As a teenager, my mother always sent me out into the world saying, “Remember who you are.” She intuitively knew that memories define us and play an important role in our behavior and future decisions.

We see this in young children, where developing a memory allows children to define selves in relation to others and the world around them. When encountering a new experience, categorizing based upon past experience relieves stress and allows for comprehension of new information. Likewise, the loss of memory in aging adults removes our ability to define ourselves in meaningful ways. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy revealed the pain and dislocation of non-memory when a character taped a post-it to her husband saying, “This is Robert. Robert is your husband.” Remembering who we are helps us act in accord with our values and self image.

This is equally true of nations and communities. What we choose to remember defines our identity and directs our future. U.S. history, our history, is the history of freedom, we’re told. In pursuit of that goal, we the people have continued to broaden freedom to more and more people groups, often through war. Picture the Mall on Washington and the story it tells through symbol. Flowing down from the Capital (symbol of democracy) is the monument to Washington, telling the story of courageous freedoms fought for and won against a non-democratic oppressor.  The Lincoln memorial stands as a testament to war’s ability to bring freedom and unity when we persevere. The WWII memorial is one of the most stunning examples of how symbols communicate power, a true testament to something many refer as the “Good War.”

These and several other stories are the key memory bricks we’ve used to erect our national image. The story is clear: we are a nation of heroes bent on freedom at any cost. And so today, in our next step as valiant warrior, we’re spreading ‘peace and freedom’ in the Arab world. In erecting this image, it becomes inconvenient to remember aspects of our story that don’t further this metanarrative: bad bricks, if you will. Absent from Washington’s Mall are two of the most definitive and core stories of our nation: the 300 years of chattel slavery, and the genocide of the First Nations people. Why? Is it because bad bricks disrupt our self image and derail our inevitable march towards ‘freedom’?

Selective memory may be beneficial in stroking our ego, but it’s not helpful in producing wise, relevant decisions regarding our future. Paul Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it (pg 88).” True words allow for growth and change. Selective memory severely limits our ability to learn from history, to grow as a nation, and to be defined in ways appropriate to this context in these times.

Today, we selectively forget the true cost of the wars we’re fighting. Civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (etc…) are counted in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Drone attacks in Pakistan, notorious for killing civilians, have increased since Osama bin Laden’s death rather than disappeared. Our economy (and national, state, and city budgets) continues to flounder without drawing connection to the trillions spent on war.

But remembering the fullness of who we are is both Biblical, and practical. The Hebrew Scripture (what Christians call “The Old Testament”) erects a national mall in stark contrast to our own: including bad bricks almost to the exclusion of anything good (Psalm 95 is a nice ode to bad bricks). Jesus (Luke 24:13-35) and Stephen (Acts 7) both preach early post-resurrection stories inviting listeners to build their house of faith using both good and bad memory bricks. Christians celebrate this “complete memory” each and every time we break the bread and pour the cup of communion. From the perspective of faith, it seems imperative to resist forces which limit or bury memory, else our whitewashed “pure” self-image will blind us to the consequences of our choices. Both the good and the bad memory bricks are, apparently, essential in erecting a just and peaceful world.

This weekend we’re invited to erect a holistic house using both our good and bad memory bricks. Discovery Green is hosting a memorial to all lives lost in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Event information says:

Memorial to Military and Civilian Losses in Iraq and Afghanistan Wars May 28th – 30th. The memorial consists of a labeled US and Texas flag for each of the almost 600 Texans killed in both conflicts and prayer flags and photos to denote the many tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilian losses. 

Is it possible that the greatness of our nation tomorrow depends on the fullness of our memory today? Perhaps.

Remember who you are!

Also posted at Marty’sHouston Chronicle  The Peace Pastor blog at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor. Follow Marty on Twitter.

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