Remembering it Right

A fuller engagement with media (film, music, novels, etc.) requires not only an active imagination (in order to make cinematic leaps or construct visuals from the written word, for example), but also an active memory. We enjoy films, in part, or better connect with the characters because we remember similar joyful or painful experiences that they endure in the film. On a much more serious level, theologian Miroslav Volf turns his attention to the importance of memories in his recent book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. As the subtitle suggests, Volf believes there are right ways, wrong ways, and lengths of time in which we should remember.

Volf proves himself to be, once again, one of the premier theologians writing today. He is an evangelical of the first order, who believes what he says and says what he believes with conviction and without overt alienation. He makes the Christ narrative his norm for interpretation but he is not crass or quick about it. In fact, he is aware of just how scandalous the message proves itself to be. It is scandalous to our human, “natural” sensibilities because it calls for a renewed relationship between victim and violator. This can be hard for victims of egregious wrongs to swallow, but it is nothing less than the call of Christ which echoes his life, death, and resurrection in human history. With great respect to those who suffer greatly, Volf realizes that some wrongs cannot be integrated into a meaningful understanding of the human experience. Nevertheless, Volf adds, “The death of Christ understood as an act of  grace is an undeniable offense against dues-paying morality governed by  a need to restore the balance disturbed by transgressions” (111). What might prove scandalous to some readers is the hopeful universalism (or at least the implication of such) to his work. Volf hopes, “If One died for the salvation of all, should we not hope for the salvation of all” (16). In his work, Volf engages not only Scripture and church history but the classics, contemporary literature, psychology, and philosophy, all of which makes his writing beautifully rich. That Volf is spurned by personal experiences of mental torture and intimidation during his service in the Yugoslavian Army to reflect on remembering, forgiveness, and the ultimate letting go adds yet another level to his work.

Volf is dealing with memories of being wronged and the effects such violations have on victims and violators. He is concerned with these relationship both here on earth and in the world to come. To put it bluntly, Volf argues that there is a right way and a wrong way to remember. First, wrong remembering utilizes memories of wrongs suffered to build up and fuel anger and resentment and to keep up barriers between victim and violator. Wrong remembering is full of untruths, lies, and injustice. Remembering rightly is an act of love. It seeks to remember wrongs so as to prevent similar occurrences from happening now and in the future. Volf’s concern for reconciliation is a prophetic call to break the cycles of violence that bind us. He writes, “To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory  happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil  is returned” (9). As much as humanly/physically possible, remembering rightly remembers suffered wrongs in their truthfulness and complexity, recognizing that violators are also victims and that the violated are violators as well. Remembering rightly is a process of forgiveness which is also a concern for justice. Violators’ actions must be exposed, justice passed down, and reparations (as much as possible) made. After and only after, can the real and really difficult work of reconciliation begin. Of course, full reconciliation won’t occur until the world to come, as in Christ, God will reconcile all of creation. Though it will be imperfect, reconciliation between individuals should be pursued, but there is also a communal aspect to remembering rightly and pursuing forgiveness and reconciliation. He writes, “But note here that whatever ‘rightly’ ends up meaning, it cannot refer just to what is right for the  wronged person as an individual. It must mean also what is right for  those who have wronged that individual and for the larger community” (11).

Volf is also arguing for an expiration date on remembered wrongs. He is not advocating forgiving and forgetting as traditionally understood, but rather refers to it as a “not coming to mind.” We will still remember violations, but the memories will cease to have such a powerful hold on us. Even in his vision of the world to come, Volf argues for a more complex notion of creaturely and Divine “forgetting” than traditionally understood. He holds memories of wrongs and forgiveness of sins in tension with the world of love in which we will inhabit. Volf concludes his book with an imaginative conversation between his former tormenter, his military commander he calls Captain G., and tries out forms of earthly models of reconciliation before inviting in an invisible participant (God) into the conversation. I imagine many folks can sympathize and have had similar mental conversations with tormenters, even if their experiences are different.

The End of Memory is a most important read, especially as we approach another presidential election in which the candidates are likely to trot out memories of American suffering (read 9/11). Of course, they use these memories in destructive ways quite contrary to Volf’s vision of remembering to reconcile, of drawing on memories to heal, acknowledge, solidify, and protect. Volf’s book is an invaluable companion piece to more progressive/liberal studies of sin and forgiveness. It also has implications for how we read Scripture. Volf’s assertion to remember in context and to read Scripture in context is vitally important for the “biblical” debates whirling around homosexuality and gay marriage. Volf writes: “[…Cut] off the memories of the Exodus and Passion from the larger story in which they are embedded and employ them in  situations of conflict, and you may turn these memories into deadly  weapons!” (95) The End of Memory is a must read for us all as we are both victims and violators, carriers of painful memories even as we inflict pain on others.