A couple days ago I started Miroslav Volf’s excellent “The End of Memory.” In it, he examines the philosophical, theological, psychological, and sociological elements of memory, and in particular, “remembering rightly.” In this, he is primarily concerned with “remembering rightly” when you are the recipient of a wrongdoing. Can we remember in a way where both justice and reconciliation are possible? Can we remember in a way where the oppressed do not turn around and become the oppressor? Can we remember truthfully in order to pursue reconciliation?
I’m only three chapters in, so I cannot give a full exposition, but one quote in particular is worth pondering. After attending school in the United States and marrying an American woman, Volf returned to his home of Yugoslavia for his mandatory military service. His education, new wife, and pacifistic views proved an incredible obstacle to the strict socialist state under the reign of Tito.
During the year 1984, he went through endless interrogations at the hands of a Captain G. These Kafkaesque (think The Trial) interrogations were essentially sessions of psychological and emotional abuse that caused Volf a great deal of pain. However, he tries to remember the situation as truthfully as possible. It’d be way too easy to make Captain G more of a villain than he was. Volf could add physical abuse to the story, or even intensify the emotional damage done. He could also de-contextualize Captain G. By this, I mean remove him from his surroundings.
Captain G was a military leader, but still a cog in the system, of a strict military under an oppressive socialist state and leader. While what Captain G did was wrong, he was also following orders. If Captain G was interrogating and abusing Miroslav Volf on his own for fun, with no pressures coming from the state or society, he is considerably more culpable than a Captain merely following orders. While the results are the ultimately the same, the true picture of Captain G is important. If Volf incorrectly remembers (or more accurately imagines) Captain G as a sadistic abuser acting as an independent agent, he his placing more blame than necessary on his oppressor. When this occurs, there is a chance that the roles of oppressed and oppressor will reverse.
In thinking through all this, Volf makes a penetrating statement, “In memory, a wrongdoing often does not remain an isolated stain on the character of the one who committed it; it spreads over and colors his entire character. Must I not try to contain that spreading with regard to Captain G’s wrongdoing?”
While many of us cannot directly relate to Volf’s experience, or to that of a holocaust survivor facing the same questions with regarding, “how do I remember and deal with my past victimization?” We can easily apply the above quote to our lives. It is very easy to look at someone who hurt us and define them by the deed. If someone lies to me in a way that cuts deeply, I will most likely forget the positive qualities he or she has. This individual ceases, and becomes a liar. It is an easy thing to do. It’s harder to view a person who hurts us, and remember them in context of all the virtues they possess. Demonizing and casting more blame on an individual than he or she deserves perpetuates the wrongdoing.
“To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned…. in my own situation, I could do nothing about the first victory of evil, but I could prevent the second.” Volf (p.9)