Very recently the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, famous in history for the resistance of their queen Xenobia to the Roman Empire for several years during the tumultuous third century, fell to the forces of the so-called Islamic state, which rules over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Part of the modus operendi of this particular group is the destruction of ancient pre-Islamic ruins, presumably on the grounds that it is immoral to preserve the memory of heathen societies. While I am unaware of any particular hadiths or quotations from the Quran that mandate the destruction of heathen religious sites, it is striking that ISIS follows a general trend among contemporary reactionary Islamist groups to destroy historical artifacts that it deems idolatrous. In comparison, one can look at the rock Buddhas in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in the recent past, which falls under the same sort of behavior. It is immensely unsettling to admit any sort of common feeling with such people as ISIS, but their desire to consign ungodly and wicked historical sites to destruction, to destroy the memory of such heathen practices, is one I can certainly understand on some level, the fact that such sites are immensely significant from a historical perspective notwithstanding. There is an obvious tension between the desire to obliterate all trace of evil and wickedness and the desire to leave an accurate and complete record of life as it really was. It is a deep tension in our lives that, I believe, is not examined nearly often enough.
We must not think that such obliteration of the past is only a matter of groups like ISIS and the Taliban, however. When I lived in Central Florida as a young adult in my mid-to-late 20’s, one of my coworkers was a professional engineer who was fond of Southern culture. While I have never considered myself particularly sympathetic to the worldview of Southern aristocratic domination throughout American history, there is no doubt that movies exist with a racial worldview that is extremely uncomfortable to most contemporary audiences. You see, my former coworker had wanted to obtain a copy of Song of the South, but found that it was extremely difficult to do so, as the leftist Taliban of political correctness had sought to obliterate the memory of such racist comedy and remove it from existence as best as possible . This presents us with a heavy irony, one we must see on both sides. Regardless of our political and religious and moral worldview, we have the temptation to seek to erase evil from historical memory, so that it does not tempt anyone to follow its example. We may not think that it is reasonable for contemporary Islamists to fear the historical memory of ancient Palmyra or the long-departed Buddhists of Afghanistan, but Germany still wishes to cast any memory of Hitler’s Germany down the memory hole, as does the contemporary United States with regard to the Brer Rabbit tales and references to tar babies and inaccurate portrayals of simple-minded and unsophisticated black folk. What is shared in all of these cases is a desire to obliterate memories of evil so that they are removed as a source of contemporary trouble.
As much as I am an advocate and a practitioner of free speech, much to my own harm and peril at times in my life, I have strong sympathies to this view, at least in some aspects. For nearly my entire life, since I was a very small child, I have been tormented by the memory of the horrors of my youth. I have never been allowed to forget what it felt like to be little. There is a lot in my own life that I too would want to consign to the memory hole, to obliterate from existence as if it it never happened, but I have not been so fortunate. I have refused to indulge in the blackout-inducing drinking habits of many of my relatives, for as comforting as such oblivion is, I am not willing to lose control over my impulses and actions that would be involved in such actions. How does one have perfect memory and perfect forgetfulness, so that one remembers the lessons of the past, and so that one can draw strength from our record of resilience without being tormented in the present day by the memory of the past. How does one gain restraint in the right ways from the past, and not a crippling timidity in certain areas of life and behavior. Memory and its implications are a matter of grave personal difficulty, and finding the wise and proper course of action given the past a matter of seeming impossibility to navigate successfully without help from another place.
The Bible speaks in numerous contexts about remembering no longer. Proverbs 31:7 counsels the poor to drink and remember their misery no more . Heman, the author of Psalm 88:5, says that he felt like he was adrift among the dead, whom God remembers no more . Hosea 2:17 says that God will take away the names of the Baals from the mouth of Israel so that these false gods with no longer be remembered . Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17 both comment, in a quotation of Jeremiah 31:34, that God will be merciful to His people and remember their sins and lawless deeds no more. Still other places, like Psalm 83:4 and Jeremiah 11:19, show that the wicked desire to destroy the memory of the righteous from the earth, so that the victims of their evil are remembered no more. Memory is a complicated matter, far from cut or dry. In truth, we all desire for some aspect of our lives or of our history or of the larger past to be remembered no more. What we desire to be forgotten, though, depends on who we are, what we have seen or suffered or done, and our moral worldview. Who is there that can be trusted to have the perfect memory and perfect forgetfulness to know what is to be preserved and what is to be consigned to oblivion? Clearly, we cannot be trusted to handle this task ourselves.