One of the last classes I took in seminary was a seminar on the work of Miroslav Volf, a theologian currently at Yale, whose experiences as a Croat in the Balkans have led him to a deep interest in a theology of reconciliation. His current focus is on relationship among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and I initially thought that that would be my focus as well for my paper in the class.
Instead, I became engaged by his work on memory, found largely in the book The End of Memory. His thesis is that much of the emphasis we place on memory of wrongs is misguided; that while we need to "remember rightly" in order to effect restoration and reconciliation, the ultimate purpose of right memory is to forget the wrongs we have perpetrated and suffered. Quite a controversial viewpoint, as you can imagine, and we had some lively discussions about it. Here's something of the gist of what he has to say (I've left out my footnotes):
Ultimately, he argues, the purpose of memory is reconciliation and its consequence is forgetting – not the creation of a self-sustaining narrative, not healing, and not justice or prevention of future harm. All of those are important objectives, but they are waystops on the road to reconciliation. Volf does not at all diminish their importance; in fact, he puts considerable effort into articulating the conditions under which memory serves those purposes. Rightful memory requires both effort and integrity: it demands that we identify and condemn wrongdoing, that we look at our own culpability as well as that of those who have wronged us, that we practice the double vision that will enable us to see things from their side, and that we not exaggerate the harm done to us any more than that we minimize it. Nonrightful memory produces truncated healing; healing based upon falsehood rather than upon naming and condemning wrongdoing is not healing.When acknowledgment does not take place and healing is incomplete, justice is not served. In other words, a simple “forgive and forget” does not suffice. However, the memory of harms suffered may cause harm, in the form of retaliatory violence or continued inward trauma,rather than promote good; the insistence upon remembering the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the Japanese occupation of Korea, or personal trauma, may foster justice but, quite possibly, or even likely in the short run, justice without reconciliation."
It got even more interesting when we reached Volf's argument that, in the world to come, we will forget even the crucifixion. More from my paper:
"One of the most startling aspects of Volf’s argument with respect to forgetting is that we will forget even the crucifixion; that it will not come to mind.While this idea also meets with resistance, as many have been taught that it is by the cross and by his wounds that we shall know him, the evidence of that in the Bible is scant insofar as the eschaton is concerned. The direct evidence, as Volf points out, is found in Isaiah 65:17-19 and in Revelation 21:1-4 : in the new heaven and the new earth to come, there will be no more weeping, and every tear will be wiped away. It seems unlikely that all tears could be dried if the memory of wrongs suffered were still present; in the latter situation, there would never be an end to tears. If, however, we understand Jesus as the one who both forgives and restores, the one who acts on both sides of the reconciliation equation, forgiving those 'who know not what they do' and substituting himself for those who have done wrong and from whom restitution is required, then his work is to eradicate death and create a Kingdom of Life – identified as the new heaven and new earth. We then, will know him in the eschaton as the giver of life rather than as the victor over death, suffering and death no longer being possibilities. We ourselves will necessarily be transformed into new beings, beings who no longer remember the cross, because we will love God for who God is rather than for what God has done for us."
As I noted in my paper (more footnotes), nearly everyone with whom I discussed it as I was writing it was at least disturbed by what he has to say. Most simply rejected it outright, whether with respect to themselves and identities formed, at least in part, by much suffering, or with respect to the crucifixion.
I am quite taken by what he has to say, however:
Perhaps it is a testimony both to how much we suffer and how outraged we are by our suffering that we are so resistant to his suggestion.
Or perhaps our resistance is an indication of how little we understand about what God desires in offering us reconciliation through Jesus Christ, and of our inability to imagine, let alone accept, that reconciliation means transformation to an extent beyond our comprehension. Even here, in this life, our identity is to be found in our baptism; as Volf says, 'we are not fundamentally the sum of our past experiences.' With Luther, Volf says that to be only our past would be to be very small indeed. That is an outrageous idea to the contemporary mind; we do not think of ourselves and our lives as small, and we are as a culture unaccustomed to thinking of God as vast. However, Volf is suggesting that we have it backwards and that, if we could but understand the vast self-giving love into which we are invited, we would see that to leave our traumas behind would be not a sacrifice of self but a receiving of ourselves as the people we were originally intended to be."
Why am I inserting all this today? (Be grateful that it's not the entire paper!) Well, as you can imagine, I think and wonder about it all the time. And I wanted to share some music, which is better understood in light of the above. If there is an ordination service in my future, I hope to fit it in there somewhere: