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Sharing memories of the past: the healing of memories and interreligious encounter.

Peace building and reconciliation have become central themes in interreligious encounter today. This has been prompted by changes in the world situation since 1989.

Two such changes are of central importance here. The first is the rise of a new wave of economic and social globalization. This has fostered economic growth in some parts of the world and economic disruption in others. It has heightened patterns of migration from poor countries into wealthier ones--of highly trained personnel who cannot find work in their own countries and especially of the poor seeking to feed their families and improve their general lot.

The uncoupling of the East-West Cold War arrangement has also created a new political instability. When linked to a fast-moving market capitalism, it set the scene for a growing number of conflicts in the 1990s. Although the number of these has decreased since the turn of the century, they continue to contribute to an atmosphere of conflict in many parts of the world.

Paired with these developments in globalization has been a resurgence of religious feeling in many parts of the world. (1) Some of this resurgence has arisen out of a growing disillusion with secularization and its attendant ideologies, which have failed to offer a better life for many persons. While sometimes freeing them from the burdens of heavy obligations, they have only unanchored others, casting them adrift in a sea of anomie. A return to religion, seen especially in attempts to return to and revive older practices, has been strong among young adults who are seeking some direction in a world of too many choices (in the wealthier parts of the world) or as an alternative to the promises denied them (among immigrants to the wealthy world as well as those who have stayed behind in their poor homelands).

The religiosity that is emerging is often highly expressive and strongly communal in nature. It is apparent in the megachurches of the U.S. suburbs but especially in Pentecostal and charismatic formations around the world. The instability of the world has helped spark interest among conservative Protestant Christians in the apocalyptic themes of their faith, as can be seen in the immense popularity in those circles of the apocalyptic Left Be hind series. Disillusionment with unfulfilled promises manifests itself also among young Muslims in the attraction of forms of Islam that claim to regain the pristine purity of that faith.

Where issues of identity take strong hold in unstable and unfulfilled settings, dialogue between religious traditions takes on new urgency. The dialogue realized in shared social projects for development and for achieving greater justice, as well as the dialogue of scholars regarding their tenets of their faiths, have had to make room for a new kind of dialogue that has to combine attitudes and skills relating to conflict resolution with a deeper grasp of the tenets of one's faith to work toward healing past memories and resolving current conflicts. Where painful memories of the past have been reawakened, and where paths to reconciliation seem blocked, this newer kind of interreligious encounter will have to be undertaken if other forms of peaceful dialogue are to be pursued.

In this essay I look at one aspect of this process of interreligious encounter for building peace, namely, the role of memory and the healing of memories.

Dealing with memories has come to be seen as crucial to building a different kind of future. Painful memories of the past can occlude any resolution of past differences as well as any movement toward finding news ways of living together. This has become both evident and newly important for both Christian and Muslim communities. Not only are Christians and Muslim brought closer by the compacting powers of globalization; the migration of Muslims into Europe and North America has created new situations of closer encounter among two populations that were, for a long time, geographically distant from each other. Many political commentators have also noted that collapse of European Communism left the West without a perceived enemy. For too many people an amorphous sense of Islam has filled that void. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, plus a half-century history of conflict within the Middle East, have made this situation only more virulent.

Perceptions of the current situation in the world in the first decade of the twenty-first century build in turn on histories that stretch back a millennium or more. Old memories are given new life by current conflicts. Coming to terms with present perceptions and realities entails dealing in some measure with the past as well.

My presentation falls into three parts. The first is a brief overview of the function of memory, especially traumatic memory, in social formations. The intent is to offer a general framework in which to understand how memory functions in shaping identity and how it can promote or derail attempts to forge renewed relationships in the present. The second part offers a brief case history where memory has complicated current realities: the Balkans area of Europe. The focus is on Christian-Muslim relations during and since the 1990s war there. The third section attempts to derive some general lessons about building peace and reconciliation and how these relate to processes of interreligious dialogue.

The role of memory in social formations

Memory is about the relationship between things remembered from the past and living in the present. It is of great significance both for individuals and for societies. We all know the heartbreak of having a spouse or a loved one succumb to dementia or Alzheimer's disease. While the person is still very much there, our capacity to relate to them in this situation changes our relationship completely.

Memory is the basis for identity--that sameness or recurrence that anchors and orients us in the stream of time. Memories change over time, with elements added or subtracted, and with perspectives shifted as new experiences call for or even require a different grasp of the past. This dialectic of sameness and change allows us to negotiate the shifting currents in our own day-today existence.

In the creating of a social world, memory serves not only to help create a steady state for our individual selves in the eddies and flows of life but also as a powerful means of creating and sustaining social cohesion. This cohering dimension of memory is maintained most strongly in a constructed narrative of the past that is then shared as a common legacy or heritage by a people. In the rise of nation-states in Europe beginning in the late eighteenth century, national narratives that transcended earlier ethnic and political entities had to be constructed. These narratives in turn were anchored visibly in monuments, artifacts, and practices to help cement relations between groups that heretofore may not have found common cause. Nationalism depended on developing these shared narratives. When narratives of struggle against outside forces took center stage, the identities could be bolstered by creating an us-versus-them boundary--a negative identity.

Memories are not always shaped by positive experiences and by stories of success. The memories of suffering and of defeat can often be more powerful than narratives of triumph. Their power is derived from senses of loss, injustice, humiliation, and resentment. The heroic capacity to endure amid great adversity can summon up a sense of moral strength and intensity even more potent than pride in achievements. Such negative identities gain their strength by having a common enemy--an enemy we can hate together even if for different reasons. The focus of strength then is in the resistance, whereas the relationships within the suffering community may not need any closer definition.

Among negative memories, traumatic ones stand out in a special way. These are memories of loss that express more than a yearning for an absent object; they represent rather loss that hovers at the edge of extinction and death. Examples of narratives coming out of mass death in the twentieth century include the Armenian Massacre of 1914-15, the Jewish Holocaust in the Second World War, and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. These literally life-threatening memories do not admit of being incorporated into a collective narrative. They remain untamed and uncontrolled. They come back in unwanted flashbacks to those who have survived of how close they, too, came to extinction. They are triggered by contemporary events that at first might seem unconnected to those terrible moments in the past. Narratives that grow out of trauma break into the lives of survivors in unbidden and unwanted ways, and they are difficult to manage and to change. The power of painful memory can seem to have no limit; it feeds on underground springs of emotion that can be neither channeled nor dammed up. Moreover, the narratives that emerge are like images shaped in a mirror. They always reflect the primal terror of the original traumatizing events and can never be shaped solely out of their own elements. They never escape those founding events and remain ever subservient to them.

Can traumatic memories, and the narratives they generate, be healed and changed? This is a question with which we continue to struggle, especially in view of the traumatic memories of events in the past century. We know that individuals may escape them and even transcend them, but their collective power on the psyches of whole societies remains strong. The anger and attendant emotions of resentment and desire for retribution that accompany these memories are often easily manipulated by leaders for other, sometimes nefarious, purposes. In a crisis of identity in a suffering people, the memory of shared trauma can provide cohesion when everything else fails.

Healing of traumatic memory cannot be achieved by suppressing those memories; they always come back in other, often unwelcome, ways. Rather, over time these memories must come to be embedded in new narratives that do not continue to generate negative emotion. This may be done by establishing a pattern of meaning in a new narrative whereas in the old one the traumatic event had been the death of meaning. In the Bible, the Israelites returning from Babylon had to try to establish reasons for the destruction of the Temple and the exile. They were

too small a people and too weak to strike out at their oppressors. Rather, they had to find a new way of living. By rebuilding the Temple and "rediscovering" the Torah they made a new connection with the past and found a way into the future.


Contemporary experience indicates that key to the healing of memories is the generation that comes after the generation who experienced the traumatic event as adults. It is as though the trauma has frozen the adult generation in the frame of the moment of the trauma. It is their children, who wish to honor the memory of their parents' suffering but who also have come to their maturity in the time after the traumatic event, who will find the way forward.

A key corollary to this point is that the way memories of trauma are transmitted becomes key in a processing of building peace. To be sure, many victims of trauma will try to keep the stories of their suffering from their offspring, with the intention of sparing them the pain of what happened. Thus it was not uncommon after World War II for Jews not to want to talk to their children about their experience of the Holocaust. But when those children reached adolescence and early adulthood, they began to ask questions.

When there has been no escape from the conditions of the trauma (as when the next generation is born in or grows up in a refugee camp), the trauma is transmitted directly. In other instances, the next generation will constantly hear stories and witness the effects of the traumatic event, and so cannot escape it. In such instances as these, trauma--and the anger, helplessness, and resentment it creates--can be transmitted through successive generations. It may appear to lie dormant for a time, but it can be summoned up again and again.

