What do we do with memories of intense offenses after we forgive? This is a vexing question in a world marred by violence. Oh, that we could really “forgive and forget.” This is the question Miroslav Volf seeks to answer in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in aWorld of Violence.
This blog series the postscript to Dr. Volf’s book in which he seeks to illustrate what he’s taught through imagined conversations with “Captian G.” – his chief interrogator during Miroslav’s eight years of political imprisonment for being a Christian and “Western sympathizer” in the former communist Yugoslavia.
I admire the honesty and vulnerability of this book. It remains true to the historic Christian positions on forgiveness and righteousness without making the living of those answers seem any “neater” than they really are in a broken world. I hope this series of excerpts will motivate many people to read this excellent book. I believe its content can be of great benefit for those who’ve face various forms of abuse and what to know how to honor God with those memories they cannot forget.
This seven part series will be posted in the following units:
- The Commission
- In a Pub
- Invisible Guest
- Once More in a Pub – This Post
- A Puzzlement
- After the Judgment
“You were right,” I said after we had exchanged the obligatory pleasantries. “I am a flawed human being. I shouldn’t have implied anything different. I wrong people all the time, mostly not out of malice but out of culpable laziness, which squelches my energy for doing good. I did not mean to paint you as a demon from an abyss and myself as an angel from on high.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “I should never have interrogated you years ago. I should not have inflicted psychological pain to extract information. Even if the system allowed it – indeed encouraged it – I had no right to do so. I regret that I wronged you.”
“I forgave you . . . and have also taken my forgiveness back as many times as I have given it to you – no testimony to my great virtue.”
“Earlier, when I mentioned that I had no place to stand outside the military system for which I worked, when I spoke of the need to feed my family, when I suggested that the evil had taken hold of me, I wasn’t trying to justify what I did. I merely wanted you to understand my actions in their context, to see my wrongdoing not simply as diabolical meanness but as the consequence of wrong seeing, as ‘culpable laziness,’ as you put it about yourself, as weakness, as misplaced belief in the rightness of my cause, and much more.”
“In that regard you and I are more similar than we are different.”
“You mentioned a sparkle of enjoyment in my eyes as I was pummeling you with threats. You were right. That’s what I am most ashamed of. I shudder now when I hear a war criminal say, ‘It’s nice to kill people,’ as I read that someone from our region said recently. Yet I cannot deny that I felt a rush of joy at humiliating others and causing them pain. I am doubly ashamed that you noticed that perverse joy. I myself don’t know what happened. The best explanation I can give is to repeat what I said earlier, namely, that evil got the better of me. Deep down I knew that what I was doing wasn’t right, even while I felt satisfaction in wrongdoing along with the benefits I was drawing from the system kept me going. Please forgive me.”
“I do forgive you; but more importantly, God forgives you. You should ask for God’s forgiveness, too; or rather, you should receive the forgiveness that God gave you.”
“I don’t care about God’s forgiveness; I do care about yours. Remember, I don’t believe in God.”
“But you see,” I interjected, “I believe that on my own I have no power and no right to forgive you. You haven’t broken some arbitrary rule I have made. By wronging me, you’ve transgressed the moral law God established to help us, God’s beloved creatures, to flourish; so you have wronged God. Ultimately, only God has the power and the right to forgive, and only God’s forgiveness can wash you clean of your wrongdoing. When I forgive you, I mostly just echo God’s forgiving of your sin.”
“You won’t be surprised to hear me say that I don’t think in those terms – I’m no theologian, as you know. But all’s well that ends well. So far as I’m concerned, the important thing is that you have forgiven me and taken away that burden of my past.”
“You may feel that I have taken away your burden, but actually, whether you believe it or not, God is the one who has shouldered the burden of your past. That is why I am both obligated and able to forgive you.”
“I repeat: To me, that you have done so is all that matters.”
“I understand. But you also should understand that what I have done is possibly only because of God. I don’t mean that God just made my forgiveness happen, like some magic trick. To be frank, I am sometimes angry at God for forgiving you. At those times I ask, What right does the Almighty have to forgive someone for an offense against me? And why should I have to remember the offense against me as an offense forgiven by God? What’s even more unsettling, since my faith teaches that in Christ God has reconciled my offender and me to each other, I have to think of us as already in some sense reconciled. That seems preposterous! But then I remind myself that when you wronged me you sinned most egregiously not against me but against God, and God forgave you of that sin just as God forgave me of my sin. Then remembering your wrongdoing as forgiven by God helps me to forgive it myself. And then remembering our reconciliation by God in Christ helps me to reconcile with you face-to-face.”
“It sounds like the Christian faith works for you. And we did make some progress this time,” he observed.
Captain G. and I parted amicably, but I knew I’d have questions in his absence – questions about how genuine and above all how deep this reconciliation was. But for the time being I was pleased with what happened. So went the best-case scenario I played out in my head.