Christianity is rooted in sacred reminiscences
When it comes to remembering correctly and pursuing the peace that arises from it, Christians have a huge advantage: Our faith is based on two holy memories, both of which have the power to shape the way we do events interpret and remind us of our own lives.
Imagine for a moment that you and your family have been enslaved for many years. Through an extraordinary sequence of events, you managed to escape your kidnappers. Now you are free and can determine the course of your life. There are so many options ahead of us. One of them includes how you will remember your past enslavement. Will you look back with bitterness, curse your kidnappers, and be determined to be among those who dominate rather than those who are dominated? Or will you go forward, grateful for the gift of freedom and determined to help others who have suffered like you? Will your dominant memory be about your enslavement? Or is it about your liberation?
This was exactly the choice the Israelites faced after leaving Egypt. How would you remember your bondage? On the way to the future, would they be defined by memories of how Pharaoh had abused them or how God had freed them?
Fortunately for the history of the world, their beliefs were based on the memory of their liberation. In their scriptures they repeatedly praise God for being the one who freed them from their enemies. God also seemed to like to remind her of this truth and kept repeating: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 20: 2). Even their laws reflected the lessons they should learn from their captivity:
Love the aliens in your midst because you used to be aliens.
Help the poor because you were poor once.
Watch the Sabbath and let your servants watch it because you know what it is like to be a slave who can never rest.
Even today, if you ask Jewish people which event was most important in their scriptures, most will immediately identify the Exodus, as this is the only event that has deeply shaped their history. Instead of forming them into cruelty, their experience as slaves in a foreign country has often made them more sensitive to the needs of others.
But what does this old collective memory have to do with us today? As Christians, our faith grew from Jewish roots. The Exodus story is also our story. Like the old Jews, we got to know a God of Mercy and Power. We may have suffered a lot or only slightly. Regardless of the extent of our pain, we have the opportunity not to be dominated by the memory of what was done to us, but by the memory of what was done for us. If we ask God to help us, sooner or later our gratitude for His delivering hand will outshine the pain we have suffered. During this liberation, we will find that if we learn to show mercy, kindness to the poor, and compassion to strangers, he will reshape our hearts and make us more like him.
How could that work in your life? I have a friend whose child suffered from a mental disorder for many years before being effectively treated with medication. Over the years, she has had to raise teachers, friends, and family members who have sometimes shown contempt for her son without realizing that an error in biology and not a "bad heart" is at the root of many of his behaviors. Sometimes she and her husband have felt judged by others who have no idea how difficult it is to raise a child with a neurological disorder.
A few years ago, when she heard the news of several shots from a young man who was likely diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, she decided to write a letter to his mother. She told her how sorry she was for what had happened and explained that she too had a son who was suffering from a neurological disorder. When she noticed that people tend to blame the family if something goes wrong with a child, she tried to give some comfort and promised to pray for the family and their detained son.
While the country was fixated on the suffering of this young man's innocent victims, as it should have been, at least one woman realized that there were other victims of this terrible tragedy. After the shootings, more than one public figure characterized the couple's son as evil and deadly. Although my girlfriend was unable to judge the extent of this young man's fault, she knew that a rush for judgment would not help anyone. Had she not had a child who was suffering from a serious disorder and had not endured the harsh judgments of others, in a time of great need this mother might never have thought to shake hands with a stranger.
We all know people whose memories of suffering have shaped them into mercy and positive action rather than bitterness and anger.