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Justice As a Memorial

In St. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth we read the following:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. (11:24–25; New Revised Standard Version)

[1] Jesus is not instructing his disciples to perform the mental act of remembering him. He is instructing them to perform the bodily actions of eating bread and drinking wine as a remembrance of him. The Greek word translated here as "remembrance" is anamnêsis. The word might also be translated as "memorial": do this as a memorial of me. The question I wish to consider in this essay is whether, for those of us who are Christians, not only is the Eucharist a public memorial of Christ but so also is doing justice.1

Justice As a Memorial by Nicholas Wolterstorff
[2] Jesus is not reported as explaining to his disciples the concept that he employed at his last supper of doing something as a remembrance or memorial; we can assume that he took for granted that they were familiar with the concept. The language of the time would have made them familiar with it, but so too would their familiarity with Scripture. Of the many passages in the Old Testament in which the concept is employed, let me quote just two (shortly I will quote a few additional passages). In Deuteronomy, members of Israel, along with the resident aliens among them, are instructed to "observe the sabbath day and keep it holy" so as to "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (5:12, 15). In Exodus, members of Israel are instructed to keep the Passover as "a day of remembrance" (12:14) of that "day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (13:3).

[3] Some scholars have argued or assumed that the concept of a memorial employed in Hebrew and Christian scripture was peculiar to the Hebrews, or perhaps more generally, to the Semitic peoples. Some of these scholars have then tried to get hold of the concept by surveying its employment in the Old and New Testaments, thus engaging in the project of biblical word studies so popular during the middle third of the twentieth century. Among the best practitioners of this strategy is Max Thurian in his two-volume work, The Eucharistic Memorial.2 Thurian argues that unless we recover the peculiarly Hebraic or Semitic concept of a memorial, we will not be able to understand the Jewish and Christian liturgies, since both of these employ the concept.

[4] Fascinating and provocative though Thurian's book is, I do not find the underlying assumption plausible, that the biblical writers employed a peculiarly Hebraic or Semitic concept of a memorial. Thurian highlights some of the unusual features of activities and objects identified as memorials in the Old Testament, most notably, the fact that some were intended as a remembrance for God rather than as a remembrance for Israel. For example, in Exodus we read that the two onyx stones set in the ephod of the high priest are to be inscribed with the names of the twelve sons of Israel for remembrance before the Lord (28:9–12), as are the twelve stones set in his breastpiece and inscribed with the names of the sons of Israel (28:15–29). In Numbers we read that two silver trumpets are to be blown on feast days, over sacrifices, and before going to war, "so that you may be remembered before the Lord your God" (10:1–10). In Genesis 9:12–17 we read that after the Flood the rainbow is a reminder to God of his covenant. And Isaiah, contemplating the prospect of a renewed covenant, says that

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress,
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle,
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (55:13)

[5] But from the fact that a good many of the activities and objects identified as memorials in the Old Testament were in various ways unusual examples of memorials, it does not follow that the concept of a memorial employed in the Old Testament is itself unique. We must distinguish the claim that there is a uniquely biblical/Hebraic concept of a memorial from the claim that the concept of a memorial is applied in the Old Testament to memorials that have certain unique features.

[6] We of the modern West share with the ancient Hebrews the concept of doing or making something as a memorial, a remembrance, a commemoration. We strike coins as memorials, issue stamps, shoot off fireworks, perform plays and dances, paint portraits, plant trees, hold academic conferences, organize processions, erect cenotaphs, construct mausoleums, name cities. Commemorations and memorials pervade our lives and the environments within which we live our lives. Evidently something deep about us comes to expression in the fact that we surround ourselves with commemorative objects and repeatedly engage in commemorative activities; evidently something important would be lost if we ceased to do so.

[7] What is that? What does a memorial or commemoration do? What is its social function? The most obvious function of a memorial activity or object is to keep alive or enhance the memory of some person or event from our past; that's why we speak of memorials or commemorations as remembrances. We don't memorialize living persons; we don't commemorate present or future events.

