The Justice of Memory, the Grace of Forgetting: A Conversation with Miroslav Volf
The Justice of Memory, the Grace of Forgetting: A Conversation with Miroslav Volf

The Justice of Memory, the Grace of Forgetting: A Conversation with Miroslav Volf

How to remember the truth with love, and why we should hope to forget.
Appears in Winter 2015

The work of Yale theologian Miroslav Volf is strung together along a thread of memory that traces back to his own experiences in the former Yugoslavia, where he witnessed war and violence up close. Memories of his own interrogation haunted him. And yet he was also confronted by the command of Christ to love his enemies. This existential tension has generated a remarkable body of work, from his groundbreaking and award-winning work on identity, Exclusion and Embrace, through his follow-up reflections on memory and forgiveness in Free of Charge and The End of Memory, and more recent work on faith and culture such as A Public Faith and his new book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Pluralized World, out next year. Comment editor Jamie Smith sat down with Volf for a conversation about the dynamics of memory and the hope for justice and forgiveness.

—The Editors

JS: In Exclusion and Embrace, you point out that our histories are like carnival mirrors that play tricks on our vision, because the histories we tell make us look better than we really are. They give us a "facelift," as you put it. I was especially struck when you remind us that there are people we conveniently leave out of the modern narrative of "inclusion" precisely because they disturb the integrity of the "happy ending" we want to remember in our own past. In that sense, would you say that justice is the overcoming of our selective memories?

It's almost like a paradoxical experience—that there is exposure under the shadow of the cross.

MV: I think it's a larger question of the truthfulness of memory. By that I don't mean simply truthfulness of any particular memory, but also truthfulness with regard to how that memory is situated in the larger scope of our remembering and in the construction of our identity. I think the truthfulness of remembering is part and parcel of the justice of remembering. Indeed, that's one of the things I tend to emphasize in the book. Why do we need to remember truthfully? Because every untruthful memory is an unjust memory, especially when it concerns relationships, fraught relationships of violence between people.

JS: There is a deeply, almost personal level on which this is true, right? You could almost think of one's family history as a place where this plays out. But you're also thinking of it on a national scale. Some of this grows out of your own intense, personal experience in the former Yugoslavia.

MV: I think it applies to our individual lives, how we construe ourselves and our relationships to others. It's an individual life, but it's also a question of social life at the personal level, family lives, for instance. It involves our church lives too: how we perceive our history as a global community of faith through time—relationships within churches but also relationships among churches and of churches to wider society. The question of memory is at issue as well in how we construe ourselves as nations.

At all those different levels, the problem of memory emerges. I think at each level we have to approach it in a slightly different way, otherwise we won't be quite true to the character of those particular spheres. In other words, the character of a particular sphere shapes, in part, how the process of remembering happens and can happen.

JS: So the dynamics of truthful remembering will differ depending on the scale or sphere or level that we're talking about here. It's not just replaying the same script at a micro level and a macro level.

MV: Let me back up. Part of what interests me here is that the question of memory is not simply a cognitive question. There's a pragmatics of memory. We always do something with our remembering. And this pragmatics of memory often is very different at the personal level than it is at, say, the national level.

What's also different are the processes of judgment formation. It's one thing when I do it in unique, personal, one-on-one conversation, but it's a different thing if I formulate the memory as part of public remembrance. There it is, part and parcel of the larger public conversations from historians to politicians and everybody in between, a conversation over which I have little control.

JS: It's an interesting observation: not all remembering is the same because not all remembering does the same thing.

At one point in Exclusion and Embrace, you cite Elie Wiesel: "Justice without memory is an incomplete justice." So again this dynamics of remembering. You also note that there's an imperative for Christians. Christians, you say, "live under an obligation to remember because we live under the shadow of the cross." This is playing a bit of pop-culture word association, but when I reread that line in Exclusion and Embrace, I couldn't help but think of a haunting album by the artist Sufjan Stevens, called Carrie and Lowell. One of his songs includes a jarring line: "There's no shade in the shadow of the cross." It's almost like, yes, we live under the shadow of the cross, but that doesn't necessarily let us off the hook. If anything, it forces us to face our own failures.

