I’ve recently been reading Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory and his work has really begun to affect my theological narrative. The book is Volf’s reflection on the time he spent imprisoned and interrogated in Yugoslavia during the mid 1980’s; using recent psychology and studies of memory, Volf raises questions concerning the way in which our memories of wrongdoing might be used to facilitate reconciliation and love of enemies.
A large part of his thesis deals with the degree to which we often define ourselves and others by memories of pain or transgression—“I am an adulterer, she is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, he is an orphan”—but in failing to integrate those memories into a larger story of who that person is we allow those instances of wrongdoing to dominate our interpretation of that person’s identity. We begin to interpret everything about them through the reductive picture we have painted based on our limited assessment of their past. And we do this to ourselves as well.
We fear that if we confront the past we might have to loosen our grip on our claims that those memories are remembered truthfully, perhaps we have skewed them or exaggerated them. If we forgive, then we can no longer revisit those memories to justify our insecurity or our remaining unreconciled to that person. So we allow our memories both of ourselves and of others to become definitive. We allow the great evil in our lives the dominant voice in shaping our perception of reality, our identity, and in doing so we inhibit the redemptive power of the gospel.
So what does Volf advise we do? “We remember wrongs suffered,” he says, “as people with identities defined by God, not by wrongdoers’ evil deeds and their echo in our memory… [These memories] have been dislodged from the placed they have usurped at the center of the self and pushed to the periphery. They may live in us, but they no longer occupy us; they may cause pain, but they no longer exhaustively define. We are more than what we have suffered, and that is the reason we do something with our memory of it—integrate it into our life-story. And because we are more than what we have suffered, we may be able to embark, maybe at first haltingly, upon a journey of reconciliation with those who have wounded us.”
But will we as Christians ever be able to find our identities in God rather than our suffering as long as we refuse to do the same for our Lord? I can think of no one who has been more reduced to memories of wrongs suffered than Jesus, the Christ. And in some senses our “cruco-centric” remembering is appropriate: The cross is the moment when we at last understand why our previous interpretations of the Christ were so empty, “he wasn’t the messiah we wanted but he is the one we needed” and so on. The cross, in many senses, cannot be surpassed in its significance in helping us understand the identity of God. And yet, isn’t it time we revisited how well we have integrated the cross into the full story? It is time that we recaptured the tension of the passion: that after suffering great humiliation and wrongdoing at our hands, God, in raising Jesus out of death, refused to be defined by the wrongs suffered; rather, the cross became a pivotal part of the much larger story, and in doing so enabled the reconciliation God was after all along.
So let’s reremember a Jesus who lived a life which could not be reduced to his execution—a Christ who refused to be defined as a victim but who overcame death and forgave his enemies, and who empowers us to do the same. Let’s reremember ourselves not as worthless sinners who, “except for the blood,” would be cut off from God, but rather as those who have been forgiven and are in right standing, people co-laboring towards the reconciliation of all things. Let’s reremember that the gospel cannot be reduced to a story about suffering and death, but that those events are only a part of the much larger story of God.