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Volf: Why Memory is Crucial for True Reconciliation

Memory is central to both conflict and reconciliation, according to renowned theologian Miroslav Volf, speaking at Catalyst Live over two days in October.
In a brilliantly incisive examination of the essence of reconciliation at BMS World Mission’s Catalyst Live events in Sheffield and Reading in England, Volf identified memory and “remembering correctly” as its key element.

Memory, Volf said, is often the least explored aspect of reconciliation; apology and forgiveness usually enjoy more attention.

However, memory is the most important because no other element can function without it, said Volf, author of “Exclusion and Embrace.”

Remembering rightly the wrongs we have committed or the wrongs committed against us is essential if we are to be reconciled at all.

Memory does not only function as a key element in reconciliation, Volf said, but also in future wrongdoing.

“At the root of every conflict is some kind of memory,” he said, but “if we forget atrocities, we invite more evil in future.”

To avoid fueling further conflict or allowing wrongdoing to be repeated, we must “remember correctly.”

Volf identified four elements to remembering correctly that would be essential to reconciliation:

â—     Remembering truthfully

â—     Remembering hopefully

â—     Remembering responsibly

â—     Remembering in reconciling ways

In thinking about remembering truthfully, Volf pointed out that victims of wrongdoing can tend to exaggeration, while perpetrators’ memories tend to be short and exculpating.

It is, therefore, important for all those involved in reconciliation to have what Volf called “a deep commitment to truthful remembering,” saying “every untruthful memory is an unjust memory.”

Commitment to truthfulness, for Volf, is essential to remembering in reconciling ways.

Hopeful remembering, he said, is important because without it, two dangers face us: letting wrongs done to us dominate our lives and the poisoning of our expectations of the future.

Becoming what we suffered in the past or letting our past colonize our future are twin mistakes.

Volf pointed out that “the good news of the gospel is we aren’t what we have done or what other people have done to us. We are what God thinks we are and as God relates to us.”

“This is a healing way to remember: You remember the past but know that something new can come,” he said.

To understand responsible remembering, Volf said that it was important to consider the effect of our remembering on a third party.

People who are defined by victimization can end up perpetuating the cycle of abuse, not as an act of revenge against their own abusers but on people who were never involved.

This is why the Old Testament keeps returning to Israel’s remembering of slavery in Egypt with an emphasis on treating aliens in their own land well, Volf said.

Responsible remembering, for Volf, results in hope not just for victim and victimizer, but also for people not yet involved in the cycle of abuse.

Volf’s final point, focusing on remembering in reconciling ways, centered on Paul’s assertion in the New Testament that Christ died for all and therefore all have died (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), including those who have wronged us.

Consciousness of that principle can help us to avoid seeing ourselves, in our victimhood, as inherently innocent.

Yes, Volf said, we may sometimes be innocent in a particular incidence, but if Christ died for us all, we must face the fact that we all have sinned.

For Volf, “in some significant way, all human beings have been forgiven by Christ,” even if they must “appropriate” that forgiveness.

In some significant sense, Volf said, in Christ, we are already reconciled with those who have wronged us.

Volf’s talk was followed by questions and answers from audiences in both Sheffield and Reading, covering topics as broad as the nature of objective truth, the experience of memory in survivors of sexual crimes and the application of memory and reconciliation to national conflicts.

Jonathan Langley is the editor of BMS World Mission’s Mission Catalyst magazine. A version of this news article about Volf’s speech at the 2014 Catalyst Live event first appeared on the BMS World Mission website. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @JontyLangley and BMS @BMSWorldMission.

Editor’s note: A photo news story from Catalyst Live 2014 is available here. Previous articles about Catalyst Live include:

Martin Accad: The Silent Majority in the Middle East Seeks Peace

Walter Brueggemann: Churches Should Be Source of Greater Honesty

Tanya Walker: Morality Without God Is No More Than a Feeling

Sir John Houghton: Awe-Inspiring Science Can Convict Us to Save Our World

Tom Price: 5 Fundamental Questions Asked by Contemporary Films