Katongole: Communities of memory

In the first essay, ‘Remembering Idi Amin’, Katongole explores his own childhood memories of Idi Amin in an attempt to understand how the present condition of Africa has been shaped by memories of colonial and post-colonial brutality. He notices that his ‘happy’ memories of the early period of Amin’s rule are much more vivid than his memories of the troubles that ensued and concludes from this that a ‘constructive conversation about memory… must move beyond a focus on recollections in our mind, to an examination of concrete habits and patterns of life’ (10). He adopts the phrase ‘geographies of memories’ to denote the broad socially embodied nature of memory.

Although in many respects Uganda has moved on and has seemingly forgotten Idi Amin, Katongole points to three aspects of modern Ugandan life that indicate that at some deep level the memory of the years of terror continues to control social behaviour (13-18).

First, he attributes the preoccupation of modern Ugandans with violence, in the media but also in real life, to the very public displays of violence by which the Amin régime was sustained – and to which even the church became habituated.

Secondly, the expectation of economic advancement through ‘luck and the right connection’ rather than through education and hard work can be traced back to Amin’s creation of a class of supporters – prominent among them his absurdly fashionable secret service agents – who quickly got rich through their loyalty. It would be natural to see the popularity of prosperity theology as an extension of this belief that wealth can be acquired effortlessly through having the right connections.

Thirdly, the hardships of Amin’s Economic War have ironically left a legacy in Ugandans’ determination to have a good time: ‘Since many had come to expect very little in life, even finding oneself alive at the end of a day became an occasion for celebration’ (18).

The first part of the ethical and theological response to this ‘tentative’ analysis is to recognize that the ‘task of memory is in fact a conversation about the present’: the ‘ethical task of remembering is nothing but living with a certain attentiveness to the stories, habits, and practices that shape our lives today and form us into the sort of characters or people we are’ (19). This accounts for Katongole’s impatience with ethical pragmatism: ‘social ethics in Africa has tended to be overly prescriptive and no sufficiently descriptive’ (22). Africa remains shaped by the memory of colonialism and apartheid, of war and exploitation, and while that is the case, no amount of well-meaning exhortation will fundamentally change things. The memory of violence ‘remains a loaded gun that goes off ever so frequently’ (21).

The need, then, is for alternative memories or alternative narratives, which is the point at which we may begin to construct a relevant Christian social ethics. Katongole suggests two ‘geographies of memory’ that shape the lives of Christians: scripture and the Eucharist.

First, the Bible is not primarily a moral book, a compendium of abstract guidelines for the spiritual life. It is the story of a community; it is itself a ‘geography of memory’. It gives the church the narrative structure that shapes its present identity.

Secondly, Christians are invited to locate themselves in the biblical narrative, but they are ‘specifically invited to locate their lives within what the German theologian John Baptist Metz has accurately termed “the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ” ’ (24).

This memory of Jesus is a dangerous memory because it constantly assaults the present with its unfulfilled demands, with its repressed conflicts and open wounds; calls it into question, and opens up possibilities and a new future of reconciliation and hope. Such hope and future of forgiveness and self-sacrificing love cannot but appear dangerous to a world that is accustomed to living with fear and the pursuit of self-interest.

The formation of Christian communities that embody these alternative narratives, Katongole believes, should be at the heart of the ethical response to Amin and his memory.

The situation we face in the West is, of course, very different and the analysis of our ‘geography of memory’ would be very different. But the basic thrust of Katongole’s essay seems to me pertinent: the church must take a much more deliberate approach to the concrete embodiment in its community life of alternative narratives.

We have been working through the Sermon on the Mount at Community Church Harlesden in the last few weeks, reading it as Jesus’ way of forming a new community, emerging from a dramatized retelling of the exodus narrative, with distinctive ethical and religious practices, for the purpose of embodying an alternative story for Israel in crisis, a narrow road leading to life instead of a broad road leading to the destruction of war. It provides a marvellous paradigm for the self-conscious missional initiatives that are emerging in the post-Christendom landscape. It shows us both how to re-form ourselves by retelling the biblical narrative and how to develop a new missional stance with respect to a culture that has repudiated its Christian past.


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