What can be said, then, about the healing of traumatic memories, especially in the social sphere? It is difficult for the adult generation that has experienced them to achieve much healing, especially if the consequences of the trauma remain unad-dressed and unresolved. Healing involves being able to find some meaning in the whole story, that is, placing the traumatic events in a new narrative that can explain what led to the event occurring and what needs to be done to prevent its recurrence.

Second, attitudes toward those who suffered the trauma (the victims) and those who caused the trauma (the perpetrators) must find a place in a new narrative that leeches away the toxicity surrounding the event. Victims must be able to be seen as more than hopeless and hapless passive recipients of what happened; ways must be found to restore their capacity to act. Perpetrators must be seen to be more than simply identified with the evil deed; their humanity, too, will have to be restored. This requires new encounters between victims and perpetrators that do not repeat the horrors of the past but rather initiate new pathways into the future together.

In trying to bring those who suffered trauma and those who instigated it together, one must realize that their memories of what happened, and the narratives in which those memories are embedded, will differ from each other. Healing of memories can be seen to have been reached only when these two narratives can give way to a new, common narrative that both sides can claim.

Case study: Christianity and Islam in Southeastern Europe (2)

The bloody encounters of Christians--Croatian Roman Catholics and Serbian Orthodox--and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia can serve to illustrate many of the points about the role of the healing of memories and its role in interreligious encounter. The wars that took place in the first half of the 1990s had antecedent causes. Some of these antecedents were directly connected to the fateful encounters; others got fused into it in the narratives that were created during that time.

The Balkans lie on the cultural faultline between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, between Latin and Orthodox Christianity. The Drina River often is adduced as its boundary. The Ottoman forces' victory over the Serbian Prince Lazar at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 introduced a Muslim element into the already turbulent picture. After the area's annexation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, nationalisms were stirred up throughout the region, culminating in the assassination of Archduke Leopold in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, in 1914. The more immediate cause can be seen in the struggles of World War II, when Roman Catholic Croatians sided with the Nazis, and Orthodox Serbians were allied with the Soviet Russians, again reiterating the East-West division that had prevailed for a millennium and a half. The Serbs suffered greatly at the hands of Ustasi forces from Croatia, with thousands killed in detention camps. Josip Broz Tito then consolidated power as a Communist leader after 1945, though he later declared some independence from Moscow. With his death in 1980, the arrangement of the Balkan States threatened to become undone.

Slobodan Milosevic struggled to consolidate power in the Serbian sector. In 1989, the East-West arrangement of the Cold War in Europe began to come apart. In that year, he gave a stirring speech at the site of the Battle of Kosovo (also known as the Battle of the Field of the Black Birds), on the 600th anniversary of that event. He vowed to create a greater Serbia by conquering the Muslims who had humiliated the Serbian people in that battle and then subjugated them for centuries thereafter; and the Croatians, who had perpetrated horrors against Serbia in World War II. The evocation of these traumatic memories was enough to set the Balkan War in motion.

Here we see how a number of different memories of trauma were fused together to create a powerful social feeling of being wronged that needed to be righted before further humiliation could be visited upon the Serbs. The result was years of warfare, with battle lines laid down along religious and ethnic differences and that now has been suspended in an uneasy peace. In the course of that warfare, new traumas were inflicted, most notably the massacre at Srebenica where some 7,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically executed. Ever-widening circles of new narratives have been woven around the events: Sarajevo, where World War I began and the Cold War arrangement came to an end; Sarajevo, the site of the 1984 Olympics, and the destruction of its historical and cultural heritage; the destruction of the bridge at Mostar, which for centuries had connected the Christian and Muslim populations of that city.

From an interreligious perspective, the most significant thing to emerge has been the effort to set up an interfaith council of Roman Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The explicit intent of this move is to separate religion from nationalist politics and to build on the resources of peace in those respective traditions to contribute to the healing of that suffering part of Europe.

Some lessons to be learned about peace building and interreligious encounter

This brief account of the tragedy that beset the Balkans in the 1990s, and the long aftermath in which many groups from within and beyond that region have struggled to bring healing and reconciliation, is intended as a thumbnail sketch of how building peace and interreligious encounter are being placed together today. What follows are five lessons that have been learned from the work done in that area and beyond, and their significance for interreligious encounter andbuilding peace.