You mention that this also includes the church remembering truthfully. What does it look like for the church to remember its very public failures? Do we do that well? I've been reading a lot of your colleague Willie Jennings's work too, thinking about the role of the church in colonization and slavery and so on. What does redemptive, but honest, remembering look like for the church, given our public complicity in such injustice? Maybe that's too broad of a question, to be fair.

Clearly oppressors have a stake in memory being short. Victims' memory is long.

MV: I was going to go back briefly to Sufjan Stevens: "no shade in the shadow of the cross." It's almost like a paradoxical experience— that there is exposure under the shadow of the cross. But it is an exposure "under the wings," so to speak. It's grace that condemns in the act of restoring us so that we don't need to flee from our own past, so that the light can fully shine on us without our own very existence being threatened by it. But actually the full light of remembering who we were or what we have done can come to light so that salvation can properly occur, so that forgiveness can be truly given. In that sense, as I say in The End of Memory, I see the memory of the cross as the regulative "meta" memory that situates all of our remembering and shapes it. Right?

So I think it ought also to shape the recollections and memory of the church itself. To remember well for the church means to remember not just one's own beautiful and glorious past but also the ugly sides of history. You mentioned Willie Jennings's wonderful book [The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race], which, from one angle, is an exercise of right remembering so that anything resembling healing can begin, and, given the state of race relations in the United States today, we desperately need healing and therefore right remembering. One can also mention John Paul II and the purification of memory. Those are both, I think, very important instances of looking at the church's past, of trying to narrate it truthfully and take on oneself the pain of our having done or suffered wrong, having wronged or having been wronged by others.

Today, I think this is very important in relationship to Muslims, for instance. There is a kind of a ugly side of the church's relationship to Islam. There's also an ugly side, obviously, of Islam's relationship to the church and to Christians. That's quite right. I remember when we, at Yale, wrote a Yale response to "The Common Word." One of the things we did at the very beginning of this response was to ask for forgiveness from Muslims, for the past wrongs that Christians have committed in the long trail of our history. We did and said many other important things in that response, but the most critical reaction we got from Christians to the Yale response was because of this confession and apology. "Why do you apologize? Don't they have to apologize? If they don't apologize then we won't apologize"— as if because they remember wrongly, we should remember wrongly as well, as if living a moral life and following Christ is a barter deal that we make with those who don't follow Christ and then we live it if they all cooperate!

JS: In that context, reciprocity is actually immoral or at least certainly not Christian.

MV: Absolutely. Basically the simple argument had to be, "I've got to remember what I did and wrongs that I did so as to be able to purify my own sense of who I am and my history, no matter what the other person does." Hopefully the ability to narrate well one's own history with humility, recognizing one's failures, will be an invitation for the other to do the same. Whether the other does the same or not, my obligation to do that remains because it's an obligation to God and, frankly, an obligation to myself.

JS: It's not undertaken with an economic, instrumental end in view. There's something cruciform in doing that, even when you know it's not going to be reciprocated.

MV: Exactly.

JS: I think in some ways, one of the more controversial claims you make in your book The End of Memory is that we also need to let go of our memories. Now, you have very, very important conditions. You say, "after a certain point" and "under certain conditions," we need to let go of those. And in fact, this is a divine action. It's an action of grace.

But is such letting-go of memory—such a nonremembering or forgetting—is that only eschatological? Is it the case that trying to forget too soon would be its own over-realized eschatology?

MV: Even the idea of trying to forget I would call a problematic one. My point is not that forgetting is an intentional goal that we set for ourselves or, God forbid, for others. My argument is that forgetting, when it happens rightly, is an accompaniment, a crowning dimension of the successful healing process. I think such healing, successful healing processes, can happen also before we enter into the world of love in the eschaton.

