Memory is key for more hopeful future

by Bill Tammeus

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Before Pope Francis left Poland after attending the recent World Youth Day, he spoke to volunteers, especially young people, about what it will take for them to be the hope of the future.

Perhaps to the surprise of the youngest of his listeners, he said that one key was memory. He told them that they should go talk with their grandparents or other elderly people about what those older people had lived through.

"A young person who cannot remember," the pope said, "is no hope for the future. Is that clear?"


The tendency of each new generation, of course, is to imagine that nothing like what it is experiencing has ever happened before. Love, violence, divine inspiration, theological doubts, dissolution of nations, evil empires?

The world has been there, done that.

Even the writer of the old book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible knew that much: "Whatever has happened -- that's what will happen again; whatever has occurred -- that's what will occur again. There's nothing new under the sun."

Well, that's not entirely true. The context, nuances, players, timing -- all of that will be different in the next genocide, the next war, the next plague, the next celebration.

Still, it's ignorant and even dangerous to imagine, for instance, that the faith-based terrorists of today are a freshly minted species never previously imagined. Just read Simon Sebag Montefiore's revealing book Jerusalem: The Biography, and you will discover that in the early fifth century there were monks in and near the holy city whom the author describes as "street-fighting fanatics." These were Christian monks living several hundred years before there even was an Islam to distort and abuse by using it to justify violent extremism. So they distorted and abused Christianity instead.

The present, it turns out, is almost always just a variation on a theme, and what young people who walk sightless among miracles today while staring at their smart phones must understand is that their chances of making the world a more secure, more loving, more nurturing place improve dramatically when they know what came before them.

Perhaps more than any other faith tradition, Judaism teaches its followers the importance of memory. Maybe that's one of the sources from which Pope Francis drew his thinking about memory and why he spoke of it to youth in Poland, where more than 90 percent of the country's Jewish population of roughly 3.3 million people at the start of World War II died at the murderous hands of Germany's Nazi regime.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell, retell and retell again the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt to help followers remember how God has loved and saved them. Modern Jews tell, retell and retell again the story of the Holocaust (as should we all) to help people remember what happens when hatred runs amok and why even small drifts toward acceptance of hatred must be opposed.

Pope Francis also told the Polish youth about the importance of courage in the present moment and why they must aim for the future with hope. But none of that will make much difference if they walk around ignorant of the history that helped to shape the present moment.

Nor will it make much difference in the U.S. if far more people know the name of the second place finishers on the latest "American Idol" than know the names of the 2016 vice presidential candidates or even name of the branch of government in which the president and vice president serve.

Pope Francis told the Polish youth that "you have experienced the beauty of commitment to a noble cause." And they had. But even the most noble of causes can and will fail if those committed to them are not formed by a sense of memory of how such causes in the past failed and of how, against sometimes-staggering odds, some succeeded.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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