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:
Our next meeting, my second imaginary attempt at reconciliation, took place in a far corner of dimly lit and largely empty pub. There, I thought, we could talk as human beings free from the trappings and limitations of a commission. In that more personal setting, I almost didn’t recognize him. But even aged by twenty-five years, his dark, piercing eyes were unmistakable, though somewhat mellowed.
“Hallo, Miroslav.” He greeted me with what seemed like a faint smile. “Hallo, Captain G.,” I said coldly and emphatically, irritated by the familiar greeting. I could not quite tell whether his tone was a sincere expression of a hoped-for reconciliation or an ironic reminder of the mocking familiarity he feigned by using my first name during interrogations. Then I added, “I would prefer that you address me more formally. Abuse is not a form of intimacy.”
“Yes, I know. The winter of 1984 was not pleasant for you. I bore upon you rather heavily. It was not out of personal malice, you know.”
“It was evil,” I corrected, thus suggesting what it was that I wanted to hear from him.
The exchange was not a promising start to our reconciliation. I had called for this meeting, and I had handed him the gift of forgiveness – and have vowed to forgive him again if I ever take away with the left hand the forgiveness I’ve given to him with the right. Yet sitting there opposite him, I was angry.
“Let me tell you a bit of my story,” he continued.
“Please, spare me your story!” I thought to myself, disgruntled at his taking charge once again and making the meeting revolve around himself.
“I was just a kid when I threw in my lot with the Yugoslavian military. I was fifteen, driven from home by poverty and abuse and attracted to the military by vague ideals of the socialist revolution and, I admit, easy living. It was an achievement when I graduated from the military academy and became a security officer. My job was to expose the enemies of the people. And you did seem like a good candidate – religious, westernized, married to an American, a critical student of Marx, and, not to forget, pacifist. I had to find out whether you were endangering the state. That was my job.”
“It’s a bad job if you must violate people to do it well,” I insisted.
“But that’s the job I had. It wasn’t that I just had to feed my family and couldn’t afford to lose my job. I was part of a system, with rewards and punishments and justifications of its actions. I had no place to stand outside.”
“And that’s supposed to excuse you! You think that circumstances relieve you from the responsibility to act like a human being?”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” he said.
“So if you’d been in Eichmann’s shoes you’d have done Eichmann’s deeds? Right! First, you could have found a proper place to stand outside the system. Second, what happened to your conscience? Didn’t it tell you that you shouldn’t mistreat fellow human beings? Third, being part of the system doesn’t explain that spark of delight in your eyes as you were watching me, humiliated and trembling in fear.”
“I know, I know,” he added with a touch of meekness in his voice. “The evil got the better of me.”
“Well, it shouldn’t have,” I said, anger having now overwhelmed my better judgment. “You should have resisted. That’s part of what it means to be a human being – to resist being made an instrument of evil and to strive to do what is right.”
“Don’t act like such a saint yourself,” he suddenly interjected. Having lost his patience and any semblance of meekness, he once again morphed into the Captain G. of my accursed memory. “I know things about that others don’t.”
“That’s just empty posturing. And if you do know such things, you should be ashamed of yourself for violating my privacy! You dare to question my saintliness – you of all people! And even if I’m not a saint, what’s that got to do with your mistreatment of me? Because I’m not a saint, it’s okay for you to be a devil? You should come to me crawling on your knees begging for forgiveness, and all you do is tell me about your ‘circumstances,’ the power of evil – all good reasons why you, a poor victim, have wronged me. I should feel sorry for you!?”
“It could have been worse for you, you know, had I not. . . . Oh, what’s the use? It was a waste of time to come here.”
“It certainly was, if you expected me to tell you what a fine fellow you really are, one who just happened to have been a victim of the system. Your mother might excuse your actions on the basis of circumstance, or perhaps some of your befuddled and stodgy Stalinist friends would. But you were responsible. This talk of ‘circumstances’ is just a lame excuse.” I was fuming. I got up, left some cash on the table to pay for the drink, and walked away. The more I dwelled on the memory of what he did to me in 1984 and on how he viewed his own misdeeds in my imagination, the angrier I became.
It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that I was partly responsible for running the reconciliatory process into the ground. Perhaps he had chosen the wrong way to open up the conversation, but after his greeting, I didn’t give him a chance, even though he was trying. I was aware that I was working against my own goals, yet the conversational slope I was trying to climb was too slippery. My attempts to scale it just made me slide down faster and faster. I zeroed in on the heart of the problem; he tried to make me see the larger context. My need to apportion blame collided with his need to explain his behavior. I feared, maybe rightly, that his explanations were justifications; he feared, maybe rightly, that my accusations were vilifications. So the process derailed despite my commitment to reconcile.
We two could not reconcile on our own, I decided. We needed a mediating party – someone who could understand both of us and interpret us to each other, someone who could keep us honest, who could see through our evasions and manipulations, who could deal with our worst fears and enflame our best hopes. A good therapist could serve some of those needs – one who knew the intricacies of the human psyche and was skilled at helping us transcend ourselves and our past, maybe insert our personal histories into a larger frame of meaning. But this therapist would have to be interested in our reconciliation, not just in our individual healing – indeed, a therapist committed to the belief that Captain G. and I would be fully healed as individuals only when we were reconciled to each other.
But therapy by itself fell short of what was necessary for our reconciliation. I, at least, needed someone to keep reminding me of the new identity and new possibilities provided by God to set me free from the debilitating power of the past. As much as a therapist, I needed a spiritual director to challenge me – sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully – that Christians have no option when it comes to reconciling, since failing to reconcile with fellow human beings, for whom Christ died to reconcile them to God and to each other, is to reject God’s work on our behalf.
But what kind of therapist/spiritual director could possibly know enough – and know the truth – about what actually transpired between Captain G. and me, and about the context of these events in each of our lives, to help bring about complete reconciliation? We participants in the events could share with this third party only shards from the past, partial truths partly decontextualized and spun from our own perspectives due to our human limitations and narrow interests – surely insufficient data for even a highly skilled therapist-director to work with. To whom could I turn to keep the process of reconciliation with Captain G. on the right track and take it to its destination? I could think of none less than God.