Memory and Remembering in the Post-Communist Context

in Essays in Ecumenical Theology I
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Religious life is never lived in isolation from the social, political and cultural settings in which the people who live it and the institutions which mediate it find themselves and to which they contribute. While the previous two chapters focused more on the inner dynamics within and among the ecclesial bodies, this chapter explores the outer dynamics of their engagement with society, and in particular with societies that have had a totalitarian past. The text is based on an article published in Political Theology in 2008 with the same name as the chapter,1 but it also draws on my other studies on the theme.2 The chapter focuses on Central Europe and in particular, though not exclusively, on the Czech Republic, where I best know the situation.

Dealing with the difficult memory of the Communist past involves considering both dysfunctions of memory as well as the successful ways of remembering.3 In this chapter I use examples to show how difficult the memories are of the past post-Communist societies with which churches, families and individuals are dealing. I then move to the negative examples of dealing with memory, to the dysfunctions, such as intentional or non-intentional replacement of memory by fiction, suppression of memory and inadequate and insufficient evaluation of the weight of its meaning. Then I look at the positive examples of witness to the complexity of the past, both from the side of the martyrs, as well as from the side of people who were caught in between bravery and fear. I am interested in the memory of individuals, of societies and of churches, and in particular, in their interaction.

Remembering and retelling the past is a complicated task in any setting, and it is doubly complicated when the members of the society, and thus also of the churches, have to deal with a totalitarian past. We never have at our disposal past events “as they really were”, as Leopold von Ranke once hoped for.4 And yet our roots and the roots of those who come after us are in what happened. Thus we have a responsibility towards ourselves and towards them not to kill the past.5 Our present options and future projects grow from that past and from it they open to the Spirit of life that is given to us in a double movement of anamnesis and epiclesis, remembering and invocation.

My angle of interpretation is theological. In other words, I consider the theme of memory and responsibility for a truthful attitude towards memory from within the doctrine on the Holy Spirit. It seems to me helpful to propose that the act of remembering becomes complete in invocation, when it thirsts and cries for the Spirit of freedom, the Spirit of life, the Holy Spirit, to come, to heal, and to give a new future, to break the circle of the repetition of the same.6 This becomes particularly important, when I consider the common social, cultural and political situation in which the life of the churches was reshaped after 1989, and also how they responded to this new situation, this new challenge.

This chapter is divided into five parts. In the first, I show the nature of the difficult memories of Communism and sketch why both for the society at large and for the churches it has been so difficult to take responsibility for what happened. The second part looks at the problems of avoiding such responsibility by downplaying, denying or even falsifying the memory of the past, and by creating victimhood as a positive identity. In the third part I examine similar problems within the churches in more detail. The fourth part is dedicated to the positive examples of remembering, and in the conclusion I ask how these can help in regaining both responsibility for the past and hope for the future.