Identity & Reconciliation: A quick reflection on “The End of Memory”

Volf ends his book talking about how it should have a warning label because it is hazardous to two cherished notions:
1. We should remember wrongs solely out of concern for victims and 2. We should forever remember wrongs suffered.

It seems crazy to argue that we should remember in a way that is fair, and even generous towards the perpetrators as well as the victims. We all have our little camps, where we want to say, “Never forget!” The Afrikaners don’t want us to forget the Anglo-Boer war, and everyone else doesn’t want to forget apartheid. Survivors of sexual abuse don’t want us to forget their pain, or allow us to give voice to the perpetrator. We can’t forget slavery. We can’t forget the holocaust. We can’t forget colonization.

So many of the corner-stones of social justice movements are wrapped around identity, and rest on this idea that we cannot forget the pain of the victims, and to do so gives the perpetrators power. Identity and reconciliation are two things I’m always thinking about, which is probably why Volf is a favorite. Here’s what this book made me think about…

Identity: We live in a broken world, and in the process of bringing social justice, we need to remember. But I can’t ignore Volf’s idea that we should remember rightly.

One of my new favorite children’s picture books. Illustrations by different authors & really touching words. Great way to talk about black history! Click the image to purchase.

In this world where perpetrators of past wrongs have power, too often the suffering of victims is left out of the story being told. Whether it’s the history of America, or the history of Africa, so far we have not done a good job of remembering all parts of our history—for example, the wrongs we have done in America to groups like African Americans and Native Americans. The reason why we still need a black history month in America is because the rest of the time we do a pretty good job forgetting, ignoring, and minimizing past and present injustice towards African-Americans, and their past and present contributions. Whether it’s the need to remember the horror of slavery, or the contributions that African-Americans have made (and continue to make) in our society today—we need to highlight and dwell on these things. This is part of remembering rightly.

But remembering rightly also involves remembering with grace, and not allowing our identities to be defined as victimsIt involves remembering in a way that is generous towards the offender as well as the victim. That is difficult.

Further, if the thought that in eternity I will have to sit down and commune with the man who belittled and maligned me as a woman is repulsive to me, if I am not willing to allow the idea that his offenses could be forgotten … if I’ve defined myself so much as a victimized woman that I cannot allow those wrongs to slip from my mind one day in the presence of the joy of God…that’s dangerous.

If the thought that my identity as a third culture kid, and all the losses and quirks and pain that has brought is more important than my identity in Christ, I’m no longer remembering rightly.

As a person defined by God’s grace towards me, I need to remember with grace towards others. I need to set aside the caricatures of the people or the groups I feel have hurt me—I don’t need them. I’m loved and accepted by Christ, I’m defined by him, so I don’t need those props.

I’m troubled by Christians’ inability to remember rightly some of the wrongs we have committed, our inability to acknowledge how we have caused suffering—and I’m equally worried by the victim camp that refuses to allow any grace for a perpetrator. Our emphasis as Christians should be on reconciliation—seeing that as the ultimate climax of justice—rather than retribution.


Reconciliation. My undergrad English thesis was on Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog. It was written by a white, Afrikaans woman, reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People like me, white South Africans, we’re in a tricky spot. On the one hand, we want to completely distance ourselves from the perpetrators of apartheid, to join the victims in condemning them—and on the other hand, the perpetrators look and talk like us—they are us, in a way—and so we’re searching for some sliver of grace, some chance that even the perpetrators can find forgiveness and a home. Completely shutting out the perpetrators means we will be shut out— and so we of all people should exhibit the grace we long for.

The thrust in a lot of South Africa at present is towards black nationalism. This makes sense. This is what we deserve. But one reason why we clung to Mandela and Tutu, and why we all wept when Mandela died, is that they gave us what we didn’t deserve: grace, and a place to call home.

South_Africa_World_CupAh, but we have this double standard. We white people want to be welcomed, we want to be reconciled, but we only want to be welcomed as victims, not as perpetrators. We will listen to what others suffered for a few minutes. A very few minutes. And then quickly we want to talk about what we lost, what we gave up, how difficult life is for us now compared to what it was then—we don’t often want to humbly ask for grace. We still want to be in charge, to take the lead, to get the credit. And so we’re caught in the middle, unable to receive the grace that’s held out because we’re unwilling to admit we still need it.

Volf talks about this idea in his book Free of Charge, and here again in this book:

“Forgivers forgo the punishment of persons who deserve it and release them from the bonds of their guilt. Of course, to obtain this release wrongdoers must receive forgiveness of their misdeeds as just that—forgivenessjust as any person must accept a gift for the gift to be given, not simply offered. Wrongdoers must acknowledge their actions as wrongdoing, distance themselves from their misdeeds, and where possible restore to their victims what the original violation took away. Failure to do so would not result in the withdrawal of forgiveness; that gift is unconditional. But it would result in the suspension of forgiveness between its generous giver and the intended but untaking recipient.” (p.121).

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4 thoughts on “Identity & Reconciliation: A quick reflection on “The End of Memory”

  1. So I was thinking about this yesterday in church, because so much of our worship (especially Episcopal worship that I attend, with the focus on the Eucharist) centers on remembering (“do this in remembrance of me” anyone?) Jesus’ death, which was the injustices of all injustices. Does Volf touch on this at all?

    • Thanks for the comment! So he talks about Eucharist, but he talks about the cross of Christ as the point of forgiveness– He describes forgiveness as acknowledging there is an awful debt to be paid, and then paying the debt ourselves, rather than making the debtor do it. We absorb the pain and the cost into ourselves, rather than making the other person absorb it. So justice is satisfied– someone is “paying” –but justice is transcended, because we are the ones paying it, not the other person. So he would call Christ’s death scandalous,(because it’s scandalous that anyone would forgive) but not unjust. We don’t deserve the forgiveness, but we get it anyway. So in dwelling on the death of Christ, we’re reminded of the awful cost of our own forgiveness, which should encourage us to forgive others… but in “Free of Charge” he explains forgiveness more deeply. Does that help??

      • yeah, it makes sense. Thanks! I guess when I said “injustice” I meant more the general category of killing of an innocent man. It probably could be argued we are “remembering it rightly” when we remember Jesus’ death. Just thinking 🙂

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