Easter memory loss makes plastic of the present


In 'Easter' by Chris Johnston, a family walks across the 'dust of kings and courtiers' towards the glowing horizon. On either side are the ruined statues of the various rulers mention in the article.The Easter holidays are a reminder of how our secular calendar still honours the Christian society out of which it came. But the central symbols of contemporary Easter — the big football matches, the holidays and picnics — are a reminder of how widely the Christian meaning of Easter has been forgotten.

This is ironical because both the Jewish Passover, and the Christian Easter that echoes it, are exercises in memory. The Jewish child who ritually asks why this day is remembered among all other days is told a story of slavery in Egypt followed by deliverance by their God. The memory shows the power and good will of God. The remembering shows the hope that the story gives for the present day, even when all the things that make for despair are taken into account.

In the retelling of the story the past is stitched to the present and to the memories that shape the present. The boy who asks the question this year stands in line with other boys who asked the same question during the Holocaust. As participants remember the Passover and its deliverance, they also remember the forms of slavery that mark their personal lives and society and their hope for deliverance.

Easter is an even more complex exercise in remembering and stitching. The Christian liturgy of Easter retells the Jewish story of Passover in a way that stitches it to the climactic story of Jesus' execution and rising from the dead. In both the Passover and in Jesus' death the power and love of God are embodied. The story of the crucifixion, a definitive crushing of hope in a personal project and in a God who cares for the world, is unexpectedly shot through with hope and life.

In celebrating Easter people are invited to remember the first Easter, to stitch it to the torn rags of their own life and world, and to find in it the promise of new garments more resplendent and substantial than any worn by the kings of the day and praised by their courtiers.

Both Passover and Easter in their origins invite a treasuring of history, a pondering of the things that make for life and death and the hope for transformation. In our society this shared attentiveness to the past seems to have atrophied. The focus of celebration is on an infinitely plastic present and on what we can make of it.

That leads us to focus on the individual self and encourages the easy belief that we can make and remake ourselves to be the kind of persons that we want to be without regard to the lasting effects of our actions on ourselves and others. We can define slavery out of existence and do not need to enter the tragedy of death and loss. We surf down the superficiality of the immediate.

The devaluation of history and memory has a deeply corrosive effect on society and culture. Social institutions are layered, and grow organically. Habits of civility and respect for the rule of law, of individual and social rights, and for personal freedom have been built over centuries. They can be quickly eroded if the conditions that sustain them are not treasured and defended.

When we believe they can be disregarded for the sake of short term goals and do not attend to the processes by which in the past they have been built and corrupted, we put at risk our own culture.

In our society the devaluation of memory can be seen in our treatment of asylum seekers. The memory of the displacement of people in World War II and the determination to find refugees a home has been lost. So has the memory of the corruption of societies under Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler: the emphasis on control and security, the stripping of people from the protection of the rule of law, the scapegoating and demonisation of unfavoured minorities, the control of information, the neutering of parliament and the enrichment of those close to power.

There are uncomfortable echoes of these things in the behaviour of government in Australia, particularly in their dealings with people who seek our protection. The harm they do to people and to society is clear to see in the past. If we take pains to remember.

The remembering done at Passover and Easter remains important because it allows us to look back at the brutality of kings without flinching, to recognise in our time the naked brutality of kings and our complicity in covering it over, and to celebrate the sure hope that humanity will flower in the dust of kings and courtiers.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Exodus image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Easter, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Trouble with all that is that Passover and Easter and the resurrection are all fairy tales of brutal abuse and torture. They fit perfectly with our abuse of refugees today, carrying on the myths of the two old books.

Marilyn | 16 April 2014  

From Gwen Harwood's "A Sermon": imagining a silence we must enter,/a space of pure unmediated knowledge./Death lies between us and futurity/seeming, sometimes, "chief good and final hope" - /ague to zona in the fragile body/built of the residue of once-bright stars.

Pam | 16 April 2014  

For me the celebration Passover and Easter are not the re telling of fairy brutal fairy tales. They are the sacramental celebrations of the memory of how God intervened in the lives of his people, and the very celebration of that memory brings actively that same powerful action of God in our lives here and now. It has, as Andrew says, the potential to redefine us, to free us from our personal and shared 'slavery'. The fact there were, and are now people who perpetrate violence does not negate the reality and power of God's action in our lives.

Joe Cauchi | 17 April 2014  

Marilyn, if we agree that the stories of Passover and Easter are myths, then to be consistent, we must look for the meaning behind those stories. In anthropology the function of myth is to present an idea, often with ethical or moral content. Andrew has applied this function of myth to argue in this article for Australians to take a more ethical and moral stance towards asylum seekers and welcome them into our community. My reading of your comments on this site suggests that Andrew's attitude towards refugees and our Federal Parliament's treatment of asylum seekers is not discernibly different from your own.