[8] We are and want to be remembering beings; but we find ourselves to be forgetful. So we remind ourselves and each other to remember. But we find that reminding to remember doesn't take us very far. So we enlist our bodies and our physical environment in our desire to remember. We engage in commemorative activities and create memorial objects.

[9] Not everything from the past is a candidate for commemoration, however. A nation does not commemorate its humiliating defeats; it may remember them, but it does not commemorate them. And though it may remember the traitors in its history as well as the heroes, only for the heroes does it issue commemorative stamps and coins.

[10] We commemorate those persons and events from our past that we want to honor. The honoring may incorporate a note of lament; sometimes the dominant emotional mood of a commemoration is lament rather than celebration. The Byzantines for generations commemorated the fall of the great city of Constantinople, and lament was certainly dominant in their commemoration. But if they had felt no desire to honor the great city, if the memory of the city had been for them a shame and an embarrassment, there would have been no commemoration of the fall of the city. Memory, perhaps; but not commemoration.

[11] Though a wide variety of different actions can be performed or objects produced to honor the same person or event, the choice is not arbitrary. Always there will be some discernible propriety or fittingness between, on the one hand, the person or event commemorated and, on the other hand, the action performed or the object produced as memorial or commemoration. Should a member of one's high school class die an early death, planting a tree would be appropriate as a memorial; trashing the classroom would not be appropriate. Israel's resting on the sabbath day to keep it holy bore an obvious fittingness to what its sabbath day rest commemorated, namely, God's deliverance of Israel from enslavement in Egypt.

[12] One last point must be made about the general concept of a memorial or commemoration. I have suggested that the social function of a memorial or commemoration is to keep alive and honor the memory of some person or event from the past. We must not infer from this that something functions as a memorial or commemoration only if it is made or produced with that as a conscious intention, or only if the public thinks of it in those terms. When an institution commissions an artist to paint a portrait of its leader upon his retirement, the artist may never think of what he is doing as creating a memorial; nonetheless, that is what he is doing. So too, few if any of those who look at the portrait may consciously think of it as a memorial; nonetheless it is that. Nowadays probably only a few people think of the naming of San Francisco as a memorial of St. Francis; but that's what it is.

[13] Before engaging in these general reflections on the concept of a memorial, we took note of some of the examples of memorials that we find in the Old and New Testaments. Let us now take note of some additional examples, all of these coming from the divine law code that Moses is reported in Deuteronomy as delivering to Israel shortly before his death.

[14] Members of Israel are instructed to render justice to the sojourners among them, the fatherless, and the widows, because doing so is a remembrance of their deliverance by God from enslavement in Egypt.

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge; but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:17)

What then follows are some examples of the ways (in addition to not demanding a widow's garment as surety for a loan) in which the members of Israel are to render justice to the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widows because doing so is a remembrance of their deliverance from enslavement in Egypt:

When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:18–22)

[15] Earlier in Deuteronomy the members of Israel were instructed, as a remembrance of their redemption by God from slavery in Egypt, to free their slaves after six years of labor, and not to send them out "empty-handed" but to provide them "liberally out of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you" (Deut. 15:12–15).

[16] Notice that Moses is not saying or suggesting that justice in general is to be done because doing so is a remembrance of God's deliverance of Israel from enslavement in Egypt. None of the examples Moses gives are of criminal or corrective justice, nor are any of them examples of justice rendered to landowners and slave-holders. Those who own fields, olive orchards, vineyards, and slaves are to render justice to those who have no land and hold no slaves – to sojourners, widows, slaves, and the fatherless. These are the vulnerable in Israel, at the mercy of the well-to-do and the well placed. When Israel was enslaved, it was at the mercy of its Egyptian overlords. That's why it is fitting that Israel's rendering justice to the vulnerable in its midst be a memorial of its deliverance. The practice of criminal justice would not have been a candidate for serving as a memorial of Israel's redemption from slavery; the requisite fittingness between memorial action and event memorialized would have been lacking. For the same reason, primary justice rendered to the well-to-do and the well placed would not have been a candidate.