It happens very often in a relationship between spouses or siblings. It happens when the memories of wrong are progressively backgrounded, when they lose affective power over us on account of the relationship coming into its own so that when I see another person, I don't see a transgressor against me—I see that person as that person, as if the transgression had not occurred.

Now I would say that if I then went into my room and was in a particularly grumpy mood and I got suspicious of how nice things are right now, I could always go and dig deep and find everything again if I want to.

But my question would simply be, why would you want to do that? Often when we remember, we remember because we, of course, fear that they might repeat the same thing, or we feel that they haven't quite owned up to it. There are a variety of ways in which memories serve a very significant and important role for us. That's why remembering rightly is both a condition and an accompaniment of the healing process. But at the end of the healing process, we can simply let go of the memory of wrong because nothing significant to us and to others motivates it and it often stands in the way of the proper relationship.

JS: That's its own grace at that point, when you say that this isn't something you do— that if you're trying to do it, it's a sign that you're not in a place to receive it and you maybe almost ought not to "let go" at that point. You have to come to a place where it's a gift, the gift of forgetting almost.

MV: Yeah.

JS: Do you get pushback from victims for whom this sounds . . . well, for whom this sounds like it might paper over the past? I'm trying to imagine how, for instance, First Nations peoples in Canada would receive this kind of account. What would be your response to them if they said, "Well, that's easy for you to say." Of course, I know you're not asking them to pretend the past didn't happen because you emphasize that the condition of such letting-go of memory first has to be just remembering. Do you ever get a sense that victims feel like, "Well, this is the privilege of the oppressor."

MV: Clearly oppressors have a stake in memory being short. Victims' memory is long. I think that's an understandable, very understandable impulse. I think we ought to be suspicious of the short memory of the perpetrators. The difficulties associated with letting go of memories are analogous to the difficulties experienced with regard to forgiveness. Often people say, "Well, isn't it too much for you to demand forgiveness from those who have been victimized? They've been violated. Now on top of that, you're telling them they have to forego the claims of justice and let go of it. That doesn't seem quite fair to them." My response is: strangely enough, victims often want to forgive. They do so partly because forgiveness is a power act in the sense that they assert themselves as moral agents who are in the right and hold, in a sense, the moral status of the perpetrator in their own hand, even by the very act of releasing that person from the just demands of justice. It's very much a sense of being in power, as one remembers, as one forgives. But victims want to forgive because they want peace. Transgression against us can disturb our lives in a deep way. Forgiveness gives us freedom.

I find similar ideas when it comes to letting go of memories. Often victims want to be released. Of course, if we are wise as victims, we will want to make sure that the perpetrator will obviously not come to harm them. But what we also don't want—what I as a victim did not want— is for the perpetrator always to effectively sit with us in our living room, oppressing us all over again through the act of remembering past injury. To remember is to expose oneself to these hauntings.

I know a little bit from firsthand experience what I am talking about. Those were my experiences after I was interrogated [in the former Yugoslavia]. I can be sitting in my living room, five years later, the lights are dim, and suddenly through the gate of my memory there bursts next to me my interrogator, Captain G. I ask him, "What the hell are you doing here?" Right? "Wasn't it enough for you to be there?"

This sense of individual healing, when the relationships and conditions have been healed and sense of safety established, is what victims very much, very often desire. They can then let go of memories that oppress them. I think there is a benefit both to victims and to perpetrators and to our entire world if properly executed nonremembrance takes place.

...there is a benefit both to victims and to perpetrators and to our entire world if properly executed nonremembrance takes place.

JS: Let me try to build a bridge now from Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory to your later book, A Public Faith. Could you draw a line that is not made explicit in there? For example, in The End of Memory, I think it's beautiful when you point out that biblical memory, the memory of the exodus, the memory of the passion, is remembering the future. We look at the past so we can see our future. Might that be one of the ways Christians could serve the common good—by trying to show how to remember well?

