The Anamnesis of Ourselves

We Christians can be a forgetful people. We are perpetually future-oriented. This is fine, of course, because so much of the scriptures point to a future redemption, a not-yet reality where roads are gold, lions chill with lambs, and we hang out with Prince, Michael Jackson, and 2pac. But sometimes we don’t remember to, well, remember. And we forget that it was God who always seemed to preface his Old Testament commands with holy, dangerous reminders, invitations to recall slavery, oppression, and ultimately, redemption.

Indeed, when we celebrate Communion, we are also invited: Do this in remembrance of me. But this is a violent kind of remembering: we recall broken flesh and spilled blood, bodily memories relived and then consumed into our own bodies. It is holy when we remember. It is dangerous when we remember.

We who are Asian American also have violent memories of broken families and spilled tears, poured out for the sake of a different kind of salvation. And now we, the children of immigrants, live, study, work, and start families in remembrance of their sacrifice. But this is a silent kind of remembrance, one we are more apt to carry in our bodies than share with our lips. So we carry Korea, China, the Philippines, Cambodia. Which is another way of saying that trauma is incarnational and generational, which is another way of saying that we are a PTSD people. The great temptation, then, of diaspora, of exile, is amnesia. No one was supposed to be torn from the land like that and now, strangers in a strange land, we are faced with an exilic choice. But our forgetfulness stood not only to facilitate our survival but our thriving—the decision was easy. So we forget willingly: ditch the language, the customs, the clothes, and the traditions, all of which made us less attractive and less marketable. But when we forgot we also became less human. We who are the children of the exile must now put the pieces back together, or at the very least sweep the ground for breadcrumbs that can lead us home, whatever that is.

Unfortunately, our participation in the Christian faith only cemented our forgetting. Jesus became the agent by which our stories were often wiped away. At best, they were used as testimonies explaining the evil we escaped. At worst, our histories became tales of the demonic, stories that had nothing to do with God and with which God wanting nothing to do. The future took priority over the past; everything ahead was filled with light and rainbows, everything behind with shadows and abandoned buildings.

Even those of us who wanted to remember have found the language we possess for our forgetting and remembering rather clumsy. Phrases like “cultural and spiritual amnesia” don’t quite capture the complexity here. They imply that, at some point, what we have forgotten will simply return to us once our hippocampuses realize what’s going on. Within this framework, we also assume that there is a clear object of our forgetting, like keys we’ve misplaced or a face we’ve forgotten. But is it possible to remember something that we’ve never experienced? What kind of remembrance can take into account things that may not yet exist in our consciousness, the memories that lie dormant in veins and bones, soil and trees? What is the remembrance that makes us whole?

Robert Farrar Capon describes the theological term, anamnesis, this way:

Anamnesis [is] renewed knowledge, a re-membering, a re-cognition by the grace that raises those whom death has absolved…. He remembers our evil in grace as the only real thing it ever could have been. He takes away the flaming sword between us and our self-knowledge and brings us home to ourselves…. By the grace of [God’s] unaltered knowledge, see even the disasters of your history as the inexorable desire for the highest Good [he] always knew them to be. Nothing, therefore, is lost. Not a scrap of history.

In anamnesis, we are invited to re-member things as they truly are, as they exist in their reconciled state. We are invited to re-cognize the past with God’s hands in it, even if it seems that he was nowhere to be found. In anamnesis, we re-member our broken past, piecing it back together to imagine a more whole, just, honest now, a now that cannot change the past, but one that is inseparable from it, shaped by it, wounded and empowered by it.

Anamnesis captures my family’s history, its brokenness and beauty, and reminds me that God has been there all along. God was there when my great-grandparents escaped to the hills to run from soldiers during the Cultural Revolution, God was with them in the village, on the boat, at Angel Island, in Chinatown, and God is with my grandparents now as they nurse the traumatic wounds of the immigrant experience. And God was with my family when we learned to forsake that history for a chance at survival.

