A couple of weeks ago I began reading The End of Memory by Miroslav Volf to better understand how those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress can deal with the unwanted memories of the trauma they experienced. That is to say, I did not begin reading his book as part of a political or cultural reflection.

But, as I was reading this book, the events in Ferguson, Missouri have come to the forefront of the national conversation. As I’ve read, I believe what Volf has to say could benefit this national dialogue. More importantly, I believe it could benefit personal conversations between people of different cultures as they understand, process, and remember these tragic-traumatic events differently.

A few preface points about what this post is not:

  • I am not implying that Volf himself would agree with my application of his writing.
  • I am not trying to make a political point or implying that I know what “justice” should look like.
  • I make no claim to know how these events and their surrounding social dynamics should be resolved.

A few points about what I am attempting in this post:

  • These are my personal reflections as I try to understand a culturally complex situation.
  • My primary intention is to be someone from the majority-privileged culture who tries to love his neighbor by attempting to listen well.
  • I acknowledge I have many blind spots and ask my readers to be gracious if these blind spots are more evident to you than they are to me.

With that said, I will begin to reflect on Volf’s book. In The End of Memory, Volf’s objective is to help people “remember well” the traumas they have experienced. By “remembering well” Volf means to remember in such a way that it (a) is personally healthy for the victim, (b) contributes to societal flourishing, and (c) desires the redemption of the victimizer (if the tragedy was inflicted by another individual or group) without minimizing the offense or subverting justice.

In describing the impact of trauma Volf says such experiences impact us in at least two ways:

  1. Shatters our assumption that we live in a just world where wrongs will, or even can be, righted.
  2. The wound trauma creates allows us to feel justified in wanting others to hurt like we are hurting.

To illustrate these points Volf draws upon his own experience as a political prisoner in the former communist Yugoslavia during the mid 1980’s. His book is very vulnerable about his own struggle to practice what he advocates. Volf refers to his primary interrogator as “Captian G.” and illustrates these two points in his own battle with memories:

“Consider my possible reaction to my military interrogations. As a person wronged by Captian G., I might deem all military officers or all socialists evil. I might think of them as ‘beasts’ who understand no other language than that of brute force, and I might dream of avenging myself of the mistreatment to which I was subjected (p. 86).”

He then describes how the impacts above contribute to civil unrest when the two parties (individuals or groups) involved in the trauma live in close proximity for an extended period of time:

“The more the histories of individuals and peoples are intertwined and the longer they engage in conflict, the more the lines between victim and victimizer blur. Yesterday’s victims [are] today’s victimizers and today’s victimizers [become] tomorrow’s victims (p. 90).”

Finally Volf draws these points together:

“Belief in the possibility of justice is the condition of the struggle for justice, but the memory of wrong suffered is unable to generate that belief. Even worse, the memory of wrong suffered may strengthen the belief in the impossibility of justice. After all, suffering inflicted by others is an assault against the conviction that we live in a moral universe… It is possible to struggle for justice using unjust means, and it is possible to do so without contradiction if one believes that he lives in a world in which it is possible to know what is just but in which most people do not care about acting justly (p. 91-92).”

The dynamics that Volf describes seem, at least from what I can tell, to be active in the debates that exist around the events in Ferguson. Both sides seem to have lost trust in the other to reasonably pursue, or even desire, justice.

I can understand the challenges both sides face:

  • Nothing that is said or done will bring Michael Brown back to this family. The legal process will not absolve their grief.
  • Police officers regularly risk their life and are asked to make split second decisions of immense consequence. I could not imagine if my daily occupation involved this potential reality.
  • A larger percentage of minority individuals are apprehended by law enforcement and that would create mistrust in me if this were true of parts of my demographic profile.
  • Minority individuals disproportionally live in poverty and this leads to desperate circumstances where crime seems like a more viable option. Having worked for several years in a Boys & Girls Club, I have seen how education can seem like a very long road out of desperate circumstances and offers more hope for the young than the old.
  • Police departments must prioritize their efforts in high-crime areas as a matter of wisdom and stewardship.
  • Police frequently are accused of various biases and asked to see the exception whenever they make an arrest. No one wants to believe they should be arrested.
  • Punishments like incarceration are rarely corrective-restorative for the individual committing the crime and adds a social stigma that makes future employment more difficult. Having led a counseling ministry that counsels individuals in incarceration, I hurt for these “wasted years” that seem to have little redemptive impact.
  • Without strong consequences that inevitably produce stigma, there is no deterrent against the relatively easy, short-term win of crime in hard times. There can be a social good where there is little individual benefit.
  • This back-and-forth spiral could go back much further. In these reflections we have not extended present realities to consider the civil rights movement or slavery.

In many ways, that is the question. How far back do we go? When is tracing a problem back its origin beneficial and when do we need to focus on the immediate realities? How possible is it to identify the origin of a problem with such a long history?

With the follow up question, if we can agree on when to stop the spiral, what do we do now? What counts as justice for the offenses found? What do we do if we cannot agree on which offenses are primary and which are reactionary?

Like I said in my introduction, it is not my intent to try to answer these questions. But my observation is that much of the impasse of the conversation is found in the fact that we’re trying to answer the second set of questions (what do we do now) before answering the first set (how far back).

Actually, more than not answering the questions, we’ve lost all faith in the conversation.

I am not optimistic that we’ll find wide-spread agreement on the first question; which will make the second question perpetually difficult for us to answer at the national-political level. Whenever a complex issue gets compressed into talking points, they become volatile.

I do have hope that trust can begin to be restored at the person-to-person level of conversation, as people give greater weight to the experience that the other person is bringing to the conversation. Whenever people honor one another by providing the space of listening, even hostile conversations can be had productively.

This response must happen in living rooms, ball fields, coffee shops, churches, and work places before it happens on podiums, in legislation, and as crowds response to tragedies. The question for us, if my assessments are correct, would be, “Are we currently cultivating the kind of cross-cultural friendships that would allow for us to create pockets of peace that would help buffer, without silencing, the next culturally-conflicted tragedy that occurs?”

Locally, my prayer is that Summit Church would become a place of so many cross-cultural friendships that our city will never be the same; and that churches across our nation will be places of powerfully-simple, nation-changing, cross-cultural friendships. The more I reflect on this situation, the more I am convinced that only the gospel can reconcile people – marred by sin within us and scarred by sin around us – with long histories of mistrust and offense.