February 02, 2007

Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory

Miroslav Volf is an evangelical theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School. He also grew up in the former Yugoslavia and its communist rule. And it is precisely his experiences in Yugoslavia during his year of mandatory military service that provide the focus for this book, a sustained reflection on the meaning of memory and grace with regard to wrongs committed against us.

Volf sets up his reflections by recounting his memory of the sustained interrogations to which he was subjected by "Captain G." during his year of military service. Because of his training in America, his background in theology, his critique of Marxism, and his marriage to an American, he was a person of suspicion. This resulted in sustained interrogations, threats of detainment, and psychological torture. This background leads him to the question, What does it mean to remember these wrongs done against us?

The first stage of his argument deals with the question of if we should remember. In today's culture, especially in the wake of the Holocaust and other attrocities of the past century, the answer seems an obvious yes. And Volf echoes this answer, marshalling the call of such people as Elie Wiesel, who rally around the cry, Remember! It is important to acknowledge wrongdoing, and to recognize both those who are wrong and those who have been wronged. But, he also turns us to wrestle with the question of how we should remember.

Memory is important, but it is also ambiguous. Memory can be put to many uses. It can help us to prevent further wrongs or atrocities, but it can also lead us to perpetrate wrongs out of self-interest (say out of the desire to not be a victim again ourselves). So the first facet of memory that Volf emphasizes is that we must remember truthfully. This means honestly seeking as complete an understanding of events as possible, admitting the points of view of others than ourselves, and acknowledging the complexities that are often inherent in these situations. It is often easy in situations where we have been wronged to make out the perpetrator as the "evil" party and ourselves as the "good" or "innocent" party. But the facts often reveal a more complex picture. While the evil can still be named as such, there is often more to it, such as the fact that Captain G. was operating within a system that condoned and encouraged his behavior toward Volf and other suspects. A second important facet of our remembering is that it is to be in service of reconciliation. We are to strive to bring a full and accurate account of events to mind so that we can fully acknowledge the situation, along with the perperatator, and then offer forgiveness and grace to that person, and, when it is received, enter into a new and reconciled relationship with them, beyond the roles of perpetrator and victim, where the wrong is forgotten.

This brings us to the third major theme of Volf's book. Beyond memory, and beyond a certain type of remembering in service of grace, comes forgetting. We should strive toward and look forward to a grace-filled world in which wrongs are fully acknowledged and then forgotten. In light of Jesus' death on the cross, a death which dealt with all evil, we look forward in hope to a time when that grace will embrace our situation. Volf is careful to remind that this forgetting is always on the other side of acknowledgement, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but it is still an end. We should (though it is not easy) long for a time when perpetrator and victim can come together without those labels, when a new and reconcilied relationship has forgotten completely those earlier roles, and draws them together as friends and companions. This is Volf's vision of the life to come, on the other side of the final judgment, a life that we can begin to experience here and now through a drive for reconciliation (as opposed to retribution).

Volf's End of Memory is an honest wrestling with the true nature of Christianity, the atonement, and grace. It helps paint a fuller picture of grace by looking beyond what grace means for me personally to a look at what grace should mean for my enemies, as well. He makes a convincing case for the importance of memory, a truthful and just type of memory, but then qualifies this memory as provisional. We instead look toward the end of memory, that time when all things will be made new, all wrongs remembered and then forgotten, and all eyes turned from past hurts to fulfillment and joy in Jesus Christ. It is a great and challenging vision of a grace-filled life. And is also a deep reflection what shapes our identity (hint: it's not our history, though that plays a role; who we are is ultimately grounded in God.)

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