How should we remember the past? In this Thanksgiving season in the US, that question has considerable force. What is our relationship to what has shaped and formed us as a country? What is the story that we will tell this Thanksgiving Day to our children and to ourselves?
In my own case, the story might include the Mayflower. One of my nephews, an inveterate genealogy buff, has tentatively placed my family on the Mayflower. He tells me that the connections he has made are not certain at this point, but he thinks that we have a direct line to George Soule, who was among the passengers who arrived on the Mayflower near Cape Code in 1620.
From my own rather cursory genealogical research, I know that even if we are not related to George Soule, ancestors of mine did arrive early in the history of European settlement in that part of the country. My study has taken me back in particular to a certain Richard Silvester who emigrated from Somerset, England, and arrived at Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1630.
Great, you say, but who really cares? Whether you care or not depends on the story that these genealogical accounts tell, and where you find you find yourself in that story. Genealogies, as you know, are for that reason biblical. Even when we skip past them. For the Israelites trying to resettle their ancient lands in the late 6th century BCE and beyond, the long genealogies in 1 Chronicles, for example, were ways of placing themselves and their families in the story of Israel.
For my part, I’ve always been amused that Richard Silvester, the remote ancestor I mentioned above, on arrival in the Massachusetts Bay colony promptly got himself in religious trouble. The court records show that he was fined for his offenses and had the right to vote taken away. For this reason, he moved to Scituate in the Plymouth Bay colony. When I first told this story to my wife, she said, “Why am I not surprised?” as if nonconformity can be passed down through the genes. Perhaps it can. If so, I may have it.
But the Mayflower? That’s a story of a different order. The Mayflower is part of the canonical story of the founding of America. I was first told the story in grade school. According to the story, the Pilgrims, victims of religious persecution in England, sailed to the shores of Massachusetts to find religious freedom. The ship arrived in 1620, disembarking 102 passengers and about 30 crew. Unprepared for what they faced, their numbers were reduced by half in the first winter. But the next year their crops came up, and they celebrated a thanksgiving feast with the Wampanoag people. We grade schoolers acted it out pointy hats and buckle shoes and all. We thought of ourselves as part of the story. We were, even if we didn’t have a direct genealogical connection with the people of the Mayflower, their legitimate heirs.
Or so we thought. The story is remarkable, of course, as much for what it leaves out as what it tells. For the Pilgrims it is a story of grit and survival issuing ultimately into the successful settlement of what came to known as Plymouth. For the Wampanoag and other indigenous tribes, the story is reversed. Already before the arrival of the Pilgrims, they had lost much of their population to new diseases carried by European explorers. After helping the Pilgrims survive the first winter, their story became a story of displacement and loss. If you are Wampanoag, you tell the story of the Mayflower differently.
Or suppose that instead of the Mayflower, my family could trace its roots to the White Lion. The White Lion sailing under the aegis of Maurice, Prince of Orange, arrived a year earlier than the Mayflower in 1619, dropping anchor near Point Comfort in Virginia. There it unloaded its cargo of “twenty and odd Negroes” in exchange for supplies. Suppose that one of my ancestors was among those twenty or thirty Africans. I would tell the story of America quite differently.
But you know all that. Nothing I have written to this point will have surprised you. The question which is currently under debate in our country is which of these stories—or any of the many other stories than can be told—should be told in our schools and in our public spaces.
There are those who counsel a kind of selective forgetting. Tell the Mayflower story; pass lightly, if at all, over the White Lion story. In Florida, this selective amnesia has been set into law under the guise of the Stop W.O.K.E. act. The act prohibits instruction that may cause “An individual [to] feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” “Psychological distress” as in, of course, white guilt for centuries of slavery. Stop W.O.K.E is a reaction in part to the 1619 Project, a telling of the American story that begins with the White Lion (Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein, eds., The New York Times, 2021). (It should be noted that The 1619 Project does not propose to replace other tellings of the story but to supplement and enlarge them; see page xxxi in the Introduction.) The debate is not just over the stories, of course; it’s over race, as is so much in our culture and history. The question is whose story counts? Whose story is “our story?”
I raise this not to debate history but to consider in broadly theological terms our relationship to the past. To remembering and forgetting. I raise it as part of a larger project to understand in Christian theology, cross and resurrection, past and future, forgiveness and new life. As part of this project, I recently read and recommend Matthew Ichihashi Potts’s new book, Forgiveness: An Alternative Account (Yale, 2022). To deal with forgiveness is to deal with forgetting and remembering. Potts frames his argument not only in terms of the theological and philosophical literature on forgiveness but in terms of four significant novels: Kazua Ishigura’s Buried Giant, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
He starts with Ishigura’s Buried Giant. You may know Ishigura for his Remains of the Day; Buried Giant is a very different book (Ishigura has the rare ability to write a different novel every time). The novel is set in Arthurian times. King Arthur has just died, but before he dies, he sends (through the agency of a dragon) a mist of forgetfulness on the land. His hope is that the mist will cover the memory of his own brutal campaign to exterminate the Saxons. Peace, he thinks, requires forgetting. This is Stop W.O.K.E in a different era.
