Are you suffering from amnesia? No, I don’t mean forgetfulness or absent-mindedness, which we’ve all experienced, and which are a common part of the human experience as the years go on. And though some of us have even been through the more dramatic forms of amnesia – with whole chunks erased from our memory – that’s not what I’m talking about either. I’m wondering whether we (and I mean the big “we,” the community in a wider sense) are indeed amnesic – if we’ve forgotten how to remember.
Remembrance is a holy calling and an important one. There are a cluster of religiously important words in our sacred texts having to do with the work of remembrance, the acts and rituals and meals we share. Never forget that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord set you free. Whenever you eat this bread or drink this cup, do this in remembrance of me.
In a world where politicians cannot bring themselves to remember what they promised last week (much less to remember why our Historically Black Colleges & Universities were founded, or, for crying out loud, the terrors of slavery!) we are called to remember. Remembrance is oft-touted as a preventative, to keep us from repeating our mistakes, but it also can be a force for health and virtue. As this great article by Ron Lieber points out (NY Times article) children rarely learn the joy of giving by being told “it’s the right thing to do.” No, we become generous people not because of moral compunction, but because someone has been generous to us, and we want to pass it on. We are moved to give in remembrance of what we have received. The reverse is true, and very important. Because if we slip into the amnesia of thinking nobody has ever given us anything – that we got it all the hard way – then we become the kind of nation that can turn refugees away, cut back on food stamps, and slash healthcare coverage. Let them work for it. There is – and has never been – a free lunch.
In the face of such rhetoric it is a deeply Christian act to say “no, that isn’t true. I got something for free.” Maybe you literally got free lunch at school. Or maybe you can point to a time someone helped you. When my mother gave birth to her second child it was neighbors who helped (no time to get to the hospital!) and so, years later, I understood perfectly when she told me we were all going to spend an afternoon helping our neighbor who’d just had a baby. Maybe you can point to the accident of your own birth, for example if you were born in America and not in Somalia; if your parents had some wealth and love to give you; if your generation enjoyed good weather on the farms and good jobs in the wider economy. Maybe you can point to blessings that came straight from God, whether an unexplained stroke of good luck or a miraculous survival. These are important stories to tell. It is harder to admit it when we received something for free at the expense of others, as these stories are a shameful stain on our history, but they are important and should be told from both sides, especially when our actual ancestors are involved. In homesteading days, white men were given land, using the same exchange rate at which the land was taken from the First Peoples – that is, approximately nothing per acre. These days racial discrimination is subtler (thank the Lord), but very much still present, and it needs to be called out and remembered. Remember that time when you got safely through a situation that someone else might not have survived?
I’d love to hear your remembrances, and perhaps you’ll share them at an Open Mic or in writing some time. How have you been blessed? What was your free lunch, whether from your neighbors, your country, your stroke of good luck… or your free lunch directly from God?