This is a continuation of my summary of the book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf. For part one, go here.
The last part of the book, part three, asks the question how long we should remember. I don’t know how many reconciliation seminars I’ve been to that talk about how “forgive and forget” is not in the Bible, and while you can forgive perpetrators, it is dangerous to forget what they’ve done… I was pretty surprised Volf would go there. But, he does.
HOW LONG SHOULD WE REMEMBER?
Here, Volf asks the question how long we should remember past sufferings. We often seal our pledges to remember injustice with “always.” But Volf asks if after a while, under certain conditions, would it be a good thing to allow these memories to slip out of our minds? (Note: he makes it very clear that he’s not saying that right now, in this present world, we should erase memories which may serve to protect us from further harm—in this section, Volf is mostly talking about our lives in eternity).
He opens by quoting sections from Dante, and says, “In God, all the good that has happened in the world “is ingathered and bound by love into one single volume” (p.141). He describes the souls in Dante’s Divine Comedy, who after seeing God remember every good thing. “So precisely by seeing the God of infinite goodness, who makes one forget everything except God, one remembers—gets back in a sense—all earthly goodness and forgets all sin.” (p141).
In this section, Volf is talking about this kind of non-remembrance. Not an on-purpose forgetting, but a “not coming to mind”. The thing becomes inconsequential, and we allow it to slip from our memory. He points out that for Dante, and for him, this non-remembrance comes as a consequence of the world being put to right, as well of people being rapt in the enjoyment of God and each other (p.146).
There are many who think even this type of forgetting is immoral, a slight against the wrongs victims have suffered, and would be erasing our identities as humans—if the wrongs we suffer become integrated into our identities, who would we be without them?
Defenders of Forgetting
Volf basically argues in this section that God forgets our sin, “causes it to come to mind no more” –so eternally clinging to the memory of someone’s sin against us is contrary to God’s nature. He points out we forget many inconsequential things all the time, and perhaps if we were to see our wrongs suffered in comparison with all the goodness and wonder of God, these wrongs, too, would simply fail to come to mind. He quotes Kierkegaard in Practice in Christianity:
“If there is something you want to forget, then try to find something else to remember; then you will certainly succeed”. The way to forget wrong endured is to remember Christ—every day and in every undertaking. With memory zeroed in on Christ, we “forget everything that ought to be forgotten” like “an absent minded person.” Why? Because we are drawn out of ourselves and resituated in Christ” (p.171). Volf points out we do not have to be afraid of being forgotten. We do not have to fear that if we let go of the suffering we’ve experienced that has defined us we’ll be erased–because we are protected by divine love. He quotes Kirkegaard again:
“No, the one who in love forgets himself, forgets his suffering in order to think of someone else’s…truly such a person is not forgotten. There is one thinking about him: God in heaven, or love is thinking about him. God is Love, and when a person, out of love, forgets himself, how then would God forget him!”
Redemption: Harmonizing and Driving Out
Volf touches on the theme of identity and memory once again here, answering the objection that to forget wrongs suffered would strip people of a meaningful part of their identities. He brings up the opposite—if we are not going to forget wrong-doing, then we are saying it should be eternally remembered—and do we really want that? “Can we bear the weight of eternal memory? Would it be right for one horrible deed to mark us eternally?” he asks (p178). Volf points out that the entry into the eternal world begins with the final judgment. It is not that wrongs will be shoved under the carpet—they will all be brought to light, their full horror revealed, and then forgiven.
He highlights the idea that for modern Western people, redemption and salvation seem to hinge on meaning. We are able to redeem past suffering if we are able to weave them into our narrative identity as meaningful. “It was hard, but it made me who I am,” we say. But Volf asks: is this always true? Must suffering be given meaning to be redeemed?
He gives the example of a Holocaust survivor, who tells about arriving at the concentration camp, and telling his little brother to go with his Mom in the other line. His little brother resisted, but the older brother forced him to go, thinking it would be better. Later, he found out that he had sent his brother to the gas chamber. Can one give meaning to that?
Volf considers the healings and driving out of demons that Jesus did in his earthly ministry. He points out,
“In the Gospels there is not even a hint that Jesus tried to give meaning to illnesses—especially not a negative meaning as punishment for sin. Illness is not to be integrated into the whole; it is to be healed, removed. It presents an occasion for God’s glory to be revealed through deliverance, not for some theoretical lesson that life has meaning…”(p.187) He goes on to say that, “If deeply wounded and sinful people are to find redemption, they will need to experience this kind of salvation—one in which “driving out” and “overcoming” play as big a role as integrating and harmonizing” (p.188).
He clarifies that not all wrongs suffered are meaningless—especially those suffered on behalf of others—but this idea that we do not need to synthesize all the suffering we’ve experienced was his central idea here.
Rapt in Goodness
Volf talks about how in the world to come, we will not need memories to “keep the victims alive”—they will not be forgotten because they will be there, themselves, in person. He talks about forgiveness in the world to come, and has several amazing quotes:
“…herein lies the essence of Christian forgiveness: On account of his divinity, Christ could and did shoulder the consequences of human sin; so the penalty for wrongdoing could be detached from wrongdoers. And since on account of his humanity Christ could and did die on behalf of sinners, they, in effect, died when he died; so guilt can be detached from wrongdoers. When we forgive those who have wronged us, we make our own God’s miracle of forgiveness….we blot out the offense so it no longer mars the offender..” (p. 208)
“That many people feel a strong urge to reject forgiveness and non-remembrance is understandable. Moreover, no argument independent of belief in the God of infinite love who justifies the ungodly and finally redeems and reconciles the world can be constructed to persuade those who want to keep a tight grip on strict retributive justice and insist on erecting an indestructible monument to wrong’s suffered.” (p.209). He goes on to say “such letting go is an act of grace and is governed by the logic of grace.”
No one can demand forgiveness, no one deserves it. No one. But forgiveness can be given, as a gracious gift.
Phew! Okay, in a few days, I’ll have a reflection on this book.