[17] Christians are to eat the bread and drink the wine of the Eucharist as a memorial of Christ. And the rendering by Israel of justice to those in its midst whose livelihood was constantly at risk was a memorial of its deliverance by God from slavery in Egypt. When we place these two thoughts in proximity, we cannot help but ask the question: when Christians render justice to those in society whose livelihood is at risk, is that also a memorial of Christ? Is this the application, in our post-Incarnation era, of the Old Testament injunction to render justice to the vulnerable because doing so is a memorial of God's deliverance? Nowhere does the New Testament say this. But from that silence it does not follow that the idea should be rejected. Are we who are Christians not only to celebrate the Eucharist as a memorial of Christ, also to render justice to the vulnterable as a memorial to Christ?

[18] A vast amount of the visual art produced in the Christian era was meant to keep alive and honor the memory of Jesus and the events in his life. In the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, the Byzantines sometimes called their icons "memorials." As a consequence of the revolution in the arts that took place in the eighteenth century, we in the West no longer think of these paintings and sculptures as memorials. Instead we use aesthetic categories to think and talk about them. Paul Tillich and Gerardus vander Leeuw, distinctly different though they were in their theologies, were nonetheless united in arguing that a theological approach to the arts should focus on style and expressiveness rather than on representational content; art as memorial does not enter their purview.

[19] Here is not the place to enter into a debate with Tillich and vander Leeuw. I have introduced the idea of memorial art only to point out that Christians, over the centuries, have employed the idea of doing or making something as a memorial of Christ beyond the Eucharist. The question before us is whether that expansion, in the application of the concept of a memorial of Christ, should include rendering justice to the vulnerable.

[20] A striking feature of the ministry of Jesus is that he sought out and befriended the social and religious outcasts of his society and those whose life-circumstance placed them at the mercy of others, and that he healed those with infirmities. One sabbath day Jesus was invited by a leader of the Pharisees to his house for a meal. After first healing a man with dropsy who had somehow gotten into the house and then criticizing the seating arrangements because they placed those highest in the social order closest to the host and those lowest farthest away, Jesus then said to the host that

when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just [dikaios]. (Luke 14:12–14. NRSV translates dikaios as "righteous.")

[21] The gospel of John uses the category of sign to describe the wonders that Jesus performed, including the healings. Though John does not specify what the wonders were signs of, a comment about the first sign, the turning of water into wine at Cana, gives us a clue. We read that Jesus' performance of the wonder "revealed his glory" (John 2:11). What was meant, surely, was that it was Jesus' messianic glory that was revealed. Jesus' performance of the wonder was a sign of the breaking in of the messianic age in his person.

[22] Let us now add to this picture the well-known messianic self-identification that Jesus offered early in his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. Luke reports him as reading the following passage from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
      to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:17–10)

[23] After finishing the reading and then taking a seat, Jesus declared that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," by which he meant that in him the messianic age, in which Isaiah's prophetic hope of justice for the vulnerable would be fulfilled, was being inaugurated. Thus not only were the wonders that Jesus performed ("recovery of sight to the blind") signs of the inauguration of the messianic age; so too were his acts of prophetic justice (bringing "good news to the poor").

[24] We who are Christians are committed to keeping alive and honoring the memory of the signs Jesus performed of the breaking in of the messianic age of justice, shalom, and healing. We do this by reading and re-reading the stories recorded in the gospels of what Jesus did, and by ourselves re-telling those stories. We do so by creating memorials of those stories in the form of visual depictions and dramatic re-enactments. And we do so by ourselves rendering justice to the social outcasts and to those whose livelihood is at risk. Our doing this keeps alive and honors the memory of those acts of Jesus in which he rendered justice to the vulnerable and the outcasts. It is thus a memorial of Jesus and of the signs he performed. When we render justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable, we usually do not do so with the conscious intent of doing this as a memorial; our thoughts are focused elsewhere. But as we saw earlier, for an act or object to play the social role of a memorial or commemoration, it is not necessary that those who perform the act or create the object think of what they are doing in those terms.

[25] St. Paul sometimes speaks of human beings as in bondage to sin and to the spirits of the age. In Christ we are delivered from this bondage. So just as Israel's rendering of justice to the vulnerable was a memorial of its deliverance from bondage, so too our rendering of justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable is a memorial of our deliverance from bondage.

