The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World
I have a theological degree and have taken courses at two seminaries, so it’s fair to say I’ve read a number of theology books. But I can’t remember the last time one affected me as much as Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. In fact, I have been putting off writing this post because no short review can possibly do this estimable book justice (though that has never stopped me before!). And now it is Ash Wednesday, when many Christians choose to formally remember our sinful status and our complete dependence on the work of Christ to reconcile us to God—and so it seems the perfect day to reflect on this book. I hope that my comments (which consist mainly of synopsis and quotes, because I want you to see how much good material is here) encourage you to read this book for yourself.
In the early 1980s, Miroslav Volf was a doctoral student in theology when he was conscripted into the Yugoslav army. Singled out because of his Christian background, he was soon subjected to intense and prolonged interrogation by a Communist superior, whom he identifies only as Captain G. He was eventually released, but in the decades following his ordeal, he found he was unable to banish the harsh interrogator who continued to plague his internal dialogue. As a Christian, Volf believes that, rather than hate or disregard his enemy, a wronged person must ultimately love the wrongdoer; but is it really possible to realize such an ideal? And so this book was born out of his theological investigations and spiritual seeking to discover what, if any, “closure” might be available to him in this life—and the next. Is there a way to just forget and move on?, he wants to know. If so, doesn’t that let off the hook the man who scarred him? But remembering continues the pain, which means his interrogator continues to wrong him. Can he forgive him and still remember what happened?
Around this personal experience, Volf shapes his theological discussion into three crucial questions: should we remember?; how should we remember?; and how long should we remember?
“To triumph fully, evil needs two victories: the evil deed and the evil returned,” he declares in the beginning pages. So, to answer the first question, yes, it is right to remember, because “to remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it.” That seems clear enough.
But memory is “less reliable than other forms of knowing.” And it is both a “shield,” in that it acknowledges and protects, and a “sword,” in that it has the power to shape our identities. Thus there must be a right way and a wrong way to remember, as his second question assumes. When it came to dealing with Captain G., “my soul was at stake in the way I remembered…,” he says, “but I was not left to remember… on my own.” As a member of the Christian church, he is part of a “community of memory,” and one that, ideally, seeks to pursue truth.
Truthfulness is an obligation of justice; untruthful memories not only fail to give due credit but also “injure those involved,” deepening the conflict, whereas truthful memories render justice to all parties and move toward reconciliation. Remembering truthfully not only means what is right for the wronged person, but also for the larger community, because it implicates others. “Remembering abuse is of public significance”; think of that in terms of the holocaust or 9/11, for example. Remembering truthfully is also good for the one who remembers. Truthful memories are necessary to healing; when we remember truthfully, we remember therapeutically and so as to learn from the past. And there is another character-shaping benefit: “In memory, a wrongdoing often does not remain an isolated stain on the [wrongdoer’s] character…it spreads over and colors his entire character. Must I not try to contain that spreading?”
So Volf says our attitude toward truth is crucial. We “must be seekers of truth rather than possessors;” if we humbly recognize the finitude and moral weakness of all parties, we will better be able to discern what positions or actions are required for justice to prevail.
Justice in this life may take many forms; justice in the next has one goal. Christian theology teaches that “the past must and will be redeemed.” In fact,
the highest aim of lovingly truthful memory seeks to bring about the repentance, forgiveness, and transformation of wrongdoers, and reconciliation between wrongdoers and their victims.
“Christ’s promises define our possibilities,” says Volf: “To be a Christian means that new possibilities are defined by that promise, not by any past experience, however devastating.”
In exploring reconciliation, Volf looks at the concept of “sacred memory” and examines two “meta memories”—the Exodus and the Passion of Christ. The purpose of the Passion reminds us that we all are both wronged and wrongdoers, and as such we stand together on equal footing as sinners before God:
since Christ identified with the wronged as well as took on himself the burden of wrongdoing, the memory of the Passion anticipates the resurrection from death to new life for both the wronged and the wrongdoers. But since he also reconciled them in his own flesh on the cross, the Passion memory anticipates as well the formation of a reconciled community even out of deadly enemies.
So it is the gospel that is at the heart of truthful memory.
This discussion on reconciliation sets up the third part of the book, which offers real hope to victims and repentant perpetrators. Volf uses the phrase “river of memory, river of forgetting” to get to the heart of his third question about the duration of memory; I love that he uses Dante as his guide in a “thought experiment” on forgetting. He defines forgetting as “not coming to mind” (which is not the same thing as eradicating memory). He declares that “under certain conditions the absence of the memory of wrongs suffered [and committed] is desirable,” and for support and illumination he examines Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud as significant “defenders of forgetting.”
At all times, Volf reminds us that the ideal we seek is the world to come, that the last judgment is a “social event” that inaugurates the final state of being and serves as the “transition to the world of love.” He acknowledges that his faith requires him to not only accept but desire that Captain G. be seated next to him at the marriage feast of the Lamb!
We are frail: “our sense of personal identity is a result of both remembering and forgetting.” And yet, we may be comforted and rejoice because “our identity is fundamentally in God’s hands, not ours, and certainly not in the hands of those who have wronged us.” Amen!
Though inspired and informed by his personal turmoil, this is not a memoir, but a detailed theology of remembering, and readers should be prepared to navigate theological and philosophical constructs. Cogently argued, uncomfortably accurate, and immensely challenging, The End of Memory has redefined my understanding of justice and reconciliation.