The memory shared in many elementary school classrooms goes something like this: One day, after a long shift at work, an exhausted Rosa Parks sat down on a segregated bus and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. She was just too tired. The quiet seamstress never imagined she would change history. Look how far the country has come since that single act!
As if the struggle for justice was easy—and over.
This simple way of remembering Rosa Parks distorts the legacy of a civil rights icon and the state of race relations in our country. During her decades of activism, Parks boldly defied social norms in pursuit of black liberation. She called out white supremacy, strategized civil disobedience efforts, and faced death threats. Her famed bus ride was one of countless intentional efforts Parks made throughout her life to fight the evils of racism—evils still very much alive today.
Domesticating memories is a dangerous act. It leaves out truths of the past that are complex, ugly, even shameful. It ties a neat bow around an issue, as if “all lived happily ever after.” It trains the privileged eye not to see the complex, ugly, and shameful truths wreaking havoc on the present moment.
Like for Rosa Parks, memories of Jesus Christ also often get domesticated. Churches tell tales of gentle Jesus who played with children, cured the sick, and loved everyone. There’s no doubt the Son of God was a stand-up guy. These memories are important—and so are the more radical ones.
With a youngster by his side, Jesus names the dire consequences awaiting those who hurt children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).
Jesus did cure those in need, but not before overturning tables in the temple and driving out tax collectors in a fit of rage against the rich (Matt. 21:12). And again he chastises those in power, warning, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). Only by God’s mercy will people be saved.
It’s imperative that we remember the radical, the painful, and the challenging parts of stories. These are the memories that call us to action and challenge us to see injustice and make efforts to eradicate it.
Remembering well seems especially important in this late springtime of transition. Graduations, the ending of program years, and the changing of seasons all prompt a look back at the past. Will we remember only what’s easy to remember: the teenager’s graduation, the saleswoman’s stellar year, the bloom of spring flowers? Glowing memories tend to take center stage and screen. There are truths in these memories.
But let’s also remember the more difficult aspects of the stories. Let’s remember the bullying that marred the teenager’s high school experience when he came out as gay—and work to make our schools inclusive places for all to learn. Let’s remember the profound exhaustion that accompanied the working parent—and strive to support those balancing family and career. Let’s remember the deadly cold winter that preceded spring—and make choices to combat climate change.
Domesticating memories is a dangerous act. So is remembering—and responding to—the radical ones.
This article also appears in the May 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 5, page 10).