The impossible gift of forgetting wrongs done to you


Sorry for the brief hiatus from The End of Memory. Starting a new semester plus am looking at two books that I may review in some detail right after (Jimmy Carter’s new book on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and Ed Gilbreath’s book on being a black man in white evangelical organizations–both have to do with dealing with longstanding conflict and hurts).

Volf in Chapter 7 begins a new section entitled, How Long Should we Remember?Reading Volf is made easier because he frequently starts chapters by summarizing the territory he just covered. So, I’ll remind you, he says in Part one: Remember, yes; but how?How do we do it for good of all (healing, justice, [the possibility of] reconciliation) and not for ill (self-destruction, vengeance, etc)? Now in this part of the book he wants to explore “Remember, yes; but for how long?” In a follow-up post I’ll tackle his views on forgetting vs. not coming to mind. He makes an important distinction between the two (the first is not possible, the second may be), but that for the next post.

Volf begins to explore the “never forget” mentality. We can understand why we’ve said “never forget” in the face of atrocities so as to try to keep them from happening again. But if heaven is a place where one will have no memory of offenses suffered or committed, isn’t the call to forgive to also try to forget? Aren’t we called to forgive like God who remembers Israel’s sins “no more” (Jer. 31:34) Volf reviews some of the christian tradition on the topic–Gregory, Augustine, Calvin, Rahner, and Barth. Rahner and Barth speak of our salvation enabled ability to forget our own offenses before God. If we could not forget our offenses, “we should be in a terrible plight. We should never be able to bear the sight of our whole being in time.” (Barth; p. 134).   

This forgive and forget topic is quite important for Christians. Some months ago I commented on the nearby shooting of the Amish schoolchildren by a deranged individual. I felt the quick forgiveness may have been offered prematurely and so hampered what individuals would do with the memories and the hurt they carried. Volf uses imagery from Dante’s Divine Comedy to explore how forgetting (either one’s own or others’ sins) only happens after clear acknowledgment, repentance, and and transformation. Dante’s character must face his “sins’ reality unadorned before being given the baptism into God’s memory of the good. Is this what the last judgment day will be like?

What’s Volf’s dream? This gift from God: “So precisely by seeing the God of infinite goodness, who makes one forget everything except God, one remembers–gets back, in a sense–all earthly goodness and forgets all sin.” (p. 142)

Some caveats from Volf:
1. Wrongdoers do not deserve the gift of non-remembrance of sins
2. We do not give the gift of non-remembrance because we must. We give it to imitate God.
3. Though it is a gift, it presupposes that forgiveness is given by the victim and that repentance and transformation is sought by the offender.
4. This gift can only be given irrevocably in heaven. Now, we give it, if even possible, only partially and with much pain.

Notice that if #3 happens, then the picture changes. Unfortunately, most abused individuals do not receive the gift of the offender taking ownership of wrongs done and providing a true picture of repentance. What do they do then? That is the significant question that I hope he addresses more carefully.

Volf does two things with this picture that I think are very important. First, he admits he has yet to give this gift to his abuser, wonders if it is impossible to give in this lifetime. Second, he prays that he might give it.

Oh merciful God, forgive my unwillingness even as I say I want to align myself with you! Repair this cracked and untuned instrument that I am and make it resound with your love! (p. 142)

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Filed under Abuse, book reviews, christian psychology, Forgiveness, memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Repentance, suffering

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