Humanity is an ocean, and it is a herculean task to define “what it means to be human.” The person who rescues someone in trouble is considered an angel or saint, not an ordinary human being. Even common proverbs portray the human in such a way: “Erring is human and forgiving and forgetting is divine.” Likewise, when someone behaves in a harsh or cruel way they are termed as animals. If good behaviours are assumed as divine and cruel behaviour as beastly, then what does it mean to be human? Is there any particular common character that makes someone human? Do humans have anything special making them unique from other species? There are different understandings of humanity in different religions and traditions. For example, Christian tradition understands humanity in a Birth-Death-Resurrection pattern, while Hindu tradition believes in a Birth-Death-Rebirth pattern. This shows how complex the subject is: there cannot be a single definition or readymade answer for this.
Humans and the Image of God
The creation narrative in the Hebrew Scripture conveys that humans are made in the image of God. Then the question arises, what is that image? There is often a tendency to look at God in an anthropomorphic way. Instead of viewing God’s image in us, we project our physical image on God. Philosophers argue that “rationality” is the special feature that differentiates humans from other animals. But can anyone with rationality kill his fellow brothers and sisters just to expand his/her territory? Can someone with rationality throw bombs in hospitals, schools and commit genocide? Biblical scholars like Westermann understand the image of God as God’s counterparts or ambassadors in the world. Can God’s counterpart destroy God’s creation by means of deforestation and extinguish biodiversity in order to fulfil their own greed? Can God’s counterpart be callous even after knowing that the survival of posterity is under threat by means of rising sea levels and climate change?
Another argument is that humans possess a “soul”, differentiating them from other species. But Qoheleth in the Hebrew Bible questions this: “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals…who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (Ecclesiastes 3: 19-21). James Herriot says, “If having a soul means being able to feel love, loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” The ambiguity of this topic and the need for analysis is understood by Globethics.net and reflected in their Blue Table Webinar series, which is going to be a fascinating journey starting with a focus on “Remembering” followed by “Thinking, Working, Eating, Inventing and Loving.”
One of the important aspects of human life that one should not forget is to remember. Although both remembering and forgetting are gifts from God, it is remembering which is considered positive. It is correct to remember but to forget is a mistake. Indian Social Analyst Solomon Victus confesses that in Indian schools students who can memorize more are considered brilliant and are admired, while students who forget are not appreciated even though they have other skills. In a similar way, a man’s love towards his wife is measured by means of him remembering her birthday or their wedding anniversary. Another amazing thing is that not everyone remembers in the same way. When two people witness an incident, one forgets and another remembers. When a group travels to a place, not everybody remembers the same thing. The brain is composed of billions of nerve cells; some even claim that the brain has more possible connections than there are stars in our galaxy. This shows that biological factors play a huge role in memory. With that said, it is not just biology, but even social interactions that determine memory.
Remembering: Unification of Past-Present-Future
American writer John Meacham conveys that “what we choose to remember is critical, since the narratives that play in our head shape everything.” He also adds that the mechanics of memory create a new present reality that then determines the future, and in that way, the past, present and future are mixed up together. Jewish Historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes that Jewish memory is a blending of past and present. It is not just a mere reminiscence of the past but it is a re-actualization, a means to perform in the present. It is generally assumed that the past is behind and the future is ahead, but the Jewish thinking is that the past is in front of us, obviously there to learn and develop from. The future is behind us, hidden. The Jewish concept is that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is apt to remember the known past to learn from it to act correctly in the present so that the unknown future can be faced with hope.
The crux of the Hebrew Bible is the exodus event and of the New Testament is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is a categorical command to remember these events. “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord, throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Exodus 12: 14). Jesus Christ, while instituting the Lord’s Supper, said “Do this in remembrance of me.” Festivals and Remembrance days are necessary to remember history. The idea is to teach children the history behind a festival so that the truth can be passed on through the generations. When people forget or refuse to celebrate festivals, truths are forgotten and histories are manipulated. It is unfortunate to witness younger generations celebrating festivals without knowing their meaning. In the Indian context, festivals are celebrated with much enthusiasm, but equally, they can also trigger inter-religious clashes. Remembrance days of certain leaders which are celebrated as a call for peace and justice are unfortunately often days of inter-caste clashes. The incidences of violence during “Vinayaka Chaturthi”, a remembrance of Dalit icon Immanuel Sekaran and Devar Jayanthi, are some classic examples.
In the Hebrew Bible, there are many references to people building altars and laying memorial stones to remember divine experiences and to give thanks to God. Bethel is an important place where Abraham built an altar and this is the place where Jacob lay a memorial stone to remember his dream. Joshua instructs Israelites that the twelve stones of Jordan in Gilgal should be a place of remembrance for the future generation of God’s wonderful deeds. Similarly, Samuel lays a memorial stone “Ebenezar” meaning “thus far the Lord has helped us.” There are signs, like rainbows, which help to remember God’s covenant. In the contemporary period, photos, diaries, books, memorial lectures, statues, memorial stones, museums and monuments are some of the ways of remembering. There are memorials to remember the glorious past as well as to remember the mistakes in history. In the Indian context, it is common to find statues of leaders everywhere. Statues are not only meant to be garlanded but also have ideologies behind them. The vandalism of the statues of Periyar and Ambedkar testifies that fringe elements are not comfortable with the remembrance of such ideologies. There are times when statues are erected to gain political mileage rather than to emulate the good ways of that leader. A recent example is the “Statue of Unity”. An exorbitant amount has been spent on this monument. Its name is the “Statue of Unity”, but the policy of the government is “divide and rule.”
Remembering: Gender Bias
The Hebrew verb to remember – “Zakar” – is also used to refer to the noun “male”. What is the connection between man and memory? One of the explanations given is that “it is only through males that the family’s name and memory are perpetuated”. Another Jewish scholar, S.R. Hirsch, refers to Exodus 23:17 (“Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God”) and argues that “the special function of males is to form the chain of tradition of the human race, by which the achievements of each age are handed down generation to generation.” Throughout the genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, generations are recalled by the name of man. Centuries have passed but even today families are addressed and remembered by the name of the man.
What our obligation is to remember and not remember certain things is a difficult question to answer. Although one wishes to forget sad memories and remember joyful ones, bad memories like failures, loss, death, embarrassment and hate stay for longer than happy ones. The human mind is absorbed with thoughts of war, pandemics, oppression and natural disasters. There are times when these memories lead to hopelessness and depression. How do we overcome this? Psalmist advises that in times of difficulty and trouble we should remember the years of long ago and God’s wonders of old (Ps. 77: 5, 11). The author of Lamentations sums it up beautifully: “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness” (Lamentation 3: 19-23). It is the remembrance of the unending steadfast love of God which motivates one to start every new day with hope.
Rev. Jebin ThankarajMAS student at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and Research Fellow with Globethics.net
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