The immigrant experience has always, without exception, meant death. Often it is not a literal death (though sometimes it is), but to tear oneself from the fabric of home is a kind of death. Displacement is a form of death. The loss of culture and language, whether in America or Babel, is a form of death. Anamnesis, unlike our cheap ways of remembering, does not overlook this pain. It does not rush to solutions or forgiveness or celebration. It isn’t afraid to run its hands over the wounds or to trace the path made by scars. At the same time, though, we, the people of Resurrection, have not capitulated to death. Instead, in the anamnesis of our stories, we dip our hands into it without fear, touching the wounds as excruciating, elegant reminders that redemption is real:

Jesus’ Glorious Wounds are the perpetual sacrament of the remembrance, of re-cognition of evil as good. They are the Cross and the Passion as the Resurrection holds them.

Though the Asian American experience is not uniform, as our friend Fred Mok is quick to point out, all of our families have a story, and the road is always paved with grace. So when I say that we need a kind of remembrance for things that we aren’t even aware of, I mean that anamnesis is an invitation to dig, to ask our parents and grandparents what home looks like, what growing up felt like, what their hopes and dreams were when they were torn from the land. It’s also an invitation to study Asian American history and discover that there is language for all this beauty and brokenness, and that good folks along the way have put up signposts in the wilderness. Ultimately, anamnesis is an invitation to see our Asian American histories and identities as wonderfully, reverently, unapologetically beautiful. It is an invitation to see Jesus in the mirror and to believe, against everything the world has told you thus far, that he calls you good.

Anamnesis is also deeply communal; our re-membering is not just to piece together our identities within ourselves but to participate in the reconciliation that Jesus brings between communities. In this respect, it isn’t just about my history, but it’s also an invitation into the re-membering and rejoining of histories that are, at first glance, not mine. Because we know that before the Lamb, in the re-cognition of history, all of our divisions, all the ways we have harmed one another under the assumption that some people just weren’t as valuable as others, will be revealed as the lies they have always been. Anamnesis compels me to re-member my relationship with the Other, recognizing that it is impossible to inhabit my full humanity until my brothers and sisters inhabit theirs. More specifically, I mean that Asian American flourishing cannot be separated from Black and Brown liberation. And our stories are inextricably linked in the anamnesis of American history. And it is this re-membering of communities that stands as a threat to the systems that continue to oppress, the Empire that profits from our forgetting, the currents of white supremacy that sweep our stories away beneath its heavy undertow.

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My church was founded in 1880. Just a few months ago I discovered that in the same year, California passed its Anti-Miscegenation Laws that outlawed interracial marriages between a white person (woman) and any “Negro, Mulatto, or Mongolian.” This law mirrored many others around the country that prevented marriages between whites and blacks but California’s had the specific goal of cutting off its Chinese American population. Of course, two years after that, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, letting us know, just in case there was any confusion, that we definitively did not belong here. No one has ever mentioned this at church. No one has ever connected the dots for us or said, hey, this was the social context in which our church was birthed, the soil from which we sprouted forth. Perhaps this was for our survival. Perhaps it was just easier this way. But 136 years later, we are deeply, desperately in need of anamnesis, the kind of remembrance that brings healing to the ways in which our church has been wounded by systemic racism, the kind of remembrance that reunites us with black and brown communities as we fight for this city. We need the Holy Spirit to help us piece back together our stories of resilience, power, and survival in the face of evil.

So every Sunday when we meet, we have an opportunity to perform the subversive act of telling the Truth of our Story, the story of an exilic people and a God who has never left or forsaken. Every Sunday is the Great Reminder: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Keep it dangerous. Set it apart as a day of Truth in a thunderstorm of lies. Jesus also invites us, “Do this in my anamnesis…” because this kind of re-membering came at a high cost. A broken body, a pool of blood, a traumatized people. Every Sunday we stand at the foot of the cross where scattered pieces are strewn across the ground and we are invited to remember, to kneel down and mourn, pick up each piece one by one, and begin.

1 thought on “The Anamnesis of Ourselves”

  1. Dayum Nate. Your writing is always so evocative. We’re so conditioned to move forward in this culture that I’m not sure what it means or looks like or even where to begin in re-membering. It’s also difficult to find my way back in memory when my parents are disconnected and ambivalent about their past. And yet what I hear you saying is that piecing back together the fragments of what they experienced in China and Taiwan is wholly worthwhile endeavor. There’s redemption and beauty in the process and I agree.

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