Ian Fraser | 17 April 2014  

And also of course Our Blessed Lord and Saviour atoned for Our Sins on the Cross.with Pierced Sacred Heart, and physically rose from the dead. All after "they departing Made the sepulchre sure Sealing the stone And setting guards.’ Meanwhile the King lay in state, with His guard about Him, as became a king"[Alban Goodier]

Father John George | 17 April 2014  

Such a powerful reflection. Thanks Andrew. As an ex player and still follower of the mighty Tiges I am distressed that tonight I will go to the Maundy Thursday celebrations and miss the Brisbane - Richmond game on the tele. Thus has our society lost its focus. As you so effectively demonstrate this loss of contact with the essentials in our lives leads to ethical amnesia as well so the poor and marginalised are conveniently overlooked in the cascade of our self-gratifying lives.

Mike Bowden | 17 April 2014  

Stitching, sewing, threading, fabric shot through with something else: all these are such a good metaphors for the way memory is created and shaped. It's fine work too that needs the ripping off of synthetic patching, weaving together of unlikely strands... good historians and good liturgists share the task of making an honest garment that will weather well. Thanks Andy.

Katharine | 17 April 2014  

Not only is our society devaluing memory - it is perverting it. We remember ourselves as that generous country that welcomed post WWII migrants, as that decent country that accepted the Indochinese asylum seekers after the fall of Saigon - and use this memory to justify current selfishness. For twenty-somethings these are not lived memories. We need to recall who we are being and becoming through our current policies. Can we continue to claim to be a generous and decent people on the basis of what our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents once did - but which we refuse to do now? Are we not perverting memory in claiming that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who migrated or sought asylum here are somehow morally different to those who seek to come today?

Sandie Cornish | 17 April 2014  

Very perceptive article. In current corporate culture, from business to Universities to hospitals, institution history is regarded just as useless junk that will hold the place and new management back. Not only is no-one in charge interested in understanding how the institution or culture got here, but it is regarded as eccentric at best or even disloyal to the present to mention or (God Forbid) analyse it. Even worse, "the past" is made up to fit in with the ideas, plans and culture of whatever the new mob want to do. Paradoxically, "anniversaries" are popular, and regarded as good bonding and fund-raising opportunites, even if the event did not occur or not in that way. Orwell would be amused.

Eugene | 17 April 2014  

When, will the authors and contributors of Eureka Street face the truth? The VAST majority of citizens of Australia, regardless if they were born here or overseas are compassionate people and welcome genuine refugees, regardless of nationality, race or religion to settle in Australia. But they all oppose the entry of illegal economic immigrants who travel a long distance by air to reach Indonesia so they can pay people-smugglers thousands of dollars to reach the country of their choice, Australia, thus preventing genuine refugees entry to Australia.

Ron Cini | 17 April 2014  

Ron, the refugees who come here by sea are real refugees but before that they are real humans and they are not preventing anyone else from coming.

Marilyn | 17 April 2014  

To paraphrase Shelley..."My name is Chaos , king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Our God is eternal ; all else comes & goes. Let us but remember, only what the Creator makes lasts ...despair is an illusion...

Eddy O Sullivan | 18 April 2014  

One of the problems with modern Western society is that, by and large, it appears to have lost any sense of the numinous. Couple this with the lack of any real knowledge of what religion is about and you have our current situation. I would hope anyone who has an apprehension of what Easter is about would also attempt to put it into their real lives. This would not apply to one or two current political causes but for life.

Edward Fido | 18 April 2014  

You stumble; I bear you up. You run from the fighting; I open the door of the car. You call from the surf; I raise help If I look away, drive on, block my ears, then I have failed us. When we debate a policy, when we weigh up our options, when we regard ourselves reflected in the future, then we have failed you and ourselves. Then we are complicit in the expediency of politicians, in the casuistry of administrators. In your pity, disregard us. As we have pitilessly disregarded you.

Chester Graham | 18 April 2014  

Ron Cicni, when will you realise that in a democracy that has signed the UN refugee convention - there is no such thing as an "illegal" immigrant if they apply for asylum - and there is a process to determine whther they are economic refugees or otherwise. Unless you suggest setting up our government as judge, jury and executor, I suggest you get back to bases of our democracy. I would be great to live in a benign dictatorship. but I don't think the second coming of Jesus will happen in my lifetime.

AURELIUS | 19 April 2014  

My father was a post WWII refugee fleeing communism. He was also against the way refugees attempt to get into Australia by boat. How to reconcile the two sets of data? I think it was easier for him and his brothers to show their worth to the societies that accepted him as a refugee. Manual labour was highly valued after WWII and he spent almost a year digging trenches in a small Austrian village for little more than food and board. There was a high need for manual labour in post war industries like coalmining and steelworks. He could show his worth and peaceful intent to communities that accepted him in. He was a hard worker and had incredible patience. He would only go where there was work and where he was wanted. As the child of an immigrant, born in Australia, I'm not sure I feel at home in Anglo-Celtic catholic Australia but I do feel at home in the Eucharist. I used to feel like a second class Catholic compared to cultural Catholics around me but I recently realised that the word "adopted" is a past tense verb in God's family. It is hard work to lay down roots in barren soil but God planted his tree in barren soil at Golgotha. The Eucharist is a blessing to all lonely people. That is my Easter reflection.

Stephen | 22 April 2014  

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