It is difficult to forget 9/11. I was in 10th grade at a college prep school in the D.C. area. During my second period sex education class it was announced that something was wrong . . . something had happened. Class stopped and everyone assembled in the gymnasium for an announcement. There was lots of fear and confusion. Classmates had parents who worked in the Pentagon. School was canceled, and parents picked us up. As we all stood around in the gymnasium waiting, another student came up and told me there were rumors of car bombs in the district . . . that this was an all out attack. It was a day of fear.
My mom eventually picked me and a few friends up. She came into the school’s main entrance crying, telling me that both of the towers had fallen. No one seemed to really know what was happening. A few friends whose parents could not pick them up came over to my house. We spent the day in my basement, playing ping pong, drinking coke, and watching those planes fly into the towers again, and again, and again. Stories leaked in. One friend’s mom had been on a plane . . . she was fine. I think it had landed in Chicago. Another friend’s father walked home to Northern Virginia from inside the District. My cousins had recently left New York. Everyone was afraid, everyone was scared, but everyone I knew was safe.
I didn’t experience any direct or even indirect loss in 9/11. It was a cataclysm whose fire burned at the edges of the people I knew, the communities I was a part of. It’s odd to only have hazy memories of something that was so formative for America and how we were going to understand ourselves as a political community. Here we are now on the other side of two wars . . . violence begat more violence.
“Forgive and forget.” “Never Forget.” These are two axioms regarding memory that have found their way into American culture. “Forgive and forget” is what you are told after a friend has wronged you, assuming you want the relationship to continue. “Never Forget” is what you hear on the anniversary of something monstrous — that the victims deserve our remembrance, and our childrens’ too. We clean up the ruins and build memorials so that the next generation will guard themselves against similar evils, so they can see what their ancestors did to defeat it. The memory of something is how we guard against it happening again. “Never forget” means “never again.” We say we are remembering in the name of security and justice.
What do we do with the memory of a painful event such as 9/11? How does one remember it well, both as an individual and a nation? The theologian Miroslav Volf has written a book on memory and its role, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. This book centers on a personal theological reflection. Volf, a soldier in the Yugoslavian army, was identified as a threat to the communist government because his wife was an American and he had studied theology in America. For months he was interrogated by a security officer who Volf names Captain G. Out of this extended act of abuse, Volf asks “How should I remember him and what he had done to me?” Volf saw that his own faith and life was at stake in how he remembered these events, and how he remembered Captain G. His memories refused to leave him alone. With his own personal narrative in hand, Volf sets out to answer the question, “What does it mean to remember well?”
Through the story of Scripture or, as Volf calls them, “the memories of God,” Christians are given a way to rightly remember. The salvific acts of God in Scripture, the Exodus, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection act as regulatory exemplars and gift the Church with a “framework for memory.” When we remember how we have been wronged and how we have wronged others, we must remember these acts of God. These are not just God’s acts in the past, but God’s promise for our future. The works of God save us from the tyranny of our own memories of wrongdoing. God can redeem our memories, freeing us from being defined by them. The memories of God’s works show us the telos of memory within the Christian life: “The highest aim of lovingly truthful memory seeks to bring about the repentance, forgiveness, and transformation of wrongdoers, and reconciliation between wrongdoers and their victims.”
Volf engages both the question of how to remember, and also how long we should remember. At this point I could continue to give a haphazard summary of Volf’s argument. Instead, I want to give what I think his answer might be to the question, “Will there be 9/11 memorials in the new heavens and new earth?” To this question of the eschatological role of memory, his answer would be “no.” Volf advocates for not so much the forgetting, but the non-remembrance of evils suffered. For this is what God has done in the cross–embracing, healing, and doing away with the brokenness of humanity. The full extent of what this means for our current activity of communal remembering is difficult. Volf says:
“Is the non-remembrance of wrongs suffered that I propose a flight from the unbearable memory into the felicity of oblivion? No flight is involved. According to my conception, each wrong suffered will be exposed in its full horror, its perpetrators condemned and the repentant transformed, and its victims honored and healed. Then, after evil has been both condemned and overcome, we will be able to release the memories of wrongs suffered, able to let them slip out of our mind. Will we let go of them so as to be able to rejoice with complete and permanent joy in God and in one another? No, that is not quite the right way to think about the not-coming-to-mind of memories of the wrongs suffered. We will not “forget” so as to be able to rejoice; we will rejoice and therefore let those memories slip out of our minds! The reason for our non-remembrance of wrongs will be the same as its cause: Our minds will be rapt in the goodness of God and in the goodness of God’s new world, and the memories of wrongs will wither away like plants without water.”
Some memories keep the ruins of life alive, some are even how we create ruins in the lives of others. Thankfully, in Christ, God has promised to save us from ourselves. However, we do not live in the new heavens and new earth. So our justice, our reconciliation, and our memories will always suffer from disorder and the warped gravity of sin. Volf recognizes that only through grace, through the seeking of peace, do we prevent evil from determining who we become.