“Get up, boy!” the voice hissed in my right ear. I could feel the chair shake as the person stood behind me and tried to forcefully shake me out of my chair.
“He said get up, you filthy ***. This place ain’t fer your kind.” The counter to my right banged sharply in my left ear as the other man slapped his hands down on the counter, trying to disrupt my calm state.
The noise in Woolworth’s cafe was loud, and jostling, and while not everyone in the crowd was coming up to the counter to intentionally harass me, there was a continual throng of noise, of people telling me to leave, of people telling me they knew where my family lived and if I cared about them, I should leave, of people dropping plates on the counter right in front of me, the glass shattering. I kept my eyes closed as long as I could.
We had communion at church last week. At my church we all line up, and walk down to the front to receive the bread and wine. On Camino, we did this as weary, dirty, pilgrims with the dust of the day’s hike still on our faces. On Sunday, I did it as a weary, worn-out pilgrim, with the dust of a broken America on my face. It always makes me think of depression era bread lines. All of us, poor, needy people, lining up for the bread we need to keep going through the day.
Christena Cleveland was the first reconciliation writer who highlighted to me the importance of the communion table when it comes to reconciliation. Communion- it means fellowship. We can’t claim to walk in the light and in fellowship with God if we’re not in fellowship with our neighbour. That doesn’t mean ignoring whatever is wrong. It means stepping out of line, going to find them, and making it right. It means hard, perhaps confrontational conversations. It means asking for repentance. I don’t want to minimize that. I’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the messed up church in Corinth, and his second letter, full of reconciliation, comes after his first letter, where he straight up called out all the issues he saw going on. We can’t gloss over stuff and pretend it’s okay. Continue reading “The Table”→
I love you guys. I know you were afraid. You were afraid that the America you knew was falling apart. Maybe you were really worried about our national debt. Maybe you were worried about the lives of unborn babies. Maybe you were worried that your church would lose its tax-exempt status because it understands marriage as being between one man and one woman. You care about your kids, and you were worried about what liberal Supreme Court justices would do. Maybe you were worried about terrorism. You were scared for your families and your children and the potential influx of Muslim refugees. You were worried about getting and keeping a job, and providing for your family because of immigration. Or maybe you were just worried about having Hillary for president because of those emails. Continue reading “To my friends who are relieved today”→
We’re heading into the bloodiness of Holy Week in just a little while. Good Friday looms at the end of Lent, this horrible black, silent day where we actually contemplate the slow suffocation of a Palestinian Jew on a cross. Uh, depressing. I’d much rather skip it and get to the chocolate Easter eggs on Sunday. Continue reading “That Saved a Wretch Like Me”→
Over Christmas break, I was drinking coffee with two of my favorite people in the world (who actually had never met each other). We only had an hour, so there was zero small talk and we went straight to the good stuff like the role of women in the church and diversity and reconciliation and these pressing issues that keep us up at night. At one point we were talking about reconciliation in the church, and black lives matter, and why our white churches can’t/aren’t doing anything on this issue. And at one point I said something like,
“The white church’s problem is we see everything as individualistic, and so we think if we’re individually nice to the black people we know then we’re loving our neighbours and everything is fine. (Like this study pointed out). But if the problems are bigger than that—if they’re structural, if racism is more about a system—it’s harder for people to grasp that.”
Volf ends his book talking about how it should have a warning label because it is hazardous to two cherished notions:
1. We should remember wrongs solely out of concern for victims and 2. We should forever remember wrongs suffered.
It seems crazy to argue that we should remember in a way that is fair, and even generous towards the perpetrators as well as the victims. We all have our little camps, where we want to say, “Never forget!” The Afrikaners don’t want us to forget the Anglo-Boer war, and everyone else doesn’t want to forget apartheid. Survivors of sexual abuse don’t want us to forget their pain, or allow us to give voice to the perpetrator. We can’t forget slavery. We can’t forget the holocaust. We can’t forget colonization.
So many of the corner-stones of social justice movements are wrapped around identity, and rest on this idea that we cannot forget the pain of the victims, and to do so gives the perpetrators power. Identity and reconciliation are two things I’m always thinking about, which is probably why Volf is a favorite. Here’s what this book made me think about…
Identity: We live in a broken world, and in the process of bringing social justice, we need to remember. But I can’t ignore Volf’s idea that we should remember rightly.
In this world where perpetrators of past wrongs have power, too often the suffering of victims is left out of the story being told. Whether it’s the history of America, or the history of Africa, so far we have not done a good job of remembering all parts of our history—for example, the wrongs we have done in America to groups like African Americans and Native Americans. The reason why we still need a black history month in America is because the rest of the time we do a pretty good job forgetting, ignoring, and minimizing past and present injustice towards African-Americans, and their past and present contributions. Whether it’s the need to remember the horror of slavery, or the contributions that African-Americans have made (and continue to make) in our society today—we need to highlight and dwell on these things. This is part of remembering rightly.
But remembering rightly also involves remembering with grace, and not allowing our identities to be defined as victims. It involves remembering in a way that is generous towards the offender as well as the victim. That is difficult.
Further, if the thought that in eternity I will have to sit down and commune with the man who belittled and maligned me as a woman is repulsive to me, if I am not willing to allow the idea that his offenses could be forgotten … if I’ve defined myself so much as a victimized woman that I cannot allow those wrongs to slip from my mind one day in the presence of the joy of God…that’s dangerous.
If the thought that my identity as a third culture kid, and all the losses and quirks and pain that has brought is more important than my identity in Christ, I’m no longer remembering rightly.
As a person defined by God’s grace towards me, I need to remember with grace towards others. I need to set aside the caricatures of the people or the groups I feel have hurt me—I don’t need them. I’m loved and accepted by Christ, I’m defined by him, so I don’t need those props.
I’m troubled by Christians’ inability to remember rightly some of the wrongs we have committed, our inability to acknowledge how we have caused suffering—and I’m equally worried by the victim camp that refuses to allow any grace for a perpetrator. Our emphasis as Christians should be on reconciliation—seeing that as the ultimate climax of justice—rather than retribution.
Reconciliation. My undergrad English thesis was on Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog. It was written by a white, Afrikaans woman, reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People like me, white South Africans, we’re in a tricky spot. On the one hand, we want to completely distance ourselves from the perpetrators of apartheid, to join the victims in condemning them—and on the other hand, the perpetrators look and talk like us—they are us, in a way—and so we’re searching for some sliver of grace, some chance that even the perpetrators can find forgiveness and a home. Completely shutting out the perpetrators means we will be shut out— and so we of all people should exhibit the grace we long for.
The thrust in a lot of South Africa at present is towards black nationalism. This makes sense. This is what we deserve. But one reason why we clung to Mandela and Tutu, and why we all wept when Mandela died, is that they gave us what we didn’t deserve: grace, and a place to call home.
Ah, but we have this double standard. We white people want to be welcomed, we want to be reconciled, but we only want to be welcomed as victims, not as perpetrators. We will listen to what others suffered for a few minutes. A very few minutes. And then quickly we want to talk about what we lost, what we gave up, how difficult life is for us now compared to what it was then—we don’t often want to humbly ask for grace. We still want to be in charge, to take the lead, to get the credit. And so we’re caught in the middle, unable to receive the grace that’s held out because we’re unwilling to admit we still need it.
“Forgivers forgo the punishment of persons who deserve it and release them from the bonds of their guilt. Of course, to obtain this release wrongdoers must receive forgiveness of their misdeeds as just that—forgiveness—just as any person must accept a gift for the gift to be given, not simply offered. Wrongdoers must acknowledge their actions as wrongdoing, distance themselves from their misdeeds, and where possible restore to their victims what the original violation took away. Failure to do so would not result in the withdrawal of forgiveness; that gift is unconditional. But it would result in the suspension of forgiveness between its generous giver and the intended but untaking recipient.” (p.121).
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?
The short answer, for why I write on this blog is because it satisfies an itch. I get tired of ugly things. Not to say that my blog is the most beautiful piece of writing ever to grace the interwebs. It’s more that the things I care about: social justice, reconciliation, power dynamics, privilege, sociology, Jesus, holistic ministry… are usually written about in text books, or journal articles, or long, detailed articles. Which are good. We need those. Facts are good. I like facts. I don’t like all this Invisible Children “let’s just cry our eyes out over some sad thing that happened in Africa but we don’t really know what we’re talking about” stuff.
But I was an English major. And sometimes I get this longing for something beautiful. I hear sermons on theological abstract principles that don’t inspire me, so I go home and write what would have inspired me. I read things about the need for adult father-figures in low-income communities, but it’s the stories about the iThemba mentors that I write, and then read again, and think, “Wow. These guys are changing the world.”
But there’s also the opposite side. So, I was an English major in college, and that’s what we did- read stories, played with language, analyzed words. As I was writing, I would get hung up not on the words and images, but on what they meant. I was interested in the point, on the social dynamics the literature portrayed, on the injustices the piece was debating. I liked pieces that some critics would call propaganda. (George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession anyone?) It was kind of to the point where I would get irritated. This isn’t just a story, people, this is real! So I wrote my English thesis using sociological frameworks of interpretation, and now I’m doing a Sociology thesis looking at narrative. Oh well.
I think the hard work of restoring all things involves all aspects of creation. We need both beauty and justice. Reflection, contemplation and action. But there’s still a tension. So, here’s a stories-social justice- stories sandwich to embrace that tension. Because, you know, I’ve written 100 posts now. I’ve got to start stealing from other people because I can’t think up anything new. 🙂
Sarah Groves:Why it Matters. Perhaps my favorite song, about how creating something beautiful can itself be “a protest of the darkness and chaos all around”.
“A materialistic world will not be won to Christ by a materialistic church.” ― David Platt
“People die of hunger because we prefer to spend money on … A very disturbing question: For what are we willing to let other people die?”– Miroslav Volf
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however is to change it.” — Karl Marx.
“Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.” — Miroslav Volf.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. — Desmond Tutu
“Christianity does not exclude any of the normal human activities… There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such… The work of Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord’… We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.” — C.S. Lewis
The Sharnbrook team from the UK was able to be a part of Mandela Day (Madiba’s birthday and a day of community service here).They partnered with a local school in Sweetwaters, and together with the gogos (grandmothers) and mamas of the children in the school, we repainted almost the entire school. In the media in SA and the US right now it seems everyone is cynical about race relations. Current events have shown both of our countries have a long way to go in terms of really reconciling, listening, learning and altering unjust systems. But I also think that because these problems are so huge and overwhelming, that doesn’t give us a right to sit around being cynical and assume it’s someone else’s job (like the government) to fix things. In little ways we each need to take responsibility and do something towards listening, reconciling and working for justice every day. Here is a poem I wrote about it (warning: it contains a word that some cultures find offensive). I have linked in articles on the current events mentioned within the poem. I’m not much of a poet, but maybe you’ll like it. 🙂
so they say there’s yelling about some kid named Trayvon