If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Remembering Rightly: Reflections on Memory, Truth, and Healing

How we remember wrongs done to us as individuals and collectively as a people is an important part of healing in a violent world. This is the premise of Miroslav Volf’s book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Eerdmans, 2006). Upon reading the title my own memory immediately recalled the situation of apartheid in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s approach of allowing victims to remember and tell their stories of oppression and abuse. More personally, I thought of my own memories of painful struggles with adopted children who have been impacted by post- traumatic stress disorder. Would this book provide some insight into how oppressed people and abused individuals deal with their memories?

Volf’s book grew out his own theological and psychological reflections on an abusive and threatening interrogation he underwent in 1984 while in the military under communist Yugoslavia. The public cry for victims of oppression and abuse to not forget their wrongs for the sake of justice echoed in Volf’s mind after the incident was over. How, as a Christian, was he to “rightly remember” the abuse he experienced? If we follow Jesus, who told us to love our enemies, is there a right way to deal with our memories of wrongs endured that leads toward reconciliation?

These questions about remembering that Volf’s book raise are not only important in the context of historical political abuse (e.g., the holocaust, South African apartheid), but also for everyday Christians who must deal with memories of their own abuse or being wronged by someone. The way we remember abuse or wrongs done can be either destructive or healing. Destructive memory fuels further anger, hatred, and vengeance. What Christians need is an approach to memory that is healing and reconciling. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor once suggested that salvation lies in memory.

Right remembering is a healing and reconciling understanding of memory. It is an important, but tough, approach to recalling wrongs perpetrated against victims, especially if you are the victim of the abuse. Victims can easily demonize perpetrators and distort the truth of what happened to them. It is an understandable psychological response to perpetrators of violence and abuse. Right remembering calls for recollection of events truthfully without exaggeration or injustice against the perpetrators. Right remembering also involves not allowing traumatic memories to dominate our identity, but to reframe those memories for personal healing, having the truth of the traumas acknowledged, utilizing traumatic memories as a means of solidarity with victims, and as an impetus for protecting victims from further violence.

According to Volf, the stories of the Exodus and Christ’s Passion are “meta-memories” through which Jews and Christians rightly remember. Israel’s memories of the Exodus were to serve as the basis for their treatment of aliens and strangers. At the same time, more problematic are the dangerous and difficult texts in the Hebrew Scriptures texts about memory as a means for vengeance (against the Amalekites- Deuteronomy 25:17-19). I’m not sure that Volf adequately dealt with these “contradictory” texts in the Exodus story, at least from the perspective of a peace theology. The Passion story allows Christians to reframe memories of wrongs done to us in the light of Christ’s forgiveness and his love for enemies and the hope for communion and reconciliation.

There is much more that could be said about right forgetting and forgiving. Suffice it to say, Volf’s book has provided much thought for me on further reflection on memory, truth, and healing. It has come into my path as I have been struggling with my own memories of past wrongs perpetrated against me and those close to me, facing present consequences of violence and injuries done to those around me, reflecting on the atrocities and war in our world, and wondering about how to handle meaningless experiences in my life. The following quote from Volf has provided solace and redemptive hope for me in a world full of jagged memories and meaningless moments:

We do not need for all of our lived life to be gathered and rendered meaningful in order to be truly and finally redeemed… no need to take all of our experiences, distinct in time, and bind them together in a single volume so that each experience draws meaning from the whole as well as contributes meaning to the whole. It suffices to leave some experiences untouched…, treat others with the care of a healing hand and then abandon them to the darkness of non-remembrance…, and reframe the rest…. The way in which we are redeemed must fit the way we are made up as human beings, and both our redemption and our human makeup must fit the moral obligations we bear; otherwise, our redemption would (at least partly) undo our identity as human beings - as redeemed persons who acted in a morally responsible manner, we would work against our own humanity and well-being (pg. 192).

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