Perhaps it was Memorial Day that got me reminiscing. I could not shake off the memory of a college classmate who had had enough of Latin and Greek and wanted to prove his worth as a man. Already he had interspersed his Classics courses with work on a fishing boat out of New Bedford. He informed me that he was “packing” as he swaggered around campus. But then, a year later, thin overseas letters reached me from Cambodia with an army postmark. In a series of meditations, often written soon after a firefight, Jim revealed a side of himself he had never shown. His words were achingly tender as he sketched out his feelings of fear and astonishment to me. Yet, when he returned he never spoke about those moments of shock and awe.
As we move into what some would call a return to normal, by celebrating with barbecues and family released from lockdown, I wonder if we are beginning again to do what is so American. Rushing back to restaurants, supermarkets, and bars, many want to get back to where we were. Some caution about going too fast, to make sure we reach herd immunity, to remember the common good. But all those advisories soon are overwhelmed by the thought of lighting up the night with the “rockets’ red glare.”
Despite urgings not to forget, Americans historically have displayed a marked capacity to consign the past to oblivion. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address counselled the country to remember those courageous soldiers who held the line at a staggering cost. But Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era whitewashed those memories. Indeed, even death itself gets dispatched, like our elderly, to somewhere out of sight. Nursing homes and funeral parlors keep those uncertain and chilling cries at bay.
But then Covid came. It gradually began to dawn on us that things were no longer normal. The uncertainty of our situation was compounded with the helplessness we saw on every side. We could not, nor dared to, touch. We witnessed our loved ones die at a distance. Some of us fell victim and went through hell. We could not imagine any way out.
And then things got worse. The nation viewed that knee on that neck. Something deep within so many began to thaw and people of all sorts streamed out to protest in the streets. Blacks and whites together masked up and stood in solidarity to declare that Black lives matter, that the suffocating cries of George Floyd were heard.
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Yet things got worse. The Capitol was stormed. The dogs of disillusion cried havoc and left their mark on Congressional walls and windows. The country is still lurching back and forth in a bedlam of punditry and political plays. Some Congressmen, despite their witnessing of what happened on the floors of Congress, would have the record show that nothing untoward happened on January 6.
Indeed, what appears to be a complete revision of this unexpected epoch is not an unusual move by Americans. For over four hundred years so many of us have been blithely unaware of our nation’s original sin. It has taken an epidemic to get us to admit not only our fragility but the reality of what is lacking in this country. For many white people there came the shocking realization of what Blacks throughout our nation had long experienced.
Perhaps we are not alone in this rush into forgetfulness. The Greeks had a word for it: lethe. It means both forgetting and oblivion. Could it be that our usual way of living, our normal way of life, rides on the crest of forgetfulness? Isn’t life more pleasant when we gloss over inconvenient elements?
It seems that we need to be startled into remembering. We need one another to remember. This became clearer to me recently when I asked my students in my Writings of Paul course to write to that fierce and fond ancient. One student’s words in particular stay with me. She had come down with Covid soon after the class began. Yet she would not give up on the course. The first few weeks were nothing but a blur for her. Still she persisted. Her final essays demonstrated the bumpiness of her journey in a raw, unvarnished engagement with Paul. Here are some excerpts:
I was home for 6 months in quarantine and started to lose my mind. No physical contact with anyone but my family, no motivation to continue on with school, etc. I felt trapped and suffocated and my anxiety and depression felt like it was constantly attacking me with no break. When fall came around and it was time to come back to school, it was again quite the transition. . . . Paul, this has been the hardest year yet. This current semester has been so incredibly difficult. I actually got Covid-19, but on top of it have Covid pneumonia. It was a terrible experience and led me to going to the ER because my breathing was so bad. Ever since I had Covid-19, things haven’t been the same for me. I struggle physically and mentally and find myself exhausted doing the bare minimum. My anxiety has heightened, and depression is in full swing. I just don’t understand why this is happening, Paul. . . . Innocent lives have been taken from friends and family and it’s unfair. . . . I actually got so incredibly sick after getting vaccinated. It’s crazy times right now, Paul, for all over the world. That being said, Paul, I know God feels for the ones who have suffered and will free them from their suffering. . . . Paul, I carry your message and hope that God saves the ones who have died. Let them not be alone.
Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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