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Damnatio memoriae

Damnatio memoriae of Geta by Emperor Caracella, 211 A.D.

Damnatio memoriae of Geta by Emperor Caracella, 211 A.D.

The events in Ottawa last week still resonate with many across this country. In the public, political, social, and religious spheres, there is much conversation, as many work through the shock and reality of the death of a soldier and gunman in our nation’s capital. For me there have been many images that have entered into my prayer and meditation, as I have slowly processed the feelings and emotions that have been present with me and others for whom I care.

One of the most powerful images that I recall in the days after the shooting was the photo of the hallway where Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was killed. In that photo there were at least nine bullet holes in the stone walls of the corridor. This, combined with the media reports that security officers had emptied their weapons of bullets, gave me grave concern. The image speaks of the excess of force that was used to stop this individual, and speaks to the fear that the security personnel may have been facing in their actions. I have never been faced with the fear of a gunman, nor had to fire a weapon, nor end a life. But the imagery of that hallway haunted me, so much so that I wanted to post it in this blog as a reminder.

Gunshot holeWhen looking to the internet this week, to my shock, the image is no longer present. Yes, there are images from the event, but not that image. The images that are offered concerning bullet holes in Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings are a little less graphic, and do not show the excess that we had the opportunity to see in the first few days after the event.

gunshot hole 2This possible redaction reminded me instantly of damnatio memoriae, which was a custom from the Roman Empire. It literally erased the memory of someone that the emperor or persons in the Senate deemed to be ‘damned.’ Wikipedia mentions some contemporary forms of damnatio memoriae, including the response of the Canadian Forces to convicted murderer and rapist Russell Williams of burning his uniform and destroying his medals.

Tough stuff. Hard, heart wrenching stuff, to obliterate the memory of an action, a situation, a person perhaps, or an encounter because of the emotions or actions that it may elicit.

I can’t say that I wish to relive many images I have seen in my life, but the fact is that there are some things I have done for which I have repented, and have been forgiven. These things, as hard as they are, do not need to be erased from my memory or my psyche. True, they do not hold me nor shackle me; the memory is a reminder of my brokenness and of God’s redemption.

As the days roll by since October 22nd there will be reports and commissions, there will be anxiety, there will be memories and remembrance. I hope and pray that the hardness of actions on this day will not be forgotten.

To forget actions and not examine the unraveling of the events is to ignore the potential root causes of this action. To blindly erase images or memories can make the healing less effective, and the preventative, proactive measures less potent.

Our society, our church has to examine the events in Ottawa in light of how we view violence, safety, mental illness, and terrorism. In order to do this we must not abandon less appealing images and actions so as to satisfy our comfort levels. We must pray for Nathan Cirillo and his family as much as we pray for Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and his family, and each and everyone involved in that day. This is what God does, holding on to all of us for we are all deeply loved.

David Burrows

About David Burrows

David Burrows is a priest of the church, currently serving in parish ministry within the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, a place he has called home for the past fifteen years. He consistently engages dialogue and action with the wider community through creative outreach projects. Cycling, kayaking, writing, and driving fast cars are distractions in his life.
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3 Responses to Damnatio memoriae

  1. If as a society, we maintained a collective memory for the pivotal events and people that enabled us to exist in relative freedom today, we wouldn’t find ourselves in some of the binds we are in presently. Imagine if Charles Martel had failed in 732 at Poitiers, or if Vienna had fallen to the Ottomans?

    • David Burrows

      If Vienna had fallen and Charles Martel had failed, the world would be a different place. Perhaps Western notions of superiority and colonialism would not have been so rampant and destructive in the world. Perhaps too, my friend Mohammed Nazir would not be known to me. the fact is the world’s history is presented as we have inherited it. We do have the opportunity to change the present and future as a result of our learning of the past, and our acceptance that God can transform ourselves and the world if we are willing to be open to God’s understandings, not our judgements.

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