As it turns out in the novel, the mist of forgetting doesn’t bring peace. It just dulls the senses of the populace and blocks the sort of memories that are necessary for life. Eventually the dragon is slain, the mist lifts, memory returns, and with it the brutality and violence of Arthur’s attempt at genocide reemerges. Applications to our time are not hard to find.
Adria and I were recently in Germany on a Rhine cruise. We stopped at Koblenz and the Deutsches Eck, the “German Corner,” where the Rhine and Mosel rivers meet. On the triangle of land formed by the rivers stands a giant statue of William I of Prussia on a high platform. William I is known to history principally for appointing Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor and getting out of Bismarck’s way. The statue, originally erected by William’s grandson, was meant to celebrate Prussian power. But it’s not the original statue. The original statue was destroyed in World War II. It was replaced by the city of Koblenz in 1992, apparently for the purpose of promoting tourism.
What do you do with such a monstrosity? And the monstrous history to which it refers? Our guide, a young German from the Koblenz area, wondered with us about that. How when your past includes the ever-present memories of Nazi genocide, let alone Prussian militarism, do you remember? She saw the statue as a symbol of what had gone wrong in Germany. And she spoke allusively about other nations not remembering. It was clear that she was speaking to us, the Americans standing in front of her. Others of our guides spoke in the same way, reminding us of the importance of memory.
But is there a time to forget? To move on? Toward the end of his book on forgiveness, Ichihashi Potts deals with remembering and forgetting. The language of forgetting is often associated with forgiveness. Forgive and forget, the cliché goes. The theologian Miroslav Volf, basing his argument in part on reflections by Paul Ricoeur, includes a role for forgetting in forgiveness (The End of Memory, 2006). Indeed, the scriptures seem at times to speak in just this way. Take, for example, Isaiah 43:25. Yahweh says:
I, I am the one who blots out your transgressions;
for my sake your sins I will not remember.
But then in the very next verses Yhwh adds:
Remember with me, argue the case with me,
give your account for why you are right.
Your first father sinned;
your teachers transgressed against me. (Isaiah 43:26-7)
Not remembering our sins seems at least in this case not to mean forgetting so much as not holding us to account for what we have done. Forgiveness, in other words.
In parsing the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, Potts observes that the tragic failure in the story “is not really a failure of forgetting; it’s a failure of remembering.” For Potts, forgiveness is essentially regarding the past as past. Life on earth is lived in one direction only. The arrow of time points one way and one way alone. For this reason, forgiveness always involves an element of grief. Potts says:
To remember rightly . . . would neither be to suppress what we would rather forget nor to ignore how our world remains shaped by our traumas.
It would be to regard past wrongs as irreparable and unavailable for alteration, whether by sacrifices, exorcisms, rituals, or retaliation, but it would be nonetheless to insist upon regarding them. In other words, to remember rightly would be neither to erase nor to elide, neither to suppress nor to stamp down. It would be to grieve. (300)
What we have lost in our country and culture is the capacity to grieve, to own the sorrows of the past. Here and elsewhere Potts bases his view of forgiveness on the work of Hannah Arendt. In a brilliant section of her book, The Human Condition (2nd edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1998), Arendt presents forgiveness not as a fraught individual choice but as a condition of human existence. She attributes this idea of forgiveness to Jesus. In doing so, she is writing as a philosopher, not a theologian. She says of Jesus that his “insights into this faculty [of forgiveness] can be compared in their originality and unprecedentedness with Socrates’ insights into the possibilities of thought” (246-7). A stunning statement from a Jewish philosopher.
For Arendt (and for Potts), forgiveness is not a feeling, an emotion, but a decision, a decision to let the past be past, to forgo retaliation, to acknowledge, even grieve, the consequences of what has happened, and to start anew. Arendt calls forgiveness a “miracle.”
In a stunning passage, Arendt says of human life that what we set in motion continues and ramifies and threatens to do so forever. Think warfare, which leads to warfare, and to more warfare. Think the White Lion and the chain of consequences that followed and continue to follow from the decision to enslave human beings. Think the industrial revolution and the way it ramifies through the atmosphere until the globe itself begins to heat up. Think of the ways even in the church that one decision by a synod ramifies into other decisions until they pile up in ecclesiastical disaster. The miracle of forgiveness lies in stopping the chain of consequences, gathering up what remains, and starting over.
Arendt calls this natality—birth. New birth, we in the New Testament tradition would say. The inexorable chain of consequence—the past metathesizing into the present and the future—she calls fatality–death. The world runs to death unless the miracle of forgiveness takes place. This insight of Arendt’s is as good an exposition of the teaching of Jesus as exists anywhere. She notes that for Jesus, God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness are of a piece: you can’t have one without the other (Matthew 6:14-15).
What do we take from this for how to remember our past as a nation in this Thanksgiving season? As Potts says of Beloved, the issue “is not really a failure of forgetting; it’s a failure of remembering.” Those who want to forget the past, to protect our children from it, will inevitably reap the past. When the fog of forgetting rises, the past will still be there. And the past will include not just the Mayflower but the White Lion.
Better I think to grieve, to take account of the long consequences of the past, and to stop where we are this Thanksgiving to reconsider, to gather up what’s come down to us through the long chain of history, and to begin anew. It’s what Arendt calls “the miracle that saves the world.”