My birthday, senior year of college, I missed hearing one of my favorite authors, Miroslav Volf, speaking at Taylor. My loving fiancé attended his talk, and got his most recent book (at the time) autographed for me. This book has been sitting on a shelf in the attic in Minnesota for the past three years, along with every other book in our possession. I just finished it, and since I know most of you won’t have time to read it, I thought I’d save you the trouble and give you a summary–because this book is full of hard stuff for us people who think of ourselves as being for social justice. It’s easy to think of justice in terms of guilty and innocent, oppressed and oppressor. But Volf (like a very kind doctor) makes us sit down and take our medicine. Makes us actually apply our theology to the world around us, and asks us some very hard questions.
I’ll summarize the book in two parts, and then give some reflection on it. WARNING: I’m super summarizing, so I won’t be explaining every concept (especially forgiveness, which Volf has written extensively about elsewhere)—but if something peeks your interest, I’ve titled my sections after the chapters in his book, so you can find them. Also, it’s pretty heavy stuff (and long)– but also worth wading through. Here goes:
Volf frames this book by talking about his own experience of abuse in Yugoslavia, when he was randomly held and questioned for many months. He speaks of the abuse he endured by his interrogator, Captain G, and then asks the question: How should he, as a Christian, remember Captain G? How should he remember the wrongs he has suffered? If he does not want to hate or to disregard Captain G, but walk in the way of Christ, of love and reconciliation (even in his mind), how should he remember?
He explores some common ideas about memory and social justice. Elie Wiesel is famous for his views on memory. He sees “Never forget the Holocaust,” as moral imperative. To remember keeps the memory of the victims alive, helps them to heal, honors their experience, and serves as a shield from repeating past injustice.
Volf affirms these ideas, but then brings up the flip side—he points out that we shape memories, too. We remember in certain ways—not always truthfully. That in the victim there is the temptation to demonize the perpetrator (he can think of Captain G as utterly evil, when in fact, perhaps Captain G was a good father. People are complicated and contradictory like that). The victim is also tempted to remember herself as entirely innocent. Volf points out that in his memories, he never dwells on his own anger, feelings of vindictiveness, or even self-righteousness he had towards Captain G –rather, he is always right.
Memory can also be used as a weapon—look at how the memories of the Anglo-Boer war were used to stir up Afrikaner nationalism which ushered in apartheid. Look at the genocide in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis. It’s not enough to remember—we need to remember rightly.
HOW DO WE REMEMBER RIGHTLY?
1.We should speak the truth, and practice grace as we remember. As followers of Christ, we are bound to remember the truth of what happened to us, but also the truth of who we are. Volf and Captain G stand together at the foot of the cross, equal sinners. We must resist the temptation to demonize each other. We wrong the other person when we exaggerate their evil. Equally, the perpetrator has an obligation not to minimize their wrong-doing, either. It’s not that the evil must be glossed over; rather, it should be looked square in the face, for what it is—not more, not less.
2. Wounded self, Healed memories: Memories are folded into our identities, but we choose how we identify ourselves. We can control and shape how we interact with these memories. Volf can see himself primarily as a victim of Captain G, or he can see himself primarily as a valuable human, saved from sin by Christ, who had a terrible experience being interrogated in his youth.
Volf says, “Christians believe, however, that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest level. Though the way we think of and treat ourselves…does shape our identity, no human being can make or unmake us. Instead of being defined by how humans relate to us, we are defined by how God relates to us…we are defined by God, not by wrongdoers’ evil deeds and their echo in our memory…they may live in us, but they not longer occupy us; they may cause pain, but they no longer exhaustively define us. We are more than what we have suffered, and that is the reason we can do something with our memory of it…” (p80).
3. Frameworks of Memories. Volf also says, then, when we remember, rather than being shaped by a victim/perpetrator narrative, as Christians we should wrap our memories around a sacred narrative. The Jews were to wrap their identity around the Exodus story, and we are to wrap ours around the Passion: the death and resurrection of Christ.
