Thursday, 18 September 2008

The elemental pain of the past

I've been watching "Who do think you are" - the BBC genealogy programme - which had Ainsley Harriott tracing his roots back to the Caribbean. It was a story of slavery, inhumanity and poverty but also of heroism, pride and overcoming adversity.
Watching him visibly angry and moved looking at a plaque to one of the slave owners of his great grandparents, I reflected on the elemental pain of the past. He stomped out the church after saying he hoped the plaque would fall down and be reduced to dust - why should a slave owner's name be remembered in marble.
I am sometimes surprised at how moved I can still be by the story of my father seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. The pain of some of what happened in the second world war is still very much with me even though it was not my direct experience. Listening to Ainsley Harriott this evening I realised that this is true for many of us both as individuals and as groups, communities and nations. It's often an elemental diffuse and blaming rage, the pain at the past which we cannot change.
Reflecting further on the contributions made at the Promised Land Conference I recognise that understanding, coping with and transforming powerful memories from the past is part of the key to finding a lasting, just and peaceful political settlement for Palestine and Israel. Acknowledging that those feelings continue to provide some kind of framework for the way we read the Bible is also part of the hermeneutical task that scholars are having to face up to.
A colleague who worked for the WCC's decade to overcome violence said that if he had responded to all of the proposals to do healing of memories seminars he would have done hardly anything else - he wished he had more time. Healing the pain of the present is already enough of a challenge, healing memories is an even more painstaking and complex task. The way we teach and tell history is in the end very much part of truth and reconciliation.
It is right to rage at marble plaques to the oppressors of the past. It's important to work for understanding and towards healing in bitterly divided communities. This is the hard work of peace.