Care to remember?

Many commentators have described the current Australian condition as one of apathy. They refer to the puzzling coexistence of two phenomena: well-publicised government actions that are morally repugnant, like the detention of children, and the commonly shared belief that governments lie about such things. We would normally expect outrage at this combination of evil doing and mendacity. Instead we find indifference.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition makes much of apathy and its remedies. In contrast to the practical and cynical advice to move on, the Psalms respond passionately. For them the heart of the problem lies in the evidence that the wicked triumph, grow rich and esteemed, and become invincible. This attacks our instinctive belief that God should and will reward virtue. The Psalms deal with the temptation to give up on God and justice by urging inwardness and the longer view. In God’s time, goodness will win.

This assurance is hard to believe, not least because in God’s time we are all dead. In order to encourage faith, the Scriptures characteristically appeal to memory. In the Older Testament, people are constantly urged to remember the way God liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and so made them a nation. As long as they keep this memory alive, their commitment to a just future will remain firm and their moral compass for judging their own world will not waver. Memory is the answer to apathy.

Memory is equally central in the Christian tradition. When you think of the church, your first image may be of people gathering to celebrate the Eucharist. At the centre of the Eucharist is the memory of Jesus Christ’s death. On the face of it, this was a story of the victory of injustice, of expediency, of overwhelming power, of the death of hope that there could be something more. The appropriate response was that of the two disciples who sadly left town. But in remembering Jesus’ death, Christians remember his rising from death as victory. This grounds the hope in a just God and a just world that can overcome apathy.

The Christian arsenal also stores another kind of memory that is equally subversive. It is expressed in the Ash Wednesday admonition: ‘Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.’ This memory of transience is liberating because it insists that empires, dynasties and conventional wisdoms last a short time, and that even policies written in stone will pass. We should always be underwhelmed by celebrations of power and solidity.

The memory of transience cuts all ways. In bookshops, prices fall for the just and the unjust alike. The works of Stalin and Lenin can be bought for a song. So can the works of Pius XII and John XXIII. Nor will their worlds return. In due course, too, Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush and John Paul II will be remembered for what they have made of God’s world, but their collected speeches will also be curiosities.

The Christian antidote to apathy is the memory that seeds of hope will eventually crack the most solid concrete, and that in Christ spring triumphs over winter. Even in bookshops, remainders are reminders. 

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

 

 

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