Miroslav Volf is an interesting theologian at Yale Divinity School who was born in Croatia, the son of a pacifist minister in the Pentecostal tradition and the sole openly professing Christian in his high school of 3,500 students in the former Yugoslavia. The death of communism, however, gave birth not only to more public followers of Christ but also to warfare, eventually, between those Christians. Here’s what Volf said in a 1999 interview in Christianity Today:
I was very disturbed how a whole set of commitments were thrown out of the window by some of my Christian friends on both sides when the war came. The commandment to love the enemy, which we practiced more or less in relation to the Communists, did not apply when the enemy was our Serbian or Croatian neighbor. . . . I would ask my students, ‘Who is closer to you, your Croatian neighbor who’s not a Christian, or your Serbian brother or sister in Christ?’ It was not at all clear how the answer would go. Pretty soon it became obvious that’s not a Croatian question. It’s the dilemma of the church and the world.
So when he writes about religious violence or forgiveness, Volf brings instant credibility and isn’t merely reflecting on these ideas in the abstract. In his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, he connects a prayer of Elie Wiesel on behalf of the survivors of the Holocaust:
Oh, they do not forgive the killers and their accomplices, nor should they. Nor should you, Master of the Universe. . . . As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in their memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.
. . . with the words of Psalm 109:15, where the psalmist asks God to remember forever the sins of wicked and deceitful people:
Let them be before the Lord continually . . .
Volf agrees that it’s impossible to reconcile the memory of evil and the experience of joy. He also believes, however, that Christ’s forgiveness will ultimately be the last word and that Christ’s forgiveness embraces non-remembrance. So, while it’s important to remember wrongs suffered and not to remember them wrongly, thereby transforming memory from a shield into a sword, it’s even more important to realize that wrongs suffered won’t be remembered for eternity:
Evildoers triumph when they and their deeds are remembered even when they themselves have been defeated – the reason the same psalmist who implores God not to forgive the wicked prays that the memory of them may be blotted out from the earth . . .
If we remembered the wrongs suffered in the world to come, we would not only defer to the wishes of evildoers, we would also pay too much respect to evil itself. What incredible power evil would have if once you had wronged someone, you, the person you had wronged, and God would remain permanently marked by it!
Although Christianity and forgiveness are wonderfully intertwined, the latter is easier to receive for ourselves than to offer to others. This Sunday morning, the Rector’s Forum at St. Stephen’s Church will explore the struggle that so many of us obviously have with forgiveness, which is at the heart of the cross.