Sunday, December 28, 2008

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "The End Of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World" by Miroslav Volf

"To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one." So states Miroslav Volf in his book that I have been reading "The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World." I have covered the first two chapters over the past two Fridays. I am only reading one chapter per Friday not because of its difficulty but because of its depth. This is a work that needs to be read slow so that one can fully understand what Volf is attempting to convey.

"To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one." (Volf, The End of Memory, p.9). Evil's first victory is the perpetration of the evil act. The second, according to Volf, is when evil is returned for evil. After the first victory, Volf tells us, the real evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life. Here Volf is specifically referring to the role our memory plays in how we respond to what has been done to us. How we choose to remember after suffering at the hands of others will determine our soul's destiny. In "The End of Memory", Volf is concerned with how we respond to evil in our memory in a way that brings reconciliation between God and Man and between victim and abuser.

In 1984, Volf was living in Communist controlled Yugoslavia when he was summoned for a compulsory year of military service. Two aspects of his life caused him to be viewed with suspicion by the Communist authorities. First, he was married to an American. Second, he had studied theology in the West. Both of these factors led the Communists to suspect him of being a potential political dissident or a spy.

Throughout his year of military service, Volf was subject to unrelenting interrogations by army officials. He was not tortured. His interrogators were always different, except for one, who Volf refers to as "Captain G." The memory of Captain G. and his treatment of Volf is the focal point of Volf's struggle to forgive.

True, Volf suffered no torture, but the year of interrogations left its mark on him. At the time he knew he was at their mercy and knew torture could be employed if his tormentors so wished. As Volf's every word and action were twisted by the Communists, Volf was made to feel that as a person, he was nothing. This led Volf to view the world with a mistrust of everyone. His mind was made a slave by the memory of Captain G. "It was as though Captain G. had moved into the very household of my mind, ensconced himself right in the middle of its living room, and I had to live with him." (Volf, p. 7)

The memory of captain G. forced the issue on Volf that is the very purpose for writing the book: how do the followers of Jesus Christ who do not want to hate but who have no desire to disregard past abuse remember those who have abused them? How do those called by God to love remember the wrong and the one who committed the wrong? Those who have been wronged are not called upon to suppress their memories, but to love those who wronged us with a love that does not exclude a concern for justice yet goes beyond justice. How do we remember wrong doing rightly?

According to Volf, memories of abuse are not just a private matter since others are always implicated. According to Volf, there are three relationships in which the one who has been wronged stands. First, their relationship to the wrong doer. Second, the relationship of the abuse to the social context out of which it arose. Third, how do we remember our wrongdoer rightly? What were their motives? Also, how do we remember in the context of our own status as sinners before God? Finally, what effect does Christ's death have on an abuser's sin, sin that has has been atoned for by Christ? As Christ died for all, we are to seek the salvation of all, including our abusers. How will we relate to those who have abused us if we meet again at Christ's banquet table? These are the questions asked by Volf in the first chapter, "Memory of Interrogations."

In chapter two, entitled "Memory: Sword and Shield", Volf explores memory along the philosophical lines of Elie Weisel, the noted Holocaust survivor. Volf, along with Weisel, seeks to find a way to redeem memories of wrongs suffered by individuals. This task is not just a mental exercise engaged in just for the sake of it by philosophers; the negative use of memory by those who are victimized can perpetuate the evil that is done by the original wrong doers. To prevent an endless cycle of repaying evil for evil, we must seek a way to redeem the memories of what we have suffered at the hands of others. To this end, Volf asks three questions: What does it take to remember for positive rather than destructive effects? How can memory become a bridge that unites wrong doer and victim? "How can former enemies remember together so as to reconcile, and how can they reconcile so as to remember together?" It is these three questions Volf in "The End of Memory" seeks to answer.

Volf points out that we are not at the mercy of our memories. We are stronger than them in that we play a part in shaping them. Volf likens the totality of our memories to a quilt. What is sewn in and discarded, what is prominently featured on the quilt, and what material constitutes background depends on how we sew our memories together. Others as well play a role in how our memory is shaped. Memory is not all powerful in forming who we are; we ourselves shape our memories. (Volf, p.25)

How can memory play a part in our salvation? Volf deals with several aspects of memory to seek an answer. He examines memory's relationship to healing, how memory can lead us to seek solidarity with current victims of injustice and how it protects us from further victimization in the future. Yet Volf recognizes that memory alone is not sufficient for salvation. It is our use of memory that determines who we are and what we are to become. It is that use of memory, how it shapes us and how we shape it, that the rest of the book deals with.

"The End Of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World" is published by Eerdmans.


Tek said...

thanks for your review!

Mr. Guthrie said...

Glad to hear from you. Two more reviews of the book will be posted during the next month. After that, some questions raised by my reading will be posted. I look forward to any comments you might have on those questions.