I once heard of a study that compared how people from the United States and people from Japan remembered two key events of World War II: the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima. Not surprisingly, the two groups remembered history differently. The Americans studied knew much more about Pearl Harbor and felt it was particularly treacherous because it was a surprise attack when the US was not yet at war with Japan. For them, the details of Hiroshima were a little sketchy, but they remembered that that bombing took place during a time of war and believed that it ended the conflict, thus saving lives in the long run. The Japanese, on the other hand, were more likely to remember Hiroshima, which they pointed out was an attack on civilians that, because of the long-term radiation effects, killed as many as 100 times more people than Pearl Harbor, making it more treacherous than an attack on a military base.
It’s interesting how people love to remember the wrongs that have been done to them or their tribe. My mother could recount the injuries England inflicted on Ireland like it was prayer she knew by rote. Most ethnic groups have their own litanies. Even in our personal lives, we tend to do this, remembering every slight, but glossing over the hurts we have caused others. It’s why Jesus’ teaching is so pointed and timeless: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
This question haunted me after September 11, 2001, when it became painfully clear that most people in the US had no earthly idea why people in other parts of the world resented us. It’s not just that they had forgotten the history of the Cold War: they never knew it. Because US foreign policy was a lot of what I studied in college and graduate school, I felt I needed to hold up some other pieces of the story, even as I grieved along with other Americans. The result was a talk I gave in the Pendle Hill lecture series: “Discernment in the Aftermath of September 11.” You can read it here, if you’re interested.
This morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer headline reads “We Remember,” and I have no objection to remembering. But I think it is important to recognize this human tendency to partial memory and make an attempt to see more fully. How might we be transformed if we used this occasion to mourn all the casulties of this decade of conflict— the million Afghan and Iraqi dead, as well as the victims of 9/11 and the coalition military killed abroad? How many more wars will it take before we learn to love our neighbor as ourselves?