“We Will Never Forget”: Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part II)

“We Will Never Forget”: Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part II) September 12, 2009

Metz on the Dangerous Memories of Christian Spirituality

Like [Sandra] Schneiders, the German political theologian Johann Baptist Metz has articulated an approach to Christian spirituality that attempts to resist the tendency toward privatization by refocusing it as the narration of the “dangerous memory” of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Metz’s theology emphasizes the centrality of memory in human experience, and therefore in spirituality. All human experience, all spiritualities, are grounded in the narration of memories. As he states in Faith in History and Society, memory is indeed what gives human beings, both as individuals and as communities, their historical identity: “Identity is formed when memories are aroused” [6]. Metz demonstrates this negatively, noting how the identity of slaves was formed precisely by uprooting them from their historical communities and deforming their memories [7].

Metz says that memories can take different forms, generally falling into two categories. In the first category, memory is simply the recollection of the past as the “good old days,” a memory that that “does not take the past seriously enough,” and in which “the past becomes a paradise without danger, a refuge from our present disappointments” [8]. This is the primary form memory has taken since the Enlightenment and the development of what Metz calls the “evolutionary logic” of our post-narrative age in which history has no beginning and no end. Because of the lack of a narrative sense, the horizons of reality are fixed as “the way things are,” and the status quo goes unquestioned. In this post-narrative, evolutionary worldview, salvation is merely the result of increased control over nature and history through the domination of science, technology, and political control, and so we “define history as the history of what has prevailed, as the history of the successful and the established. There is hardly any reference in history as we know it to the conquered and defeated or to the forgotten or suppressed hopes of our historical existence” [9]. In this paradigm, memory is central to the formation of our consciousness and collective imagination, but it is a selective memory that remembers only the triumph of the powerful and “screens out” the victims, thus creating a “false consciousness of our past and an opiate for our present” [10]. When memory functions in this way, history — “reality” — goes on as it always has.

But Metz says there is another kind of memory, a memory that shocks us out of the familiar by radically acknowledging the reality of human suffering. Metz calls these memories of human suffering “dangerous memories” because they “interrupt” [11] the evolutionary narrative-less logic of “the way things are” and “reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.” The revelation of these dangerous insights is subversive because they “illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh and steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with” [12]. For Christians, the memory of suffering is particularly dangerous in that these memories are not simply a matter of looking backward “archeologically,” but future-oriented “forward memories” in which we also remember the promises made by God and the “hopes that are experienced as a result of those promises” [13]. Memories of human suffering “make demands on us” [14] and “make the present unsafe” by “break[ing] through the grip of the prevailing consciousness” of the present in light of unfulfilled hopes [15]. They radically challenge the present in light of the future promised by God. Metz has described two such “interruptions” in his own life, events that shocked him into questioning his own assumed horizons. The first event occurred during his military service during World War II at age 16 when he discovered the bodies of his fellow young soldiers who had been killed in the middle of the night [16]. The second was the horror of Auschwitz [17].

In Metz’s description, Christian faith is the narration of a particular memory of this latter kind, the dangerous memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which has broken through the world’s assumptions about political power and violence, and opens our eyes to the sufferings of others, particularly the innocent. The Church is the public witness and bearer of the dangerous memory of the victims of history. Particularly in the liturgy, Christians allow themselves to be “interrupted” by the memory of human suffering which challenges the status quo and widens the horizons of our imagination, drawing us into deeper consciousness of and compassion for the victims of suffering [18]. Metz’s vision for Christian spirituality, then, is radically eschatological and apocalyptic, “intend[ing] the anticipation of a particular future of man [sic] as a future for the suffering, the hopeless, the oppressed, the injured, and the useless of this earth” [19].

A Christian spirituality that places the dangerous memory of human suffering at its center will obviously have radical personal and political consequences. The “praxis” of memory takes shape when Christians commit, in solidarity with victims of violence, to overcoming the suffering caused by oppression and injustice in light of the promises of God [20]. The solidarity Metz calls for is not to be confused with mere sympathy [21], nor is it the false solidarity of our “exchange society” that is “based on an alliance between equal partners” and whose purpose is “mutual success and progress,” or looking after each other’s interests as long as there is “something in it for me” [22]. Authentic Christian solidarity is radically universal. “It extends to those who have been overcome and left behind in the march of progress. It includes the dead. Indeed, the theological category of solidarity reveals its mystical and universal aspect above all in its memory of solidarity with the dead” [23]. Only with a “world-wide perspective” can “solidarity acquire its full dimensions” [24].

On a personal level, this radical solidarity requires a constant openness to personal transformation and a “willingness to suffer the sufferings of others,” the literal meaning of compassion [25]. It also means that, in resistance to the narrow solidarity of the “society of exchange” that treats persons outside of our horizon of concern as “an anonymous mass,” Christians will come to “have a conscience not only about what they do or do not do to others, but also about what they let happen to others” [26]. On a political level, solidarity with those who suffer means a radical questioning of the structures of socio-political power that are usually taken for granted. “[I]n light of the Christian memory of suffering, it is clear that social power and political domination . . . continually have to justify themselves in view of actual suffering. The social and political power of the rich and the rulers must be open to the question of the extent to which it causes suffering” [27].

An authentic Christian spirituality so renewed, creates an ever-deepening solidarity with victims of suffering in all times and places, widening our personal and political horizons that limit our sense of reality and possibility, letting our imaginations be animated by an eschatological hope in the promises of God who has said that the deaths of victims will be vindicated in the Resurrection.

6. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Fundamental Practical Theology (New York: Seabury, 1980), 66 (hereafter referenced as FHS).
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 109.
9. Ibid., 110.
10. Ibid., 109.
11. Ibid., 171.
12. Ibid., 109.
13. Ibid., 200.
14. Ibid., 109.
15. Ibid., 200.
16. Metz, “Communicating a Dangerous Memory,” in Love’s Strategy: The Political Theology of Johann Baptist Metz, ed. John K. Downey (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1999), 137.
17. Ibid., 138-43. Cf. Metz, “Christians and Jews after Auschwitz: Being a Mediation Also On the End of Bourgeois Religion,” in The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 17-33.
18. For the relationship between Metz’s political theology and Alexander Schmemann’s liturgical theology, see Bruce T. Morrill, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000).
19. Metz, FHS, 115.
20. Ibid., 229.
21. Ibid., 230.
22. Ibid., 230-1.
23. Ibid., 231.
24. Ibid., 234.
25. Ibid., 95.
26. Ibid., 95.
27. Ibid., 115.

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