1. Interreligious dialogue by itself will not bring peace. The leaders of the major three religious communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Jews make up but a tiny minority) all tried to speak out against the hostilities as they commenced in that area in the early 1990s. But none of their voices was strong enough to be heard beyond their own communities--and often not within them as well. At that point even their trying to speak together would likely not have produced any positive effect. Their efforts in the latter part of the 1990s to create an inter-faith council, by using the media to bring attention to their efforts, was an attempt to underscore the message that whatever caused the terrible war, its roots could not be in the differing religious traditions. Christianity in both its Eastern and Western versions has a strongly developed sense of peace in its religious traditions, as does Islam. Showing their willingness to talk to one another, however, was seen as not a sufficient response to the situation.

For interreligious encounter to be effective, it must build on a basis of trust--a foundation that takes years to develop. Such development cannot begin as conflict is threatening. The trust must be strong enough to withstand the buffeting it will experience in the conflict itself.

2. Interreligious encounter in building peace must work to help communities develop multiple networks of association and identification. Conflict flourishes when dividing lines between parties can be sharply demarcated. The key to preventing such divisions from opening up in conflict is to develop networks of contact between communities that allow them to come to identify themselves by more than one label: Bosniak or Croat or Serb, Christian or Muslim. Such multiple forms of identification weaken negative boundaries of identity (i.e., I am identified by what I am not). This is being used successfully in Northern Ireland by church groups and other organizations, especially among the children of that troubled area. Religious traditions here need to draw upon universalizing elements in their teaching (such as: God is the creator of all people, we must all love one another, everyone is our neighbor) to help strengthen these bonds. Getting members of the different faiths to come together in youth groups, projects for development or social improvement, and the like can help create denser networks of association and identification.

3. Learning about the impact of trauma and the healing of memories. Learning about the dynamics of trauma, and especially the transmission of trauma, is an important part of the tool kit of anyone building peace. Learning how religious traditions deal with themes of suffering, justice, healing, and forgiveness is an important part of that, because most people who have been traumatized will not have access to medical services that can treat trauma. Their religious traditions often are their only recourse in such matters. Building up those resources, and making them the subject of interfaith discussions, strengthens both building peace and interfaith encounters. Key here is a better understanding of the social transmission of trauma and its potentially deleterious effects on the rebuilding of post-conflict societies. This involves not only understanding the dynamics of such transmission but also equipping local religious leaders to intervene effectively to stop harmful transmissions.

4. Attending to narratives of suffering. The experience of suffering of those who have been beset by traumatic memories is something that religious traditions are especially attuned to. The great religious traditions all have developed ways of thinking that struggle to cope with suffering. Among the great contributions they can make to the building of peace are precisely contributing their insights into helping people deal with the suffering they cannot escape and building the capacities to struggle against suffering that can be changed. Secular traditions can counsel resistance to suffering but generally offer little as a resource to people to develop inner resources for living with suffering in the long term.

5. Deepening the religious traditions of peace. Because of the urgency of working for peace, especially in immediate and local contexts within national boundaries, religious traditions need to build up and expand their traditions of peace. One area in particular is the development of a better understanding of both victims and perpetrators. How to accompany victims in their healing process and keep them from lapsing into permanent patterns of victimization is especially important. Likewise, the delicate process of accompanying perpetrators who wish to repent and be reintegrated into society--a still underdeveloped area in peace studies--will need further exploration. Religious traditions about conversion, return, reparation, and forgiveness all play a role here.


The urgent need to engage in the building of peace is presenting a new agenda for interreligious encounter. Because religion is sometimes involved in the causes of conflict but can also be the source of healing after conflict, leaders of religious communities need to learn more about the dynamics of conflict transformation as well as plumb more effectively the traditions of peace in their respective religious traditions. The capacity of religious traditions to work together to prevent conflict and maintain peace has a new and urgent importance in many parts of the world today. This constitutes a major point of growth for interreligious encounter as we move forward in an unstable world.

Robert Schreiter

Vatican Council II Professor of Theology

Catholic Theological Union, Chicago

1. For a good overview of the issues the resurgence of religion raises for peace in the world, see Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

2. For a more complete survey of this history, as well as developments surrounding the interfaith council in Bosnia-Herzogevina, see Douglas Johnston and Jonathon Eastvold, "History Unrequited: Religion as Provocateur and Peacemaker in the Bosnian Conflict," in Religion and Peacebuilding, ed. Harold Coward and Gordon Smith (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), 213-42.
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Author:Schreiter, Robert
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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