The Akan people of Ghana give us the principal of Sankofa: we have to remember the past in order to make positive progress in the future. We see this idea in therapy and recovery programs. Don’t get stuck and brood there for an unnecessarily long time but look at the past full in the face and learn from it: both from the good and from the bad.
We do this on national holidays. We have collectively chosen to remember our battle for independence, veterans who gave their lives in war and the day the enslaved learned of their freedom. Never Forget is the mantra every September 11th.
We do this in our relationships. We remember birthdays and anniversaries and we set aside time and resources to honor those closest to us. We focus on our children, our friends, our spouse and we deliberately show love and gratitude for them.
Christians and Jews do this to honor God, as the word remember appears over two hundred times in Scripture:
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness.
They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them...
We have to remember past trials in order to trust God’s faithfulness now. We have to remember hard lessons so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. We have to allow past victories to give us courage and confidence so that we can face whatever presently stands before us.
Remembering is crucial and it takes discipline. We don’t automatically recollect; we have to decide to do it. We choose to buy a birthday cake, go out to dinner, take the day off, say a prayer or stand for a moment of silence to remember somebody lost.
If we fail to do these rituals, we will forget and we will slip into an apathetic dullness which takes people and things for granted. We will judge someone because we don’t know or haven’t acknowledged how far they’ve come. We will keep making the same mistakes over and over again because we failed to remember lessons learned from the past.
Our human nature is to plow forward and shy away from looking at the hard things, the shameful things, because that demands humility, work and reckoning. Or we plow forward and fail to celebrate the good, because we’re anxious to know what comes next.
Remembering makes us grateful and remembering keeps us humble.
But remembering is the very thing which is under attack now. All over the nation, books about our past have been withdrawn from library shelves and curricula. School districts have decided that we no longer need to remember bus boycotts and the battle for desegregation. We don’t need to remember the fortitude of Jackie Robinson, or the courage of a six-year-old girl named Ruby Bridges. We don’t need to remember the tragedy of American chattel slavery and the one hundred years of race-based oppression which followed. These things challenge the notion of American exceptionalism, they demand work and reckoning and humility and so we pull those out and put in their place only books which demonstrate national greatness.
This is both dangerous and wrong.
No relationship built on denial will flourish. Love matures as we see flaws and help to mitigate them or choose to love despite them. No patriotism is genuine which depends on a refusal to learn the bad and the choice only to celebrate good. That patriotism is a lie standing on a feeble foundation.
When we drive, we constantly check our rearview and sideview mirrors and we also look ahead. If we don’t look back or to the side, we won’t see if someone is about to crash into us. We have mirrors because seeing all around us keeps us safe.
Personally and as a nation, we have to teach every generation to look back and reckon with the past in order to have a bright and safe future. Our kids won’t hate America if they learn both the terrible and the wonderful things about our past. Rather, learning both will result in humility, maturity, and wisdom: character qualities crucial for future leaders.
For more, listen to this podcast episode about book banning.