Shekinah Glory

Dangerous Memory


Psalm 137

Memory has many purposes for an individual or culture. It can be used to celebrate, used as an act of nostalgia, an act of defiance against a power’s official history, or be a complete myth. However, there can be no doubt that memory is essential to our individual psychological well being, to facilitate the growth of a spiritual community. Even though our culture is prone to shun any history that extends further than the 24-hour news cycle and some would disgustingly hope that we could just get over the suffering that has been a part of our stories, there are things which we must never forget.

One incident has been central to my understanding of my own personal memory. When I was about 5 years old my mother was working dutifully on our families genealogy with my grandmother. She told me about a great, great grandmother whom she was having trouble finding a name. As it turns out this woman was a Native American from New England, and the reason that there were no records of her name were because the couple had to flee from the family, my relatives, out of fear that they would murder this woman. Even if her name had been recorded, over time, the memory of this woman had been obliterated from our family’s history. To this day we have not been able to find out any information about this woman’s tribe. When I heard this story on our old love seat I remember crying. To the shock of my mother for a short while I was inconsolable. She did the best she could by saying, “Honey this took place a long time ago. She has been dead a long time.” She didn’t want me to be so upset about something that took place many, many years ago. In my 5-year-old mind it felt very present, like this memory had only just occurred.

I have however never forgot thes intense emotions that visited me when I was a child. They have returned to me when I realize the loss of an entire culture of which I am 1/16th. Yet, they have also returned when I have been filled with shame about the suffering that my own church the Presbyterian Church USA has engendered upon other peoples. I remember that the Presbyterians were sent into some of the Indian Reservations to civilize the ancient indigenous cultures of North America, Some Presbyterians not only advocated for slavery, but defended the notion of the inferiority of African Americans on Biblical Principles, my own seminary once only allowed Latinos to sit in desks outside the doorways of the classrooms and in Chiapas, Mexico Presbyterians have been linked to the slaughter of innocents. The pain of memory returns to me personally when I am forced to remember the fundamentalism of my youth that was filled with violence, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Even in our own history as a church there are painful memories. I found a letter in our files here at church in which the minister of a certain time said that The Palisades Community Church could not support the integration of African Americans as the local council of churches advocated. He pledged his individual support, but said that this congregation did not share his views. These are painful memories, they are memories that I want to forget, but I am reminded that memory is essential to prayer and spiritual growth. Although we may not remember it is important to keep these memories.

The Psalm this morning is all about strong memories. The nation’s Babylonian captors mock the captured nation of Israel and taunt them into singing their precious songs. So, a Levite song is composed about how they will refuse to sing their songs when in a captive land remembering their beloved Zion. Listen to the heart wrenching words of memories.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my
If I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem
Above my highest joy.

It is no wonder that this text has become so important for a post-holocaust Jewish community. Even down to the violent and angry response at the end of the text with babies being dashed against the wall this Psalm give us an insight into the emotional terrain of the victim of oppression. This is the painful power of memory. It causes them to remember those glorious days in Zion, to ask for God’s memory of the wrongs done to them and to fantasize about a violent revenge for their humiliating oppression.

It is both a beautiful and uncomfortable text. Many are content to cut the last few verses from the text to clean it up a bit. Yet, in its totality it tells us volumes about the power of memory and the hope that survival and dignity can be brought back into the possession of the oppressed. There is power in memory.
It is when we do not remember that we are sick. It is when we serve each other stories of denial that we allow our own mental, physical and spiritual worlds to crumble beneath us. It is when we erase the bad memories from our collective history that we deny each other the possibility of experiencing or asking forgiveness.

Let us remember truthfully our histories, so that we can get past the violent rage that accompanies victimization. Let us support those who remember differently than us so that we can all move away from victims to being survivors. Let us remember the good, the bad and the ugly so that we can move forward on a joyous and painful road toward growth. Memory is wonderful, but it will also be painful. Let us remember together.

Photo by Vieilles_annonces


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

this is quite an excellent post. very insightful, thought provoking, and encouraging. kudos, sir.

Comment by damewiggy

Thanks dame!

Comment by pastorofdisaster

I agree true history is very important. The hard part is knowing what is true as it relates to history, for much of history is written be the “winners” and the stories are ommitted or changed, much like the history of your family that you related to us.

Comment by tobeme


It is difficult, if not impossible to unfilter our history. Plus, often power is written from a position of power. Thanks for the insightful comment.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

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