It’s Lent. It’s a time we in the church make time and space for God to uproot things in our lives, so he can plant something good.
We start out by admitting our frailness, and our propensity to be bent along the lines of a broken and sinful world around us, instead of walking in the straight and life-giving path of life in the Spirit.
We receive ashes, slashed grey on our foreheads, and we’re told “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” You are fleeting. You are frail. You will fail.
One of the most difficult and most obvious truths I learned the first time I went to counseling back in college was: “It takes work to be healthy.” Continue reading “An Uprooting”→
The last part of the book, part three, asks the question how long we should remember. I don’t know how many reconciliation seminars I’ve been to that talk about how “forgive and forget” is not in the Bible, and while you can forgive perpetrators, it is dangerous to forget what they’ve done… I was pretty surprised Volf would go there. But, he does.
HOW LONG SHOULD WE REMEMBER?
Here, Volf asks the question how long we should remember past sufferings. We often seal our pledges to remember injustice with “always.” But Volf asks if after a while, under certain conditions, would it be a good thing to allow these memories to slip out of our minds? (Note: he makes it very clear that he’s not saying that right now, in this present world, we should erase memories which may serve to protect us from further harm—in this section, Volf is mostly talking about our lives in eternity).
He opens by quoting sections from Dante, and says, “In God, all the good that has happened in the world “is ingathered and bound by love into one single volume” (p.141). He describes the souls in Dante’s Divine Comedy, who after seeing God remember every good thing. “So precisely by seeing the God of infinite goodness, who makes one forget everything except God, one remembers—gets back in a sense—all earthly goodness and forgets all sin.” (p141).
In this section, Volf is talking about this kind of non-remembrance. Not an on-purpose forgetting, but a “not coming to mind”. The thing becomes inconsequential, and we allow it to slip from our memory. He points out that for Dante, and for him, this non-remembrance comes as a consequence of the world being put to right, as well of people being rapt in the enjoyment of God and each other (p.146).
There are many who think even this type of forgetting is immoral, a slight against the wrongs victims have suffered, and would be erasing our identities as humans—if the wrongs we suffer become integrated into our identities, who would we be without them?
Defenders of Forgetting
Volf basically argues in this section that God forgets our sin, “causes it to come to mind no more” –so eternally clinging to the memory of someone’s sin against us is contrary to God’s nature. He points out we forget many inconsequential things all the time, and perhaps if we were to see our wrongs suffered in comparison with all the goodness and wonder of God, these wrongs, too, would simply fail to come to mind. He quotes Kierkegaard in Practice in Christianity:
“If there is something you want to forget, then try to find something else to remember; then you will certainly succeed”. The way to forget wrong endured is to remember Christ—every day and in every undertaking. With memory zeroed in on Christ, we “forget everything that ought to be forgotten” like “an absent minded person.” Why? Because we are drawn out of ourselves and resituated in Christ” (p.171). Volf points out we do not have to be afraid of being forgotten. We do not have to fear that if we let go of the suffering we’ve experienced that has defined us we’ll be erased–because we are protected by divine love. He quotes Kirkegaard again:
“No, the one who in love forgets himself, forgets his suffering in order to think of someone else’s…truly such a person is not forgotten. There is one thinking about him: God in heaven, or love is thinking about him. God is Love, and when a person, out of love, forgets himself, how then would God forget him!”
Redemption: Harmonizing and Driving Out
Volf touches on the theme of identity and memory once again here, answering the objection that to forget wrongs suffered would strip people of a meaningful part of their identities. He brings up the opposite—if we are not going to forget wrong-doing, then we are saying it should be eternally remembered—and do we really want that? “Can we bear the weight of eternal memory? Would it be right for one horrible deed to mark us eternally?” he asks (p178). Volf points out that the entry into the eternal world begins with the final judgment. It is not that wrongs will be shoved under the carpet—they will all be brought to light, their full horror revealed, and then forgiven.
He highlights the idea that for modern Western people, redemption and salvation seem to hinge on meaning. We are able to redeem past suffering if we are able to weave them into our narrative identity as meaningful. “It was hard, but it made me who I am,” we say. But Volf asks: is this always true? Must suffering be given meaning to be redeemed?
He gives the example of a Holocaust survivor, who tells about arriving at the concentration camp, and telling his little brother to go with his Mom in the other line. His little brother resisted, but the older brother forced him to go, thinking it would be better. Later, he found out that he had sent his brother to the gas chamber. Can one give meaning to that?
Volf considers the healings and driving out of demons that Jesus did in his earthly ministry. He points out,
“In the Gospels there is not even a hint that Jesus tried to give meaning to illnesses—especially not a negative meaning as punishment for sin. Illness is not to be integrated into the whole; it is to be healed, removed. It presents an occasion for God’s glory to be revealed through deliverance, not for some theoretical lesson that life has meaning…”(p.187) He goes on to say that, “If deeply wounded and sinful people are to find redemption, they will need to experience this kind of salvation—one in which “driving out” and “overcoming” play as big a role as integrating and harmonizing” (p.188).
He clarifies that not all wrongs suffered are meaningless—especially those suffered on behalf of others—but this idea that we do not need to synthesize all the suffering we’ve experienced was his central idea here.
Rapt in Goodness
Volf talks about how in the world to come, we will not need memories to “keep the victims alive”—they will not be forgotten because they will be there, themselves, in person. He talks about forgiveness in the world to come, and has several amazing quotes:
“…herein lies the essence of Christian forgiveness: On account of his divinity, Christ could and did shoulder the consequences of human sin; so the penalty for wrongdoing could be detached from wrongdoers. And since on account of his humanity Christ could and did die on behalf of sinners, they, in effect, died when he died; so guilt can be detached from wrongdoers. When we forgive those who have wronged us, we make our own God’s miracle of forgiveness….we blot out the offense so it no longer mars the offender..” (p. 208)
“That many people feel a strong urge to reject forgiveness and non-remembrance is understandable. Moreover, no argument independent of belief in the God of infinite love who justifies the ungodly and finally redeems and reconciles the world can be constructed to persuade those who want to keep a tight grip on strict retributive justice and insist on erecting an indestructible monument to wrong’s suffered.” (p.209). He goes on to say “such letting go is an act of grace and is governed by the logic of grace.”
No one can demand forgiveness, no one deserves it. No one. But forgiveness can be given, as a gracious gift.
Phew! Okay, in a few days, I’ll have a reflection on this book.
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?