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October 2017
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The political theology of German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz has highlighted the centrality of memory for human experience, identity, and religiosity. In Metz’ description, memory is central to the formation of our consciousness and collective imagination, but it often “define[s] history as the history of what has prevailed, as the history of the successful and the established. There is hardly any reference in history as we know it to the conquered and defeated or to the forgotten or suppressed hopes of our historical existence” (Faith in History and Society, 110). When the status quo is assumed to be basically good and just, historical memory becomes a selective memory that remembers only the triumph of the powerful, “screening out” the victims, thus creating a “false consciousness of our past and an opiate for our present” (109). When memory functions in this way, history — “reality” — goes on as it always has.

But Metz says there is another kind of memory, a memory that shocks us out of the familiar by radically acknowledging the reality of human suffering. Metz calls these memories of human suffering “dangerous memories” because they “interrupt” the logic of “the way things are” and “reveal new and dangerous insights for the present” (171). The revelation of these dangerous insights is subversive because they “illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh and steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with” (109). For Christians, the memory of suffering is particularly dangerous in that these memories are not simply a matter of looking backward “archeologically,” but future-oriented “forward memories” in which we also remember the promises made by God and the “hopes that are experienced as a result of those promises” (200). Memories of human suffering “make demands on us” (109) and “make the present unsafe” by “break[ing] through the grip of the prevailing consciousness” of the present in light of unfulfilled hopes (200). They radically challenge the present in light of the future promised by God.

Of course, for Metz, Christian faith is nothing other than the narration of a particular memory of this latter kind, the dangerous memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which has broken through the world’s assumptions about political power and violence, and opens our eyes to the sufferings of others, particularly the innocent. In Metz’ theology, the church is the public witness and bearer of the dangerous memory of the victims of history. Particularly in the liturgy, Christians allow themselves to be “interrupted” by the memory of human suffering which challenges the status quo and widens the horizons of our imagination, drawing us into deeper consciousness of and compassion for the victims of suffering.

Metz’ ideas here, especially this category of “dangerous memories,” have had a profound impact on my own theology, particularly my christology and ecclesiology. But frankly, Metz’s description of the church as the “bearer of dangerous memories” has not always been my experience of church. Indeed, not only is human suffering often not in view at liturgy, even the crucifixion is often narrated in such a way that everything “dangerous” about it has been covered over or ignored.

Thankfully the church is not the only bearer of dangerous memories. Lately I have been reflecting on the ways in which popular music can transmit such memories, and as I scan the contours of my own autobiographical soundtrack, I can see that much of the music that has been most important to me throughout my life has in one way or another witnessed to dangerous memories.

Such music has, for example, “interrupted” the taken-for-granted “American spirituality” in which we “live, and move, and have our being” here in the United States, expressed among other ways through the “holi-days” of U.S. civil religion such as July 4th. While much of mainstream rock culture assumes the goodness and innocence of American history and indeed imagines itself as an expression of it, through exposure to punk rock and independent music cultures I have come to see rock music as being most powerful when it serves, in Metz’ terms, as an interruption.

For a long time, the most important “interruptions” in my life took place, not in church, but at rock shows and within the music cultures surrounding them, for example in the often politicized cultures of punk rock. In a very real way, I came to understand what it means to be “church” — in the Metzian sense — not at church but through participation in such music cultures. I could even more boldly state that it was perhaps the dangerous memories transmitted through punk rock and other “interruptive” musics that “prepared me” to be able to hear the gospel, i.e. the gospel of the dangerous memory of Jesus, the subversive of Nazareth.

Here is but one example, Fugazi’s “Smallpox Champion” from their album In On The Kill Taker, performed live in 1998. For me, it has become a July 4th favorite.


Smallpox champion u s of a
Give natives some blankets
Warm like the grave
This is the pattern cut from the cloth
This is the pattern designed to take you right out
This is the frontier with winter’s so cold
Greed informs action where action makes bold
To take all the cotton that’s cut from the stalk
Weave the disease that’s gonna take you right out

What is good for the future what was good for the past – Won’t last

Bury your heart u s of a
History rears up to spit in your face
You saw what you wanted
You took what you saw
We know how you got it
Your method equals wipe out
The end of the frontier and all that you own
Under the blankets of all that you’ve done
Memory serves us to serve you
Yet memory serves us to never let you wipe out

You’ll get yours
Wipe out

One of the well-known implications of Metz’s theology for theological method is that theologians are now challenged never to do theology with their backs to the victims of the systems of this world. As I reflect on rock’s “interruptive” capacities, I have come to see that I learned this not only from Metz, but from “interruptive” rock of all kinds. And just as I hope never to do theology with my back to the world’s victims, I am likewise challenged never to “rock out” with my backs to them either.

Michael Iafrate
Morgantown, West Virginia

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