My Friday evenings visiting home in West Virginia have been spent reading more of Yale professor Miroslav Volf's book on remembering abuse: "The End Of Memory:Remembering Rightly In A Violent World." I read the next four chapters which make up Part II which is called "How Should We Remember."
Throughout this book the question Volf brings to the reader's attention is this: How can the memories of wrongs suffered by individuals and communities be shaped for redemptive purposes? In other words, how can memory be shaped so that victims of wrong doing experience healing and so that their victimizers be brought into a right relationship not only to the victim but also with God?
Yes, memories can be shaped so that we are not at their mercy. Memories are not just about recall. We can choose what aspects of our past shape our personal identity. It is a fact that our memory of detail is often partial; we don't always remember all the facts. Our imaginations also affect our memory by causing us to see ourselves in a much better light than objective truth telling would allow. We have the ability to present those who have wronged us as worse than they really are. For example, Volf experienced grueling interrogations by the Communist authorities of Yugoslavia for one year. The memories left their mark, yet Volf never underwent actual physical torture. However, in his own mind, he could have created scenarios where his tormentors treated him worse than they actually did. Then he could have told others about these imaginary wrongs, presenting his abusers to the world in a worse light than what their actual conduct merited. We all do this to some extent. Even those of us who follow Jesus. We may never complain about bad conduct directed at ourselves, but it satisfies the carnal nature to harbor a sense of victim hood. We allow ourselves to imagine fictional wrongs committed by others we feel have wronged us. We wallow in these thoughts, expecting a day to come when our abusers will "get theirs." If we allow these thoughts of real and imagined wrongs to fester, we may begin a series of revenge and retaliation. Ultimately, we can allow our memories to stifle our potential and all that God plans for us. Or we can allow our memories to be agents for positive change. Our memories can serve as a catalyst for us to fight for those who experience injustice and to help bring those who commit wrongs to repentance and acceptance in the community of the forgiven ones, the Church.
As Volf points out, Exodus 20:16, the ninth commandment, commands us to remember rightly. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."(NKJV) When we remember wrongs done to us, we must remember and recount them truthfully. Yet as Volf admits, remembering rightly is not easy, it takes discipline. Fortunately, we are not alone in the endeavor to remember rightly. Volf gives us a Biblical framework that teaches us how it is possible to remember rightly:
1. We are not here by chance. God created us.
2. We are not placed here on earth just to fend for ourselves and to avoid as much pain as possible. We are to live with God and each other in a community defined by love and justice.
3. We have not been left alone to deal with our failure to love God and others. Christ's death reconciles us to God and to each other.
4. We will not be swallowed up into nothingness, but we will be with God forever.
5. The past does not have to be prologue; evil does not have to triumph. God will expose all evil and condemn it. God will also redeem the repentant ones and reconcile victims and wrong doers to Himself and to each other. (Paraphrased from Volf, The End of Memory, p.43-44)
Volf's framework encompasses Creation, Redemption and Final Consummation. And the final emphasis is on God who makes it possible for us to remember rightly. Putting things in my own words, when we first place our faith in Jesus Christ, Christ takes up residence in us and over time we become more like Christ so that we love those who have hurt us. That love enables us to remember those wrongs truthfully and enables us to be agents of reconciliation to the perpetrators of wrong actions. God in us gives us the power to prevent the wrongs done to us from defining who we are. Volf expresses this truth in this way:
"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 and the way others think of and treat us does shape our identity, no human being can make or unmake us. Instead of being defined by how human beings relate to us, we are defined by how God relates to us. We know that fundamentally we are who we are, as unique individuals standing in relation to our neighbors and broader culture, because God loves us--to such a great extent that on the cross Jesus Christ, God incarnate, shouldered our sin and tasted our suffering.
"Even more, by opening ourselves to God's love through faith, our bodies and souls become sanctified spaces, God's 'temples' as the Apostle Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 6:9). The flame of God's presence, which gives us new identity, then burns in us indistinguishably. Though like buildings devastated by wind and flood, our bodies and souls may become ravaged, yet we continue to be God's temple--at times a temple in ruins, but a sacred space nonetheless. Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God's presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do and suffer." (Volf, p. 79)
Volf provides for us a Biblical framework as to how to remember rightly is made possible. But what are the scriptural passages he believes most pertinent to remembering rightly? What passages form the gateway into the process of helping individuals and groups deal with memories of abuse so healing and reconciliation can take place? Volf points us to two Biblical accounts, the Exodus and Christ's Passion. In both accounts, the ultimate focus is not on the suffering chronicled, but on the actions of God in deliverance and redemption.
In the Exodus we have the account of how God delivered Israel out of Egyptian slavery. Not only did God bring Israel through the Red Sea, but the pursuing Egyptian army drowned. The Exodus gives the reader the account of suffering Israel suffered under bondage and God is revealed as the God of justice. In keeping alive the memory of how God dealt with Israel, God wants Israel to remember how it suffered so that Israel will treat the most vulnerable with justice. We are to be reminded of this history not only so we will seek justice for the most vulnerable, but so we can put our faith in the God who delivered Israel. We can expect the same God to act for us in the same way He acted for Israel by delivering us from oppressive situations. The focus on the Exodus should be on God's deliverance, not on the oppression Israel suffered.
According to Volf, the Exodus account is not sufficient in bringing about healing and reconciliation. For this purpose, the Exodus must be linked with Christ's Passion. Here is another account of suffering, the suffering Jesus endured so that we could be reconciled to God. And just as we who have placed our faith in Christ have been forgiven, we must forgive those who have wronged us. As Volf states, Christ's death on the cross, in which He took upon Himself the wrath against evil doers, struck a fatal blow against the dues paying morality common to all humanity that demands that all who have committed offenses against their fellow man must receive a just punishment. But just as Israel's suffering is not the main focus of the Exodus, Christ's suffering is not the only aspect we are to meditate upon when we remember His Passion. We must also concentrate on the fact that in the Passion, the Father vindicated the Son as the Savior and coming King and that those who trust in Him have died with Him. We also remember that redeemed humanity will be in His presence forever in the world to come.
Volf reminds us that as we have suffered wrongs at the hands of others, we suffered as wrong doers ourselves. Our conduct is just as responsible for Christ's suffering as those who have wronged us. As forgiven wrong doers, we are reminded by Christ's Passion that Christ died for those who wronged us as well as for us. Therefore, we must do all we can to reconcile those who have wronged us with God. We must never forget injustices done to us, but the memory of them can be the first step in forgiveness. And we must do all in our power to see that those who have abused us repent and become participants in the community of the redeemed sinners worshipping God in His presence.
Part III of this review will cover the final four chapters of "The End Of Memory." After that I will share some of the questions raised in my mind from Volf's book.