Volf, Miroslav. The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. (NY: Eerdmans, 2006).
Miroslav Volf lays out a theology of remembrance, the redemption of past wrongs – done to and done by – through a process of remembering rightly, remembering justly, remembering therapeutically, remembering so as to learn from the past, and remembering redemptively – indeed, remembering in a reconciling way. “The proper goal of the memory of wrongs suffered – its appropriate end – is the formation of the communion of love between all people, including victims and perpetrators.” (232)
Volf suggests, “under carefully defined conditions it may be salutary to release memories of wrongs” (232). Probably this is likely in conscious experience – a memory thoroughly and redeemingly walked through fades from the conscious mind, the holder of the memory set free to live in the present. And perhaps it fades away in time altogether.
This is a hard task to set for others – Volf first builds his credentials for even talking about it by weaving into the discussion of redemptive remembrance his own experience of unjust suffering – interrogation by Yugoslav military police. It is a hard task to set for oneself – but ‘through God all things are possible.’ Based on what Volf says, it is possible to agree with chaplains and others who say it is possible to offer hope to believers; but without a faith in God it is difficult to offer more than comfort and sympathy.
Volf lays out his argument – or invitation – in three parts, plus a postscript of an imagined reconciliation between himself and his own tormentor, summary conclusions, and acknowledgments that fit the ethic of the argument.
In “Remember!” – part one – the author simply invites us into experience and presents the need for a more adequate doctrine of how we remember and why: to forgive – and perhaps even to forget.
“How should we remember?” – part two – introduces the techniques for right, just, truthful, and redemptive remembrance. Can we speak the truth in love, and thus practice grace? Can the wounded self receive healed memories? What are the frameworks of memories? Then he gets to theological matters, that can be enacted through religious mediation (liturgy, prayer) but mostly provide a lens for remembrance: the paradigmatic events, noted above, of the Exodus and the Passion. Through these we see the reasons for putting ourselves through attempted healing – and the teleological, eschatological promise held out to us.
“How long should I remember?” – part three – begins the quest for reconciliation: Can we ever forgive and forget? When? How? What good can it do? “We will never forget” is a stubborn war cry found on Southern pickup trucks as much as it is on buses in Brooklyn. Is there a way out of the bondage of memory? Can it be redeemed?
Exodus // Exile // Holocaust: I have long believed there are parallels here, and that the earlier formative event in the life of Israel sheds light not only on the national disaster of conquest, captivity and return from Babylon, but on the trauma suffered in modern times. Volf touches on this – citing Primo Levi among others. What is the way forward here?
The reconciliation and eventual communion of all people is possible, Volf argues, in light of Exodus and Passion, the two paradigmatic movements within the Christian Bible. From oppression the people receive release, from sins the people are redeemed.
The lessons of the Exodus serve us here – one must remember the wrongs suffered in order to be delivered, one must remember truthfully to do justice, one must remember so as to love mercy – to help those in need. Finally, one must remember, walking humbly with our God, that we are to see our human condition ultimately through the lens of the future consummation of time – in other words, in remembering redemptively we see ourselves and others in aspiration, in the hope of the resurrection and our perfecting in it.
The memory of the Passion – following on the Christian transmutation of the Passover Seder into the Lord’s Supper, the vindication of the people of Israel into the redemption of all nations – requires the grace of God extend to all people, involves the extension of grace to perpetrators and the honoring of victims. It is not erasure; it involves repentance and reconciliation. The Passion helps this reconciliation. “By remembering Christ’s Passion, we remember ourselves as what we shall be – members of one communion of love, comprised of wrongdoers and the wronged.” (119) The formation of the peaceable kingdom is that of a reconciled community; this is where deadly enemies meet in a peace hard won. The lion and the lamb lie down together there, but only thanks to the graceful sacrifice of Christ.
“Perfect love is the goal of memory. And when that goal is reached, the memory of wrongs can end. Put simply, love is the ‘end’ of memory in the twofold sense of that term.” (232)
The Passion teaches that in Christ we are reconciled to God: while yet we were sinners, Christ died for us. And so must we in turn extend that grace unconditionally to others – even those who have (as have we) done wrong. Truthful reconciliation admits the claims of justice, but then transcends them in the gift of grace. The pursuit of forgiveness then proceeds into a quest for communion. From repentance and restitution, forgiveness, in Christ, works onward toward the ultimate repair of rift-ridden humanity, toward the final goal of “the embrace of former enemies in a community of love.” (122) The memory of the Passion is an eschatological memory – a remembrance of things yet to come. It is not merely anamnesis, a kind of remembering that makes the past present; it is prophetic, bringing into the present the final reconciliation of all under the mercy of Christ.
For me there is a lesson here, in these “sacred memories,” for therapeutic remembrance. It will be possible, as we place ourselves “under the mercy” as Christ’s own people, to see others through to a new vision of a graceful future. The gravity of the situation of the victim of violent offense is not passed over – but it is held in the arms of a loving God. Further, Volf upholds standards of truth telling and fairness that I find redemptive myself. It resonates with my experience. I do see a possibility for reconciliation – that hope he extends is real to me.
What I can imagine doing in my own pastoral practice is to both hold out the hope of peace and reconciliation and hold to the standards of a love that does not slip easily past the true depths of pain and sin. Tell the truth; tell it in love. Do justice by telling the truth, love mercy by telling it with the goal of reconciliation. Walk humbly, by remembering this gift, given for all, is needed by all.
While the “healing of memories” is a popular solution in my part of the world, this should be done in full acknowledgment that the real work of real love takes more than just a healing touch and the announcement of a cure. It takes work. Work takes time. And time is redeemed by love: the love that comes of knowing a loving God is at work in the world, reconciling it to himself through the same Jesus who underwent the Passion.
As a pastoral leader of a congregation rife with grief and memories, it promises a way forward that is truthful – that honors sorrows justly rather than just reiterating complaints – and that moves toward a hopeful future. “The past is not dead – it isn’t even past,” William Faulkner said of the American South. One hopes, however, that in the light of Christ it can take its proper place – in memory and (God willing) in forgetting, not at the controls of the future.
Along with parochial and pastoral concerns, this study was also helpful in taking a look at the large issues of hurt in our contemporary world. The events of the Second World War, including the attempted extermination of western Jewry, as well as later genocides and civil conflicts, are addressed here. How can a people, not just a person, forgive and, if it is redemptive for both wronged and wrongdoers, forget? How can people like the people of Ireland come through Troubles to some kind of peace? Hope is extended even to the problems of lands where two peoples, one land, make peace hard to imagine (Sri Lanka, Israel/Palestine). The pain of the past is honored, and not swept away without meaning. It is not erased; it is redeemed. Hope is extended even to our selves, the “cops” of the world: may be there is a way forward, to offering peace instead of war, pruning hooks and plowshares in stead of spears and swords.
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A review written for
San Francisco Theological Seminary
D.Min. Pastoral Care and Counseling
Trauma, loss and grief in theological and pastoral perspectives.
Instructor: R. Scott Sullender, Ph.D. and staff