Whenever a friendship that I make with a Mexican deepens, whether rich or poor, educated or not, the question comes up: “What do you think about the USA stealing from Mexico more than half of our territory?”
We could quibble about whether the land was stolen or not, but most US Americans are blissfully unaware of the history surrounding the acquisition of most of what is currently the southwest of the US, starting with Texas and moving west and northwest to include Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada and most of Colorado. We seldom pause to wonder why most of these states have Spanish names, and have myriad Spanish town names within their borders.
More than eight generations have passed since the time when the US gained a large chunk of Mexican territory. No one is alive who experienced that event. Yet the event lives on in the collective memory (psyche) of the Mexican people. It was a humiliating and traumatic defeat, and any relationship a Mexican begins with a US American is shadowed by that collective memory.
I grew up an ethnic Mennonite. Our people also have a collective memory of persecution that goes back nearly 500 years. I know that this inherited memory affects how I view the world and how I act. I see it in other ethnic Mennonites who have different migratory patterns than my group and who live in varying parts of the world.
For example, the Old Colony Mennonites who live in northern Mexico signed an agreement with the Mexican government in 1920 to allow them to be exempt from military service and to allow them to be exempt from attending public schools. This agreement has never been revisited, in spite of the fact that many things have changed over the 95 years since. They are sorely afraid that making any changes will make them feel persecuted once again for their beliefs and have to leave their land; just like when they had to leave Russia and Canada.
In my own experience, I say that I am for the marginalized; that the God of the Bible is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. I write and teach that we should be “hungering and thirsting for justice” when in fact I mostly sit on my hands when it comes to doing anything. I am an example of “Die Stille im Lande,” the “quiet in the land.” I find it difficult to join marches and political protests. I, like the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico, because of my collective memory, am afraid of being persecuted and losing what I have.
Vincent Harding, an African American Mennonite pastor who joined Martin Luther King’s movement in Atlanta while founding a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit there for MCC, eventually left the Mennonites because they displayed the same ambivalence toward political protests as I. I am not proud of this either for me or my people, but recognize why it exists. Of course, many of my ethnic brothers and sisters around the world have been able to break out of their collective memory and work more directly for the marginalized and the oppressed. And people whom we have proselytized are not affected by the same collective memory. They reach back to the original Anabaptist movement, from which Mennonites sprang, as a reason why we must protest oppressive laws.
With the idea of a collective memory in mind, the recent eruption of anger in Ferguson, Missouri, should come as no surprise. Our African American brothers and sisters have over 500 years of slavery, mistreatment and oppression to feed their collective memory. No matter how much progress has been made, our country is no where near healing the trauma that was caused by those years of oppression. Like my Mexican friends, my African American friends, whether rich or poor, educated or not, bring this subject up whenever we have any serious discussion.
Recent neuroscientific research has postulated that collective memory is passed on through our genes. Carl Jung has long theorized that humans are born with a collective unconscious. This collective unconscious can be both universal, i.e., shared in common by all humans, or particular, i.e. shared in common by particular groups of people. According to my unscientific observations, shared above, I believe this to be true.
Collective memory shapes us and forms us. No matter how unique we are as individuals, there are many unconscious factors that make us behave as we do. I believe that we can overcome these tendencies through contemplation, taking our nighttime dreams seriously, and getting to know people different from us to get to understand their particular collective memories. But that is a topic for another blog . . .