How do we remember well? How do we recall the pain of history without reinforcing its trauma or repeating its mistakes? How do we memorialize without sanitizing? In the wake of monuments tumbling– in some cases as an act of repentance or justice, and in other instances as a result of an angry or ignorant mob– the question we are grappling with is one of memory and mercy. How do we remember a failure through the prism of mercy? Can remembrance meet repentance?
In the mid-1990s an artist named Guenther Demnig began placing “stumbling stones”—Stolperstein in German—around Berlin. These were not names of donors or of famous Berliners; these were names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. For Demnig, a museum doesn’t quite do what is most needed. “I think the large Holocaust memorial here [in Berlin] will always remain abstract. . . . With the stumbling blocks . . . suddenly they are there, right outside your front door.”
The process is deeply personal and communal. Demnig relies on locals to find out the names of slain Jews in their community and the locations where the victims last lived so the stones can be laid nearby. It makes the horrors real, marking the exact place where a raid led to the torture and death of neighbors. A museum or a memorial can be out of sight and out of mind. But with these stones, people cannot simply go about their day. Every time they walk on the street, they are reminded that people in this neighborhood who lived on these streets suffered great pain.
Hendrik Czeczatka, whose family lived in an apartment where more than forty Jewish residents were taken by the Gestapo, raised the money to have stones placed near the apartment. He explained, “Everybody . . . is responsible, individually, for remembering.”
Remembering is important not just to avoid such events again but also to help one another heal. As of 2012 there were more than thirty thousand stumbling stones all across Germany (Eric Westervelt, “Stumbling upon Miniature Memorials to Nazi Victims,”).
We need a community that remembers. We need a community that remembers our pain, a community that remembers the names of victims and the places where they were oppressed. Remembrance is how we are human together, even in the brokenness of our humanity.
For the Christian, that community is the church, gathered before the God who remembers. The Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel wrote, “God is God because he remembers” (Elie Wiesel,“A God Who Remembers”). Our remembrance– even in community– is not enough. We need the memory of God; we need to bring our memory before God.
As the God who remembers, the God of the Bible is able to hold together both justice and righteousness. The Hebrew prophets, who spoke on behalf of this God, remind us that justice and righteousness belong together. In fact, in the biblical languages the very words are connected. You can even glimpse the connection in English. It is because God is righteous that He will set things right. It is because God is just that He will justify.
Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than at the cross of Jesus Christ. On the cross Jesus died in solidarity with all who suffer and are oppressed. There He died to take the punishment for the victimizers and the oppressors. For the victim and the victimizer, for the oppressed and the oppressor, Jesus was crucified.
And this flows from God being the God who remembers. God in His remembrance of our pain and suffering went to the cross. God in His remembrance of the violations and the wrong went to the cross. Christ the crucified is a reminder that God remembers.
This remembrance of God is not just seen in the Cross; it is demonstrated in the Resurrection. The Father remembers the Son. The Resurrection was a vindication of that death that brought justice and righteousness together. And the risen Christ is a living reminder that God will bring justice to pass. God will set the world right. God will rectify the wrong. Christ the risen is a reminder that God remembers.
On the eve of His death, on the night that our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over to suffering and death, He took bread and a cup. And He said to do this in remembrance of Him. This is how Christians remember. This is how Christians repent. The Table of the Lord is where memory meets mercy and brokenness finds grace.
Every time the church comes to the Lord’s Table, we are the community that remembers. And there at the Table of the crucified and risen Christ, we who are broken become the community that is re-membered.
Adapted from Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus.Copyright © 2019 by Glenn Packiam. Used by permission of Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Glenn Packiam (Doctor of Theology and Ministry, Durham) is an associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has authored many books, and his most recently released title is Worship and the World to Come: Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship (IVP, 2020).