There are two uses of memory according to the 5th chp of Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory. There is literal memory and exemplary memory. What we do with our memories is what matters most — do we “do” literal or exemplary with our memory?
Literal memory constructs a plausible (even truthful) narrative of injustice in order to create personal well-being. Exemplary memory constructs a narrative of injustice in order to create justice in this world; it finds “lessons.”
How, for instance, do we remember the churches we grew up in? Do we remember them literally — to prove ourselves right — or in an exemplary fashion — to help establish an even better church?
Volf observes that it is not simple: even if we are committed to exemplary memory, do we abuse the memory in order to create a reactive reality? We tend to blur the victim and the victimizer and we at times find it difficult to know which lesson to draw from our memory.
Here’s a big, big point: exemplary memory only works when memory is saturated into a larger narrative so that we can develop a principled opposition to injustice, so that the exemplary lesson is a just lesson.
How to do this? There are four elements in an exemplary memory, and he draws these from the Jewish and Christian practice of remembering the Exodus and the Lord’s Supper.
1. Identity: Exodus and Cross memories shape identity.
2. Community: Exodus and Cross emerge from and shape a community.
3. Future: Exodus and Cross are not only memory but they frame the future.
4. God: Exodus and Cross are not just social events, but God’s intervention and promise.
Volf has now led us to this: for memories to be redemptive, they have to be memories that — like Exodus and Cross — are memories shaped by a larger Jewish or Christian narrative that gives shape to how we learn to remember injustices.
Next week: no Friday is for Friends. We remain friends, of course, but we’ll be in transit from Ixtapa to Chicago. I’ll resume in two weeks.