But before that, I'd be curious about your cultural assessment of where we are— as, say, North American society—with respect to memory. Do you think we live in a society that is particularly nostalgic, or one that is more amnesiac? I wonder what your assessment of our ability to remember or not is, as a cultural tendency? And feel free to make it messy and complicated.

MV: There are many currents going on with regard to memory. On the one hand, I think we very much live in an amnesiac culture. It's a kind of amnesiac situation in which we move through life way too fast, with relatively little attention either to the past or to the future. It's almost like we live in this shrunken present in which past and future selectively, in a minimal way, inhabit us. Right?

JS: Oh, can I pause on that point for just a moment? Just because this is both fun and serendipitous. We first met, you'll remember, when you were leading a seminar at Calvin College in 2000 titled "Modernity, Postmodernity, and the Future of Hope." One of the texts you assigned for us to read was Nietzsche's provocative meditation On the Uses and Liability of History. I reread that as we were working on this issue of Comment and was struck by this passage: "Observe the herd as it grazes past you: it cannot distinguish yesterday from today, leaps about, eats, sleeps, digests, leaps some more, and carries on like this from morning to night and from day to day tethered by the short leash of its pleasures and displeasures."

What you just said about the presentism of our culture is exactly how Nietzsche describes the animal herd that you walk past, who neither remember nor hope, because they're just so lost munching away in the present. It turns out to be relevant to what you've just said characterizes part of our cultural moment.

MV: Yes, indeed. I think the other part of our cultural moment is obviously the ubiquity of social media and digital recording of everything—and therefore also inability to forget. What happens when your entire history, all those little and large idiocies that at some point you've thought were so smart and so amazing are recorded and indelibly preserved for the entire posterity?

Is there a right to forget? Is there a right to forget when you have righted certain things? Must people always be able to construct your past, in their own way, because they have this data that they can spin however they want?

As I mentioned earlier, I was interrogated. What happens in interrogation— or at least what happened to me— was that there were portions of my life that they knew about, but they were just spinning them completely. So they could say, "You said this," but then they spun it in a way I couldn't control. I think something similar is happening on the broader cultural level. We see different bits and pieces of data. We can spin it in every way. Our identities suddenly are totally at the mercy of merciless folks. There is the need for a certain form of nonremembrance for the very health of social relationships, and for ourselves.

Then I think there's also a sense of the increasing fragility of the selves that we are, and therefore this incredible thirst for safety, almost like our skins have grown very thin so that it's very easy to injure ourselves. Obviously sometimes memories of our past, or what has been done to us in the past, come to this very thin skin that we have grown and they injure us profoundly. There is, then, a painful struggle about how we remember and enact identities of each other.

So I see multiple currents shaping memories, some that feed remembering, others that undermine remembering, and still others that twist it. It's in this mess that we need, I think, not just a more comprehensive account of what it means, as a human being, to remember rightly in this violent world, which is the project I pursued in The End of Memory, but also a more general theory of human beings as remembering beings and therefore beings who project themselves into the future. All, I think, very important issues. The question of privacy, for instance, is often a question not just of surveillance but also of memory.

JS: You said we need an account of memory, or a "theory" of human beings as remembering beings. We could offer an alternative account of memory. But are there practices of remembering, forgetting, hoping, projecting that the people of God can perhaps offer to the common good? What I'm wondering is: Is there any way that you could see this biblical model of remembering for the future translating into a public stance for the church? Is there any way that we could offer that as a gift to a society that is struggling with the kinds of challenges you just noted?

The goal of remembering wrongs committed and suffered is the creation of the community of love.

MV: I'm clear about how we might be able to offer something like that to smaller communities, to individuals. Maybe I'm less clear how we can, what we can offer that for a so-called national memory. More work would need to be done on that.

JS: Fair enough.

MV: Similarly, I think more work needs to be done on public forgiveness and apology at the national level. We often do apologies these days, so much so that they have become inflated, cheap. I don't think there's much clarity on how to do these important things well. We know more about, and have done quite a bit of work on, personal and interpersonal dimensions. On those public dimensions . . . they're a little bit more opaque to us. I think the same may be true of memory.

