It is easy to see why people who believe that the human story ends with death and who do not hope for the Last Judgment or the Final Reconciliation would want to remember foreveror at least as long as humanity lasts. The sentiment Elie Wiesel expressed in his testimony at the Barbie trial (1987) is argument enough for such a stance: "Justice without memory is incomplete justice, false and unjust. To forget would be an absolute injustice in the same way that Auschwitz was the absolute crime. To forget would be the enemy's final triumph." Even if full justice could be achieved, it would not be enough, states Wiesel. For though justice vindicates, it is unable to bring the dead back to life. Memory does that, in a senseit gives back life to those who are dead because it refuses to let them be effaced from memory as they have been torn from the land of the living. To remember is to deny the perpetrator ultimate triumph. Hence the obligation to remember "always."
If I did not hope in the world to come, I would embrace the "eternal" remembering of wrongs suffered. But I do hope in the world to come. I believe that we will be living with those who have died, not as with the dead but as with the living, looking into their eyes and not just remembering their past. Given this conviction, what moral obligation would there be to remember wrongs suffered eternally? After full justice has been done and final reconciliation accomplished, and after the dead are raised, will we need memory to keep victims "alive" and attend to their suffered wrongs? Will not they themselves be masters of the memory of their sufferings? Will they somehow transgress against themselves and others if they no longer remember there, in that permanent world of perfect love, which has come about after the Final Reconciliation? I do not think so.
Let me press the point a bit further. Would it not be right to ask those who in that world wanted to hold onto memories of evil suffered and committed why they wanted to do so (note: not those who could not let go of these memories but who wanted to hold onto them)? What function would those memories serve in a secure world of perfect love? If those who wanted to keep such memories alive were the perpetrators, would we be wrong in suspecting that they could not forgive themselves for what they had done and therefore needed living memories to keep blaming themselves? If they were the victims, would it not be likely that they wanted to hold onto these memories because they cherished resentment against perpetrators or at least wanted to hold it in reserve? If we remembered wrongs suffered in a secure world of perfect love, might not our memory be doing the bidding of the desire for revengeeither on ourselves or on others? Conversely, would there not be in that world something right about Nietzsche's coupling of nobility and obliviousness to wrongs suffered?
But, some may protest, justice demands that we remember eternally, and that is reason enough to remember. "Forget the past and it will be as if it never happened" is the advice of the evil Mephistopheles to Faust after he has abandoned Margarete, or, as he often calls her, Gretchen. Even if Gretchen and Faust were to reconcile and to inhabit a world of love, would it not be in some deep sense unjust toward both of them for non-remembrance to make Faust's abandonment "never to have happened"? He, the wrongdoer, would be thought of as though he were innocent, and she, the wronged, would be thought of as though she had not been harmed. The offense would have then been completely dissociated from the offender, and its harm would have been completely dissociated from the one who was offended. Would this not falsify their relationship? Would not this falsification be unjustconveniently unjust to Faust and distressingly unjust to Gretchen? By what right would we detach the wrongdoing even from a judged, repentant, and transformed wrongdoer?
But that is exactly what forgiveness does! For 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 can 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. Echoing God's unfathomable graciousness, we decouple the deed from the doer, the offense from the offender. We blot out the offense so it no longer mars the offender. That is why the non-remembrance of wrongs suffered appropriately crowns forgiveness.
Grace-filled forgiveness and the non-remembrance of offenses is scandalous, especially when extended to vile evildoerssay, to soldiers who have slain children one by one before their mother's eyes but refused to let the mother die, preferring "her to remain alive but inhabited by death." 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 wrongs suffered. But if God's reconciling self-giving for the ungodly stands at the center of our faith, then nothing stands in the way of opting for grace, with its pain and delight, of forgiving and ultimately releasing the memory of suffered wrongs.
It is important to get right the process by which we let go of memories of wrongs suffered. Such letting go is an act of grace, and it must be governed by the logic of grace. Faust, the wrongdoer, could never step into the paradise of non-remembrance on his own; for Gretchen's memory is an angel wielding a fiery sword at its entrance. Neither could he demand of Gretchen free passage; he has absolutely no right of admission, for he has deserved the remembrance of his misdeed. He can only beg to be admitted to the paradise from which the affliction of memory has been removedhe can only cast himself completely on her mercy.
But Gretchen could give to Faust the gift of admittanceand thereby translate both him and herself out of the world marked by transgression and into a world of love and felicity. What's more, it is my hope that she will give this gift to Faust if they both find each other in the forecourt of that world of love. Will someone force her not to remember? Nono one will even insist that she not remember. If she gives that gift, she will give it as all good gifts are givenvoluntarily and joyfully. God will give her a new self made into a perfect dwelling place for the gift-giving and sin-bearing Godand it is through the power of that God that she will joyfully pass on to Faust God's gift of forgiveness and non-remembrance. Having found her proper self in God, who is love, she will flourish by doing what God's love does through herforgive, reconcile, and no longer think of the injury.
This was excerpted from The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf. Copyright 2006 Miroslav Volf. All rights reserved. Published in 2006 by Eerdmans. Used by permission.
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The End of Memory is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Volf spoke to Christianity Today about how to stop the "shield of memory" from turning into a sword.
Christianity Today profiled Volf in 1999. Other CT articles by or about Volf and his books include:
The Church's Great Malfunctions | We should be our own fiercest critics, doing so out of the deep beauty and goodness of our faith. (November 10, 2006)
Free, but Not Easy | Why grace is so rare among Christians. (Books & Culture, June 1, 2006)
Kissing the Lizard | On memory and forgiveness. (Miroslav Volf, Books & Culture, March 1, 2004)
The Eighth Day of Creation | From a Russian Orthodox philosopher, a provocative alternative to modernity. (Miroslav Volf, Books & Culture, January 1, 2004)
After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. By Miroslav Volf (Sept. 21, 2001).
How Can You Be Croatian? | Why national identities are worth preserving. (Miroslav Volf, Books & Culture, January 1, 2001)
Love Your Heavenly Enemy | How are we going to live eternally with those we can't stand now? (Oct. 23, 2000)
Peace Be With You | Looking beyond naivete and cynicism about peacemaking at Wheaton's Christianity and Violence conference. (March 20, 2000)
Meditation: A Mother's Strange Love | Our adopted son's birth mother taught me how to love my child. (June 14, 1999)
New Theologians | These top scholars are believers who want to speak to the church. (Feb. 8, 1999)
The Clumsy Embrace | Croatian Miroslav Volf wanted to love his Serbian enemies; the Prodigal's father is showing him how. (Oct. 5, 1998)
Jehovah on Trial | Regina Schwartz argues that the way to peace is by killing off monotheism. (Miroslav Volf, March 27, 1998)
Finding the Will to Embrace the Enemy | What it means to follow the crucified Christ in the midst of ethnic and racial conflict. (April 28, 1997)