[26] Let us now delve a bit deeper into the phenomenon of rendering justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable as a memorial of Jesus and of the signs he performed, using as our guide something that Jesus said at his last supper with his disciples. In what Jesus said at his last supper, my emphasis thus far has fallen on his injunction to eat bread and drink wine as a memorial or remembrance of him. Let us now focus on his declaration, about the bread itself, that "this is my body" and about the wine, that "this is my blood."3

[27] As every reader of this essay will know, there have been oceans of controversy, often intense and sometimes acrimonious, over the force of the verb "is" in these two declarations by Jesus. The verb has been interpreted as having ontological force; and that has led philosophers and theologians into lengthy and complicated discussions about substances, essences, accidents, spatial locations, spatial boundaries, and the like. Whatever one's views on these matters, I think we can all agree that when Jesus declares that the bread is his body, he is saying that in this memorial, the bread is standing in for or representing his body – going proxy for his body, and that when he declares that the wine is his blood, he is likewise saying that the wine is standing in for, representing, or going proxy for, his blood. The eucharistic memorial of Jesus takes the form of incorporating items that stand in for the body and the blood of the one commemorated.

[28] This phenomenon, of incorporating something that stands in for the person or event commemorated (or something closely identified with that person or event), is to be found not only in the eucharistic memorial but in other memorials as well. For example, when the class plants a tree in honor of its deceased classmate, the tree stands in for the classmate. The incorporation of this phenomenon is not essential to a memorial, however. When a conference is held to commemorate, say, the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther's birth, there is nothing that stands in for Luther, nothing that represents or goes proxy for him. A bust of Luther may be prominently displayed at the conference; the bust would be a piece of memorial art that represents what it memorializes. But in the memorial conference itself, there is nothing that stands in for Luther.

[29] When some object goes proxy for some person or object, our engaging the proxy-object in a certain way counts as our engaging that person or object in a certain way. Our engaging the proxy-object bears what one might call transitive significance. When the Orthodox kiss the icon of a saint, the icon stands in for the saint; and their kissing of the icon bears the transitive significance of counting as their veneration of the saint.

[30] Let us now bring together a number of New Testament passages in which we find these two ideas, of one thing going proxy for another, and of the transitive significance of engaging the proxy in a certain way. Let's start with what was traditionally called the Parable of the Great Assize, found in Matthew 25. Every reader will recall how the parable goes. King Jesus is seated on "the throne of his glory" (25:31) with all the members of all the nations gathered before him. He separates the crowd into two groups "as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats" (25:32), ushering the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. To those on his right he then declares that they are blessed because "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (25:35–36). Baffled by this declaration, those on the right ask when it was that they treated Jesus in these ways. Jesus replies, "Truly I tell you, just as you did [these things] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (25:40).

[31] The Greek text describes those on the right as the dikaioi (25:37, 46). The NRSV, along with almost all other English translations, translate this as "the righteous." The righteous ask when they treated Jesus as he says they treated him; the righteous are granted eternal life (25:46).

[32] I submit that this is a mis-translation. Anyone who has read Luke's story of Jesus' messianic self-identification in the synagogue in Nazareth along with the passages in Isaiah from which Jesus reads a fragment, and who then turns to the Parable of the Great Assize, cannot help but be struck by the fact that not only are the lists in these passages lists of the vulnerable in society; the lists are remarkably similar in their contents. Now recall that Isaiah explicitly describes coming to the aid of the vulnerable as doing what justice requires. I think the conclusion is inescapable, that it is not the upright who are to the right of King Jesus but the just. It is the just who ask Jesus when they treated him as he says they treated him; it is the just on whom eternal life is bestowed.

[33] In the parable, Jesus ascribes transitive significance to treating "the least of these" as justice requires. Our welcoming of the stranger counts as our welcoming of Jesus; our care for the sick counts as our caring for Jesus; and so forth. What this implies, in turn, is that the least of these stand in for Jesus, represent Jesus. A striking and unnerving thought! The vulnerable in society, along with the outcasts, stand in for Jesus, represent Jesus, so that treating them a certain way counts as treating Jesus a certain way.