In terms of "public" remembering, I think we need to keep in mind both that untruthful memories are, by definition, unjust and therefore injurious memories.

Commitment to truthfulness is fundamental to a Christian account of remembering. Earlier I spoke of the pragmatics of remembering, and this is where the second element of Christian remembering comes in: loving remembering. The goal of remembering wrongs committed and suffered is the creation of the community of love. Those would be two pillars of right remembering. Obviously they stem from

Ephesians 5: speaking truth in love.We mentioned the cross earlier. I think the cross is probably the most, the clearest example of how our lives there are narrated truthfully, but in the context of love. We are condemned for our sins (and our sufferings have been taken seriously), but through condemnation we are elevated to participants in communion with God and communion with one another. That's how we should remember wrongs committed and suffered.

JS: Yes, and not to have expectations that are too grandiose. I hear in your point a certain caution, not hesitancy, but a prudential need to ratchet down expectations about shaping national conversations and focus on more local expressions.

MV: Yeah, I think we ought to concentrate on local embodiments of that. I think we practice that in families, for instance. We practice that in our local communities. We practice this in eucharistic celebrations because if you can say the memories ought to be shaped by the cross, well then our remembering as Christians will certainly be shaped not simply by the baptismal rite in which we are constituted as Christians by identification with Christ's death and resurrection, but also by the repeated celebration of the Eucharist. Then you can see these truthful and loving exercises of remembering, being, and hoping practiced and thus almost becoming a virtue, which then starts to shape our everyday judgments and, I think sometimes, even everyday perceptions. The question of memory is, of course, at play at the very moment of perception.

JS: Absolutely.

MV: It's not a separate act, like, "Let's see. I'm going to remember this in this way." No, the way you will remember something is, obviously, shaped by they way you perceive it; you perceived a thing as something and you remember it as such.

There are good examples of this. Think about how we perceived 9/11 and how the moment it happened and started being seen had been framed, interpreted, in particular ways. Disciplining our eyes to see, both with the desire for knowing truth and with the desire of overcoming enmity and creating a communion in love, would be something that Christians ought to be trained to do. And some of this training can come through liturgical acts.

Now we can also do this very badly. I don't know whether it's completely true, but I have heard it reported that the level of animosity toward the Japanese among Christian Koreans is higher than among non-Christian Koreans in part, I was told, because Christians have a regular yearly memorial day. In Christian liturgy, we can shape memories in such a way as to nourish resentment and anger, which are then kept alive and passed on to posterity. In the country of my origin something similar has happened.

JS: We can let our own litanies and liturgies be captivated by an unbiblical mode of remembering. So we have to take stock of our own communities of practice, our repertoires of remembering. Because what you were painting a moment ago was a powerful picture— like the liturgical conditions for learning how to remember well, the way the cross and the Eucharist train me to remember differently, and hence see the world differently.

That depends on us participating in communities of practice that carry this story, as you've put it, this picture of remembering forward. But if we get captive to alternative litanies that relish remembering for, sort of, Braveheart bravado and rekindling revenge—to which we are very prone—then, in fact, our litanies could reinforce all the worst things.

MV: Yeah. There is obviously our propensity to be sinful creatures that insinuates itself into the most sacred moments of our lives. That's why sin is so insidious. It takes the mantle of holiness, precisely as the perversion of that which is holy.

JS: Thanks for this, well, reminder! This has been incredibly insightful, Miroslav. Thank you so much for your time.

Miroslav Volf
Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf is Founder and Director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School. He studied philosophy and theology in his native Croatia and United States, and earned doctoral and post-doctoral degrees (with highest honors) from the University of Tübingen, Germany. His book Exclusion and Embrace (1996) was a winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion and Christianity Today named it one of the 100 most important religious books of the 20th century. His most recent book is Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale UP, 2015).

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?