Last week Jews celebrated Passover and Christians celebrated Easter. Both commemorations are deeply grounded in remembering. In the case of Passover, we remember the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. For Christians at Easter, we remember the resurrection of Jesus, which is the cause of liberation from sin and death. This week we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. who was murdered 50 years ago tomorrow. While Dr. King is much closer to our own time than the events commemorated by Easter and Passover it is, nonetheless, important to actively remember and develop habits for remembering those who were enslaved, terrorized, and blocked from realizing their full capacities as persons by the dominant systems and yet who gave themselves to the struggle for justice and human dignity.
The Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes in his “Reflections on Forgetting” that “a people ‘forgets’ when the generation that now possesses the past does not convey it to the next, or when the latter rejects what it received and does not pass it onward, which is to say the same thing. The break in transmission can occur abruptly or by a process of erosion. But the principle remains. A people can never ‘forget’ what it has never received in the first place.” Certainly the past in transmitted through history books, but it is even more alive in the transmission that occurs in families, communities, and in the music, art, storytelling, and literature of peoples. It is also, I think, transmitted in our collective memories of people like Dr. King who synthesized noble philosophical traditions, the prophetic heritage of the black church, and the promise of American democracy in a vision that we must continue to nurture today while preparing to transmit it to subsequent generations. May we not be the cause of forgetting.
Yerushalmi also observes that “every ‘renaissance’ or ‘reformation,’ reaches back into an often distant past to recover forgotten or neglected elements… every such anamnesis also transforms the recovered past into something new.” The past is a great, and often neglected, source of innovation, renewal, and transformation. For those who celebrated, may the remembrances of Passover and Easter, and now the remembrance of Dr. King and his vision become a renewed source of inspiration and innovation in our shared work to achieve justice for the poor, dignity for the suffering, and a future in which to flourish for our children and our children’s children.