This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The first time I went into the Foreign Office in London I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of murals depicting renowned military victories of the British Empire – scenes that now provoke embarrassment or shame even though they belong to their time and to a particular colonial narrative of national identity.

How do we deal honestly with conflicted histories?

Well, this is a question that is dividing America as pressure grows to remove statues of Confederate leaders who 150 years ago fought a civil war over the rights to enslave other human beings. And the problem is this: how are we to remember the past with honesty and courage, not celebrating, but remembering and learning?

This is not a new problem. Walk around some German cities and you find yourself treading on small brass plates set in the pavement, recording the names and dates of Jews who had lived there before being deported and exterminated. More powerful than some huge memorial covered in names, these so-called ‘stumbling blocks’ (Stolpersteine) have a massive impact as you realise that they are everywhere.

In fact, Germany has form here. Look up beneath the roof outside the east end of the Stadtkirche in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and you see a mediaeval engraving of a Jew being baited in a pig sty. Exposed during restoration after German reunification, rather than put it in a museum or cover it up, they shone a light from a memorial placed beneath it to the fallen Jews of Wittenberg during the Holocaust.
Somehow this faces the horrors of the past in a way that draws a line to the present and educates those whose memory doesn’t stretch that far back.

The German approach is partly informed by its Christian culture which itself is shaped by Jewish notions of memory. To re-member means, literally, to put back together the elements of a story in a way that is healthy and true. The people of Israel, having been liberated from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt and 40 years in a desert (allowing the romanticises of history to die off), prepare to enter the land of promise. And they are warned: as time goes by you will quickly forget that once you were slaves. Then you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you forget this, you will one day lose everything.

So, they shaped the year around rituals and festivals that even today re-tell that story and militate against cultural or religious amnesia.

Maybe this offers a clue not only to Americans wondering what to do with statues of Confederates, but also to the rest of us who have to wrestle with ambiguous or shameful histories. Face it, but with the humility that remembers rightly. Not “forgive and forget”, but “remember and forgive”.

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So, we read yesterday that the Israeli government has given permission for another thousand settlement homes to be built. And the outside observer might be forgiven for wondering if peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian can ever be more than wishful thinking.

Or, to put it differently, is it ever possible for one generation, haunted by nurtured histories of enmity and mutual injustices, to choose to create a memory for the next generation that breaks the cycle of hatred, suspicion, provocation and self-justifying violence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noting the death of the last person to fight on the First World War (I think) once spoke about “when memory becomes history”. His point was basically that once the bearers of memory have died, we are left with history as a commodity to be re-shaped, traded and totemised. When there is no living witness to refute the nonsense, it is left to the ideologues to shape the history narrative in such a way as to justify current preoccupations or priorities.

(As an aside: when clergy move to a new post I encourage them to learn the history of the new parish, but to recognise that people there will speak and act from the memory – the newly-appointed priest might learn the history, but an not share the memory.)

I guess this is on my mind today because I have just finished reading Tony Horwitz's excellent pursuit of the American Civil War, 'The Confederates in the Attic'. Funny it may be, but there is something disturbing about the way we – and not just the people we think are mad – appropriate 'memories' regardless of the accuracy or propriety of doing so. Horwitz illustrates well how the myths about the Civil War are more powerful than the facts or the reality. (You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.)

As always, the language tells its own story. The Civil War is known in the South variously as 'the War of Northern Aggression', 'the Lost Cause' and 'the Recent Unpleasantness'. We write the 'history' in order to create a 'memory' that justifies who and how we behave now – especially in relation to those who (inconveniently) share 'our space'. Closer to (my) home, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland view the Battle of the Boyne in 16XX differently.

Anyway, I am now on to Sylvie Simmons' 2012 biography of Leonard Cohen. And what raises its head at the beginning of Cohen's story in Montreal, Canada? The segregation of French and English in Quebec. However, she does also quote Canadian poet Irving Layton, speaking about Cohen and defining 'genius' in the same way I have previously described a prophet: “the ability – a very rare ability – to see things as they actually are. You are not fooled.” (p.51) If a genius is rarely appreciated in these terms, a prophet is rarely welcome in his/her own home.

There is no escape. This is how tribal human beings are. We don't have to be. We can choose not to be. But, this demands a self-sacrificial decision to prioritise the future over the past and to create a reality that will prove to be a more hopeful and positive 'memory' for those who will inherit the history we are making now.