[34] The analogy between the celebration of the Eucharist being a memorial of Jesus, and the rendering of justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable being a memorial of Jesus, is thus very close indeed. In the eucharistic memorial, the bread and the wine stand in for Christ's body and blood, so that our eating the bread and drinking the wine bear the transitive significance of counting as our "feeding on" Christ. In our rendering justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable, these persons stand in for Jesus, represent him, so that our rendering justice to them bears the transitive significance of counting as paying due honor to Jesus.

[35] Before we conclude, let us bring one more idea from the New Testament into the picture. In Mark 9:36–37 we read the following:

Then [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

[36] All of the now-familiar ideas are present here. Children are vulnerable. Welcoming one of these vulnerable human beings bears the transitive significance of counting as welcoming Jesus. In this transaction, the child stands in for Jesus. But two additional ideas are here introduced. The action that bears the transitive significance is not just described as welcoming a child but as welcoming a child in the name of Jesus. And welcoming Jesus now also bears transitive significance; it counts as welcoming the one who sent Jesus.

[37] What are we to understand by welcoming a child in the name of Jesus? The tenth chapter of Matthew is a report of Jesus sending his twelve disciples into the surrounding villages, authorizing and empowering them to cast out unclean spirits and cure disease and sickness, and commissioning them to proclaim the good news that "The kingdom of heaven has come near" (10:7). The commissioning concludes with these words of Jesus:

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever welcomes a just (dikaios; NRSV has "righteous") person in the name of a just (dikaios; NRSV has "righteous") person will receive the reward of the just (dikaios; NRSV has "righteous"), and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward. (10:40–42).

[38] The idea behind these words, so I suggest, was that by virtue of being authorized and commissioned by Jesus, the disciples were speaking and acting in his name, speaking and acting on his behalf, in his stead. Thus it was that by welcoming one of the disciples, the inhabitants of a village welcomed Jesus. And thus it was that if a villager gave a cup of cold water to "one of these little ones" in the name of one of the disciples, he would not lose his eternal reward. In doing so, he was giving a cup of cold water to Jesus; he was honoring Jesus.

[39] You and I have been commissioned by Jesus to render justice to the vulnerable in our society and the outcasts. When we do that, we do so in his name, on his behalf.

[40] Let's pull it all together. When we who are Christians render justice to the vulnerable of society and the outcasts, and also when we perform acts of healing, our doing so functions to keep alive and to honor the memory of Jesus and of the acts of justice and healing that he performed as signs of the breaking in of the messianic age in his person. Our acting in these ways thus constitutes public memorials of Jesus and of the signs he performed. They constitute public memorials even if the thought of doing these things as a memorial of Jesus and of the signs he performed never crosses our minds at the time. We have been commissioned by Jesus to render justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable. Our doing so is thus in his name, in his stead.

[41] The structure of justice as a memorial resembles, in important ways, the structure of the eucharistic memorial. In the eucharistic memorial, the bread and the wine stand in for the body and the blood of Jesus; and the actions of eating the bread and drinking the wine bear the transitive significance of counting as "feeding on" Christ. In our rendering of justice to the outcasts and the vulnerable, these persons stand in for Jesus; and our rendering of justice to them bears the transitive significance of counting as our honoring of Jesus and of his messianic deeds. In turn, our honoring of Jesus bears the transitive significance of counting as our honoring of the one who sent him.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus at Yale University.

 

Endnotes

1. I thank Victor Thasiah for posing this question to me and challenging me to write this essay. In previous writings of mine I took note of the fact that, in the Pentateuch, Israel is enjoined to render justice to the vulnerable as a memorial of its deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It did not occur to me to ask whether rendering justice to the vulnerable should also be seen by Christians as a memorial action.

2. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960.

3. "This is my blood" is what Matthew (26:28) and Mark (14:24) report Jesus as saying. The report as we have it in Luke (22:20) and Paul (I Corinthians 11:25) is slightly different.

 

 

© November 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 7