Forgive and forget? (part 1)

“Christ redeems the past; he does not undo it.” –L. Gregory Jones

If you were to sit down with pen and paper right now, how many past personal offenses against you could you list?  From yesterday?  Last week?  Your childhood?  Many might be minor offenses, others major.  Your list might be long or short.  But I’m betting that it wouldn’t be blank.

Apparently, if we’re supposed to “forgive and forget,” most of us aren’t doing very well.

So is “forgive and forget” good advice?

Let’s start with the fact that although some memories trouble us, God has created us as thinking, remembering beings–and this is generally for our good.

Neuropsychological research has conclusively demonstrated that emotional experiences leave traces in our brain, even if we’re not aware of them.  The unconscious memory of a traumatic event, for example, can trigger inexplicable feelings of anxiety when we find ourselves in a situation that our brain recognizes as somehow similar.  Even if we are convinced that there’s no real threat, we may still feel a sense of dread.  This kind of automatic reaction helps us avoid potentially dangerous situations, though the alarm may often be unnecessary.  The point is that we have unconscious memories which can affect our emotions and even our behavior, but which can’t be erased by a simple conscious decision to forget.

Second, although the workings of human memory are still not completely understood, research suggests that there’s no central archive in our brains from which memories are retrieved intact.  Rather, they are reconstructed in the moment from the scattered traces of events.  If this is true, then, as I suggested in a recent post, the issue is not simply remembering versus forgetting, but remembering faithfully–that is, reconstructing memory in a way that is faithful to God’s story.

The quote from Greg Jones at the beginning of this post is taken from a book on forgiveness that he co-authored with Celestin Musekura, president and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries.  Musekura, formerly a pastor in Rwanda, knows the challenge of forgiving and forgetting:

I grew up as a Hutu in a Rwandan village that was fragmented by tribal identities that trumped every other allegiance.  When my father and other family members were killed in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, I heard God ask for my ultimate allegiance.  He said I had to forgive the killers before I knew who they were.

His obedient example, against the background of such a harrowing story, seems heroic.  His subsequent ministry of encouraging forgiveness among and between tribal groups has cost him even further suffering.  Musekura, in short, by the grace and power of God, has learned to forgive.

But will he ever forget what happened?  Not likely.

Nor should he.

Those who work for justice do not “forget” injustice.  Quite the opposite: the memory motivates the mission.  To quote Jones again, Christ doesn’t undo the past, in the sense of erasing it or the associated memories.  But Christ redeems the past, liberating it (and us) from a desperate storyline in which the only recourse is to pursue retribution and revenge, to participate in perpetual cycles of violence and hatred.

It’s not about forgetting; it’s about remembering rightly, of faithfully reconstructing memory in a way that is true to the story of a sovereign, just, and faithful God.

Does Musekura’s story really apply to us?  In plain fact, I have never experienced anything even remotely as horrific as the decimation of a village or the murder of my family and friends.  Many of the things I remember and resent seem petty, even childish, by comparison.  Aren’t there things I should just forgive and forget?

More on that in the next post.