He works his theology from the ground up, that is from the basis of human experience and understanding God in it, rather than starting from the transcendent notions of Almighty God coming down.
Metz understood that in the person of Jesus Christ we find the one in whom the human experience of God and the potential for God reaches its highest point. Jesus is the essential starting point for Christian faith. How can it be otherwise? The very definition of Christian is one who has taken the name of Christ, one who is a disciple of Jesus Christ. Metz placed a good deal of focus on solidarity. In Jesus Christ, God shows solidarity with a suffering world, and the followers of Jesus are called to do the same.

Notwithstanding the importance of the memory of the whole of salvation history, Christian faith finds its heart in the remembrance of Jesus. It is central to what we do in our weekly participation in the Eucharist: “Do this to remember me.” This is the clearest ritual form in which our remembering of Jesus occurs. We share bread and wine, remembering Jesus, the last supper with his friends, and the events of his passion and death to which that pointed.
In some church traditions that is all it is, a remembrance of past events. The bread and wine are symbols to remind us of the death of Jesus 2000 years ago, as a result of which we know salvation, an historical event which offers something to each generation. Anglican sacramental theology wants to take us a bit further than that. Certainly we remember the events, but more particularly we are remembering that Jesus is present now as we do these things. We know and serve the living God, the God of the present. So we say that in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, Christ is really present. We remember that God is with us, sustaining us with saving grace, and through the sacrament we are strengthened for the life and faith and discipleship to which God calls us.

A few years ago we published some new forms of service for the Eucharist which are particularly suitable for use with children. Instead of “Do this to remember me”, it says “Do this and know that I am with you.” I wasn’t too sure about that change at first because I thought it wasn’t being true to the biblical text. But the more I thought about it, the more wonderful I thought the interpretation was, because it reinforces this notion that our memory of Jesus is not about heroic tales of the founder of a movement that is still going. It is the memory for us that God in Christ is present in all things now – in the sacrament, in those I share it with, in the world around me – saving grace in action, calling me to join in with that grace.
Christian memory is about drawing on the past, the history of God’s saving acts, in order that we might remember that God dwells with us now. It is a memory of the present as much as a memory of the past.

That’s the meaning of Metz’s “dangerous memory.” Metz was strongly opposed to what he saw as “bourgeois religion”; by which he meant a religion that belonged to another time and that we remembered ritually, but which is removed from us and has no impact on our lives. Metz would say that, because to remember Jesus is to remember God who is actually present with us and calling to us; it is a dangerous memory, because it causes us to make choices.
For the early Christians there was a choice to be made between Jesus and the Roman Emperor. Though willing to accept the civil authority of the Emperor, many Christians would not ascribe divinity to him. Their choice of Jesus as Lord rather than the Emperor brought persecution and even death to some. In Metz’s generation some German Christians held a dangerous memory of Jesus and were among those who stood against the Nazi regime.

In our own context we might think of those who took a stand in the ’81 Tour, or who walked in the 1998 Hikoi of Hope. But what about now? It’s always harder to see in our own time just where the choices lie between Jesus and the evils present in our own generation. What do we think and have to say about the enormous income gap between rich and poor, the unaffordability of housing, or the climate crisis? What will we do to build a society that creates genuine inclusion of all, across the challenges of difference; that seeks not to pretend that difference does not exist, nor seeks to deal with difference by eradicating it, but faces the challenge of difference and, in the words of the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, offers dignity to it.

Jesus made a choice to live trustingly with God, and so the purposes of God are worked out in Jesus in ways which brought hope to all sorts of people he met in his own time. Jesus remembered God, and it is a dangerous memory for it involved choosing for God, and ultimately it led to the cross. Through that self-giving love, Jesus brings eternal life, fullness of life, to the whole of humanity. For cross and resurrection can never be separated from one another. The memory of one is the memory of the other, solidarity and hope linked together in the memory of Jesus crucified and risen.
Every week, but especially in this Easter season, we gather in thankful memory of Jesus, risen from the dead. It is a memory more than a melancholy one of a loved departed friend, a relationship which we hope might be restored in the afterlife. It is the memory of the God who is with us now, who reassures and gives hope, whose life and peace strengthen us for all we might have to face. But it is a dangerous memory, for once we know it, we are called to make choices. We must choose what we stand for and what we stand against. We must choose not to keep it as a religion which helps us feel good, but as a faith that calls us to speak and act with Jesus for God.

We remember Jesus, who died and rose again, and who is with us now, calling us to act as his people
and build God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

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