Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Never!

When one attempts to talk about past incidents which have negatively affected one's life, one is sometimes likely to be told that one should "get over it" and "move on with one's life" and "forgive and forget." Such glib and uncompassionate advice, which I've heard from Christian pulpits from time to time, treats regrettable past events as if there is never any logically or morally defensible reason to want or need to discuss such incidents with others.

That is simply false. As the southern novelist William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past"

Traumatic events sometimes cause deep wounds and scars which can take a lot of time to heal. Yes, there are instances in which God miraculously heals painful memories instantly, but it's both insulting and presumptuous to assume that such exceptional incidents are or ought to be the norm. Counselors who don't give wounded people adequate time in which to heal from such events ought to be regarded as professionally incompetent.

Furthermore, even when complete healing has been achieved, it doesn't follow from that fact that remembering past events serves no other valid purposes. Prevention of similar events in the future, for instance, is a particularly valid purpose.

What did Faulkner mean when he said that the past wasn't even past? I believe that he meant that present realities are inextricably connected to past events, and it's naive to think that one can adequately address existing problems without a willingness to honestly examine and discuss the events which caused or led to those problems in the first place. Ignorance may be bliss, but only in the short term. In the long term, ignorance can lead to enormous problems. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said the philosopher George Santayana. If one is unable or unwilling to learn from past mistakes, how can progress ever be achieved? It is immature and idiotic to equate spiritual maturity with self-imposed amnesia.

It's important to discuss and remember horrific tragedies such as the Holocaust. That's why we have a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many people would like to just forget or deny that the Holocaust ever took place. But we need to be periodically and graphically reminded, so that such things will never happen again. We also need to be reminded of our great capacity for evil, so that we will better understand our moral depravity and our desperate need for God.

Writing about the Holocaust, Ellie Wiesenthal wrote, "For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time."

The same could be said about other large-scale tragedies, such as the terrorist attacks in 2001; and also to individual tragedies, such as the extreme child abuse to which author Dave Pelzer and many other children have been subjected.

If we took literally the advice of those who say that we should instantly forget the sins and crimes of the past, it would be impossible to seek justice in our nation's courts. Vicious predators would forever prey on innocent victims, and we would be partly to blame for subsequent crimes which they committed, on account of our moral cowardice. Remembering is essential if we want to be a society of laws, not anarchy.

I find it ironic that some Christians say that one ought not to ever "live in the past," inasmuch as the entirety of the Christian experience is based on a willingness to regularly remember and reflect upon incidents which took place more than two millenia ago. Jesus specifically told us, regarding the eucharist, to "take these in rememberance of me". Rememberance can be both good and necessary.

Yes, it's true that it can be unhealthy to continually wallow in sorrow, without making an effort to balance things out by thinking about positive things. But it's equally unhealthy to live in denial and to live a life which is devoid of authenticity and honesty. Pastors and other spiritual leaders who insist that the members of their congregation live in denial are guilty of abdicating their fundamental moral responsibilities towards the people in their care.

This is not a trivial matter. If our pastors insist on promoting simplistic ideas about forgiveness which make it impossible to adequately address problems or to hold people accountable for wrongdoing, then they are unworthy of our continual allegiance, no matter how many other good things we may be able to say about them.

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