What should a people remember? What should individuals forget? What is the danger of forgetting?
The lectionary text this week was Deuteronomy 8. I freely admit, it has been a very, very long time since I read past Exodus without skipping to Joshua and Judges (typical, dodge all the world-building and background to get to the battle scenes).
11 “Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day:12 Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein;13 And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied;14 Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage;15 Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint;16 Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end;17 And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth.
18 “But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.19 And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the Lord thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish.20 As the nations which the Lord destroyeth before your face, so shall ye perish; because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the Lord your God.”
The Children of Israel are enjoined to remember to whom they owe their success and freedom, lest they become too proud of their own accomplishments and get into trouble.
A number of observers in recent years have noted that the younger generations don’t know their history. Not just “When did WWII happen?” history, but the core ideas of Western Civilization and the values we have inherited through the generations. Now, I suspect if you could go back into the late to mid 1800s, any date before the questionee’s parents’ lives would be a bit fuzzy. Before then all bets are off, but there would be other time-markers. You would, however,—assuming you were talking to someone literate with at least a little education—find a pretty solid understanding of at least the basics of Christianity or Judaism, and some fundamental agreements on laws and culture (don’t eat people, don’t kill without good cause, don’t beat up on the weak just because you can, Christianity is good paganism is bad).
What happens when a people forgets—or deliberately chooses to forget—where it came from? If you read the Old Testament/ Tanakh, the picture is pretty depressing. People follow other gods, wander away from the truth and virtue, and then get whomped by outsiders, exiled, or just seriously oppressed. A faithful remnant hang in there, get everyone back on the straight-and-narrow, things improve, and then someone says, “Ooh, look, a golden calf!” and off they go again. You can imagine the Most High sighing and wondering how far astray they are going this time.
Western Civilization seems to be following a similar pattern at the moment. Postmodernism declares that there is no single Truth, no single metanarrative to explain everything and encompass all the other stories. There is no way to make sense of the world except your own feelings and experience, if that. No transcendent reality exists beyond here and now, so here and now matter much, much more than the past. In fact, other than as a tool to use as each group sees fit, the past has no purpose. The great ideas of the past are the property of Dead White European Males and should be shunned, except for those from Marx, Engels, and Co. And from the French and other Postmodernists and deconstructionists, and intersectional scholars. Everything else is [bunk].
That in itself is a powerful story. The new narrative is that the Europeans, especially Christian Europeans, oppressed everyone, ransacked the world, destroyed other peoples out of greed and wilful blindness to the superiority of other cultures, and now are destroying all of humanity. The only thing to do is to impose economic and social justice on the oppressors, because this life and world are all that exists. Religion is the opiate of the people and blinds them to the harsh reality of what has been done to them. Unless you are a White European Male (and straight. That’s really bad). Then everything is your fault and you should be punished for being.
So we should forget the good things of the past and focus on the evils, the massacres, the enslaving of peoples, the destruction of cultures and the environment—as long as it was done by Europeans and/or Euro-Americans—and pay reparations and do penance.
This is where I grin a nasty little grin. Sort of like the one I wear while listening to a religious-environmentalist decrying the evils done by mankind to the poor, innocent planet in one breath and then with the next breath saying that humans are no different from plants or bacteria or shrews. I’m thinking, “Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. Pick one.”
It has been Western Civilization that allows people to decry Western Civilization. Try finding examples of people in Imperial China who cursed their culture and demanded that it be erased, the emperor and his scholar-officials sacked and everyone go back to the days before Confucius and Lo-Tze. And actually getting heard and having legislation passed to do just that.
Ditto in the world of Islam and/or the Ottoman Empire. I’ll wait.
Those who would tear out the memories and roots of Western Civilization because it is not perfect forget at their peril that Western Civilization is a balancing act between the tribal impulse on one hand and everything we understand to be “civilization” on the other. The Most High warned the Children of Israel that if they forgot where they’d come from and Who had saved them, then they would be lost like other prideful nations had been.
You don’t have to believe in the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Jesus and Peter and Paul, to believe that when a people gets too full of itself, when it forgets where it came from and what makes its life possible, disaster lurks just around the corner. “The Gods of the Copy-book Headings/ With Terror and Slaughter Return” said Kipling.