miroslav_volfWhat 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:

In my first attempt, I imagined Captain G. and myself before something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) not unlike the one in South Africa, the best of them all. After the dismantling of apartheid, the TRC was set up to deal with politically motivated “gross violations of human rights.” My case fell just below such violations, which in South African TRC parlance denoted murder, attempted murder, abduction, torture, and sever ill treatment. The South African TRC had to disregard less serious cases simply because time and resources were limited. In contrast, my imagination had no such limitations. I appointed Desmond Tutu, the wise and witty Archbishop and recipient of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, to preside over my own mental proceedings as he presided the South African TRC.

Archbishop: And now, Captain G., to the case of Mr. Volf. . . .

Captain G.: My goal in his case was consistent with my professional duty. My job was to prevent the lure of Western democratic ideas and the force of ethnic loyalties from pulling the state apart.

Religion was always suspect, and the Western powers were never to be trusted. Mr. Volf was a theologian and a son of a minister, and he was married to an American theologian who was a daughter of a theologian. I needed to find out where his loyalties lay and what his aims were. I put him under pressure – not too much. Just enough to make him talk.

Archbishop: You had no warrant for the interrogations.

Captain G.: He was in the military – I didn’t need one! Besides, we were having “conversations.” No real torture was involved, just significant psychological discomfort.

Archbishop: This Commission is set up to elicit full disclosure, not remorse. But you describe the case in such a matter-of-fact way. You appear to believe what you did was right.

Captain G.: It’s too bad that Mr. Volf had to suffer. He was innocent. Had I known so in advance, I would not have interrogated him. But the security business involves guess-work and sometimes necessitates the use of rough tools. Ask any security officer in the U.S.A., that “model” of Western democracy, and he’ll tell you the same.

As I listened to the imagined exchange, I became more and more frustrated. On the positive side, Captain G. didn’t deny his actions toward me, even though he stopped short of calling them mistreatment. That was something, for when wrongdoers deny their wrong acts they violate victims all over again. As it turns out, most wrongdoers do precisely that – at least until their backs come up against the wall of hard facts. Even then, some continue with denials. As a case in point, take Radoslav Krstic, an army general of the Republika Srpska. He was involved in the deportation of 30,000 women and children and the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men in Srebenica in July of 1995. During his trial at The Hague, he denied that he issued the command to kill. When the tape of his own voice issuing exactly such a command to an army major was played back to him in the courtroom (“Liquidate them all!”) he insisted that the tape was a fake. He had done nothing wrong. True, General Krstic had much to lose if he admitted to his crimes, for he was on trial, whereas Captain G., whom I had placed before the TRC, stood only to gain for amnesty. Still, self-interested as it was, Captain G.’s acknowledgement of what he did was significant to me.

Yet paradoxically, that acknowledgement made me feel rather worse than no acknowledgement at all. Captain G. admitted enough to gain amnesty but not enough to appear in any significant way as a wrongdoer, or, more importantly for me, to show that he cared for how it felt to be mistreated. As he presented the case, mistreatment was just one in the series of unfortunate mistakes that a person in his position was bound to make. Neither did I gain much from the public nature of his acknowledgement. Some offenses positively demand public acknowledgement, and some victims crave it; but I didn’t need it, especially not when it came with what amounted to a self-justification. He did his job, and that job inherently involved sometimes aiming at the wrong target. The way he saw it, he did the right thing – just to the wrong person.

Partial and therefore false truth and acknowledgement mixed with self-justification – that may be enough for official amnesty and national unity. But the cocktail is poisonous when It comes to forgiveness and social reconciliation. I came to the imagined hearings having extended forgiveness. That’s what the faith I embrace demands of me – to take the initiative to forgive even before the wrongdoer has repented. During the hearings, Captain G. not only failed to embrace my gift of forgiveness – he mostly hurled it back into my face. “Your gift is an insult, for I did not do the wrong that you, by forgiving me, claim that I did,” he implied. So reconciliation became impossible.

Reconciliation requires more than truth, more even than full disclosure. It also requires moral judgment, and along with moral judgment the wrongdoer’s acceptance of moral responsibility – as well as the victim’s willingness to release the wrongdoer from a genuine moral debt. In my imaginary TRC, Captain G. was willing to tell just enough truth and accept just enough responsibility to gain amnesty. The same was true of many wrongdoers in the TRC over which Archbishop Tutu presided in the flesh. For such wrongdoers, the TRC was all about getting out of the legal consequences of their misdeeds, not about their own transformation or reconciliation with victims. If I was going to make progress on the path of reconciliation with Captain G., I would have to imagine an alternative scene, one that would allow both of us to unearth more of what happened and examine the moral dimensions of our actions and motivations.