Exodus: Every year, Jews were to remember Passover, but remember God’s gracious deliverance rather than re-hashing the oppression of the Egyptians. Focusing on the Egyptians could have led to xenophobia, but instead, there are many commands in the law to “welcome the stranger and alien, because remember you were foreigners in Egypt”. Israel’s national identity was built around God’s gracious deliverance, and that was the kind of people they were to be. It’s not a memory of past wrongs suffered, but a memory of God’s deliverance from past sufferings. Israel is to be on the side of those downtrodden, remembering God is the one who will one day bring justice to all. We are able to remember rightly, and not distort or villainize the perpetrator when we are confident that an omnipotent and faithful God will deliver us.
Passion. Volf says,
“For those who see the world in strictly simple moral terms, with clearly divided camps of the righteous, deserving vindication, and wrongdoers, deserving punishment—any talk of grace and reconciliation seems sentimental, even immoral. .. for Christ’s passion embodies the core conviction that, under certain conditions, the affirmed claims of justice should not count against the offender. …if the salvation of the world, not justice, matters the most, it is also understandable that a lover of humanity would embrace the grace of the Passion—and suffer under the scandal of justice both unmistakably affirmed and unequivocally transcended” (p. 111).
Paul’s account of the passion in Romans 5:17 scandalously affirms love for not just the victims, but also the perpetrators. While we were still powerless and trapped in sin, Christ died for the ungodly. Christ reconciled us to God through his death, but the Passion memory also “anticipates the formation of a reconciled community even out of deadly enemies” (p.119).
The memory of the Passion does three things:
- The Passion memory teaches us to extend unconditional grace (for this is what we have been shown).
- It teaches us we must affirm as valid the claims of justice as well. “The extension of unconditional grace does not disregard the demands of justice; rather, grace recognizes those demands as valid…forgivers forgo the punishment of person who deserve it and release them from their bonds of guilt…” (p.121)
- It hopes for communion—we forgive the offender, and hope for communion with them as well.
Because our identity springs from being beloved of God, notwithstanding our sin, we don’t have to frame ourselves as perpetually innocent and the wrongdoer as perpetually evil. We are free to be truthful. We are able to oppose wrongdoing with grace:
…that is remember wrongdoing so as to condemn it and so as to be able to work for just relations between the wrongdoer and the wronged…The wrongdoing is remembered as a condemnable injustice committed against a person, who, in his own way, is also condemnably unjust…it wards of the dangerous tendency toward self-care at the expense of others…brings healing in community and with wrongdoers, not at their expense.” (p.125).
I figure that’s enough to chew on! Part Two later this week.
Which part of all of that struck you as new or interesting?
4 thoughts on “1. Two part Book summary: The End of Memory by Miroslav Volf”
I am wondering, Steph, how the imprecatory Psalms will fit into this discussion of suffering and forgiveness and grace? I am also wondering whether the sufferings of Christians in following the example of Christ can be redemptive? It may be you deal with these questions in part 2. I will read that now.
Hi Uncle Wes!
Yes, so in the second part he deals a bit more with the suffering for the sake of the gospel (or for the sake of other people) which he does see as redemptive and following in the example of Christ. Specifically the whole “Greater love has no man than this…” thing. I think what I found so interesting, though, was his idea that not all suffering has to be rendered meaningful and integrated into our life stories– because that is usually how Christians talk about suffering we’ve experienced. We say, “This happened, but it made me who I am, and I learned this from it.” Which I think a lot of the time is true! But I was intrigued with this idea that some suffering could just be seen as needing healing.
In terms of the imprecatory Psalms, he doesn’t talk about that in this book. He might talk about those in “Exclusion and Embrace” which is his super long book (that I read I while ago, so I can’t remember). I think perhaps he would view those as cries to God for justice, which is needed if we are to reject taking vengeance ourselves and instead entrust vengeance to God. But I’m not sure. Summary of Part 2 is coming soon! 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m interested to hear if you have any ideas on the imprecatory Psalms?