..."Memory is tied to the identity of the people of God. Continually, the people of God are reminded of who they are by recounting the sweep of salvation history. And our memory becomes attached to this version of history because our lives find their value and purpose there. The core liturgical act for the Christian community is the Eucharist, or communion. This is a celebration of remembrance. As one writer has said, “memory is more than just a psychological exercise of data retrieval,” but the “faculty that tells us who we are.”
It’s through memory that our personal story becomes attached to God’s story. We claim our defining narrative.
The flow of news, information, and communication in our society combats the power and purpose of memory. We are riveted to the present, where news cycles saturated with fresh content create historical amnesia, daily. Headlines, whether in tweets, from blogs, or established news sites, attempt to define the current and most important story.
This is an ongoing challenge in any modern political environment. But it is made far more dangerous by Donald Trump’s communication style. He masters news cycles by morning tweets that drive media attention, whether positive or negative, and then diverts that attention by a following tweet, or spontaneous public statement, which effectively eclipses memory of the previous 24 hours, much less 24 days or 24 weeks. Moreover, that also allows him to change his story. A stance consistently taken for weeks is suddenly reversed, but then forgotten as attention quickly moves on to the next thing.
Thus, memory will be crucial for us in the Trump era for two reasons:
It is essential for accountability, perspective, and judgment regarding Donald Trump and his presidency. We must literally “bear in mind” who he is, what he has said, and what he has done if we are to fairly and critically evaluate his policies and actions as president. If we lose our memory, diverted by the latest tweet or scandal or intrigue, we will deprive ourselves of a genuinely prophetic posture. Nor will we even know how to best pray for our president.
More importantly, memory — specifically our religious memory — is what keeps us grounded in our story in the face of other competing narratives. Every administration in this town tries to drive a narrative explaining both social reality and the salvific nature of the president’s leadership. With the Trump administration, this has begun in particularly stark ways, telling a story of national carnage that can be salvaged only by asserting defiantly our superiority and self-righteousness, defending ourselves at home and abroad against any who present a different vision.
But our story is different, told by those claimed by a gracious God, whose love always expands the boundaries constructed in our hearts and in our society, and whose pathways of redemption were shown decisively in the humility and suffering of a servant. In this time, as in every time, this is what we most need to remember, and allow to shape us.
So, as we enter the era with Donald Trump as our president, one of the most crucial and grounding things for us to do, politically and spiritually, is to gather at the Table, and hear those words, “Do this in memory of me.”
It is ironic that the famous statement of Pilate to Jesus, “What is truth?” now reverberates through today’s media. James Ernest, a friend who is editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Publishing Company, recently posted this on Facebook:
For Christians, questions of truth and falsehood are a spiritual matter. The ninth of 10 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures states, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In one definition, this forbids: Speaking falselyin any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbor. 2. Speaking unjustly against our neighbor, to the prejudice of his reputation. The focus on care for one’s neighbor recognizes that truthfulness is essential for sustaining community.
Moreover, lying, falsehood, and deceit are understood biblically as essential tools of evil. Jesus calls the devil “the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Truth is not merely a preferred practice, but in Christian thinking it’s foundational to a just social order.
Therefore, for objective truth to be in dispute — and falsehoods named “alternative facts” — is not just a political danger, it strikes at the core of a trustworthy society. On his first day as president, while visiting the CIA, Donald Trump called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth.” One normally would imagine that extreme and audacious statement only being uttered by a dictator in a third-world country rather than a sitting president of the world’s leading democracy.
A free press is linked to the discovery and accounting of truthful events in society and the world. Its flaws are many, but its role is indispensable. Remember this: Every authoritarian ruler in the world tries to undermine the public’s confidence in an independent media so that he or she can define the truth. In the case of Donald Trump, his relentless attacks on the media have the intent of undermining the credibility of the press among as much of the public as possible. In that way, his narrative, his version of events, his exaggerations, and his outright falsehoods will not be held to account. This is how evil works its way into our social fabric.
Our responsibility as biblical people committed to the common good is to stand for truth. But we must also admit a tension. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” is asked by many today, particularly in a post-modern society where any permanent claims to objective veracity are brought into question. Here, we can acknowledge that an understanding of truth is influenced by the perspective and perception of the one who seeks it.
Biblical faith understands this. That’s why its consistent portrayal of the “truth” about any social order is seen through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. The Bible has that bias, and it was embraced by Jesus. He interpreted the truth about his society by focusing on the Samaritan, the widow, the oppressed servant, the outcast person with leprosy, the paralytic — all those whom the respectable, self-righteous leaders of society pushed to the margins, and excluded.
This way of seeing the truth of society from the perspective of the powerless and oppressed stands in contradiction to the version of “truth” seen from the perspective of rulers captured by their grandiosity, enamored by their power, and resistant to any critique. In the Trump era, we must take our stand against falsehood as an act of spiritual obedience, and follow Jesus in perceiving the truth about our society.
When young Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, he was dismayed by the accommodation and support it received from the state Lutheran church and the strong majority of its members. With others, he formed the Confessing Church, which proclaimed that the Third Reich threatened the integrity of Christian faith. They tried to establish an alternative church structure, including “underground” seminaries to train clergy.
Bonhoeffer headed the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. His conviction was that the form of Christianity dominant in Germany lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and resist it as a matter of faith. So, at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer focused on Christian formation. He wanted to shape a community that learned how to confess sins, to meditate daily on texts of Scripture, and develop solidarity with the weakest members of society. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to build a fellowship nurtured by a spirituality deep enough to stand the test of that time. This became the basis for his book, Life Together.
All this should be born in mind when we mediate on the polls of religious voters in the past election. Not only did 81 percent of those identifying as white evangelicals support Trump, but those in mainline Protestant congregations included large numbers of Trump supporters, as well as 67 percent of white Catholic voters. Shortly after the election, I shared this at Sojourners:
“… this election marked the defeat of the public witness of Christians in the parishes and pews of America's churches — and especially those that are predominantly white. … . That means that those, like myself, who have carried responsibilities to nurture faithful discipleship through Christian institutions, denominational structures, and organizations, have failed in the test of this time.”
We find ourselves faced with a challenge like that discerned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The public witness of so many who follow Christ lacked the spiritual depth and clarity to proclaim the true meaning of Christian faith for the life of society in this time. Discipleship faltered, without the strength to follow Jesus into the world. Courage was dissipated, bereft of spiritual power and biblical discernment.
Once again, we are in deep need of basic, enduring spiritual formation to acquire both the clarity and strength that equips us to follow Jesus, and answer the question posed by Bonhoeffer: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” As my Lutheran friend said, we must learn how to “come out” as Christians. And this can only happen in community. The habits of thinking, practices of living, disciplines of praying, celebrations of worship, and clarity of calling can only happen with one another.
The lesson for this time is that Christian communities committed to prophetic witness in society endure when they learn to nurture the spiritual depth of practices that equip them for the long run. Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that forms and shapes who we discover ourselves to be, and what we are called to do, before God. In the Trump era, as in other times, we need to nurture such communities as integral to our life and witness.
I’m frequently nurtured by reading Father Richard Rohr’s daily mediations. Last September, he wrote about the difference between pain and suffering. While we all experience pain, suffering comes from our inability to control certain devastating events in our life. But it’s precisely this encounter with suffering, as an utter lack of control — resulting in complete helplessness, vulnerability, and loss — which can open the way for God’s Spirit to break through with the power and promise of new, resurrected life. That’s the story of Jesus. And that’s the invitation to all who would follow him...."
Editor's Note: This talk was part of the Parr Lecture Series sponsored by The Festival Centerin Washington, D.C.