Miroslav Volf on Forgiveness & Reconciliation

Some quotes from Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 224-28.

This book is Volf’s personal wrestling with the requirements of forgiveness and reconciliation that come in being Christian. He shares his experience with interrogation in communist Yugoslavia of the early 1980s and processes through what reconciliation is possible here and now, and what reconciliation we can place our hope on in the new world. At the end of the book, he recounts multiple imagined reconciliation attempts with his interrogator, Captain G. These imagined encounters enable him to move towards forgiveness without ever having the opportunity to confront Captain G. again in this life, though he tried to find him. As all of us have been wronged know, we play and replay conversations with the wrongdoer in our minds. Sometimes we are given the opportunity to have that conversation, sometimes we have to settle for the imagination until all things are set right in the new heavens and the new earth. Volf’s failed attempts hit close to home on how those initial imagined encounters go—we say the vengeful thing, we can’t see ourselves as sinners but vilify the offender, we want to make the other person feel our pain. But after laying out some of these scenarios, Volf gets to the point where he’s able to imagine truly offering forgiveness to Captain G. in the presence of God. He ends that conversation this way:

“But you also should understand that what I have done [in forgiving you] is possible only because of God. I don’t mean that God just made my forgiveness happen, like some magical trick. To be frank, I am sometimes angry at God for forgiving you. At those times I ask, What right does the Almighty have to forgive someone for an offense against me? And why should I have to remember the offense against me as an offense forgiven by God? What’s even more unsettling, since my faith teaches that in Christ God has reconciled my offender and me to each other, I have to think of us as already in some sense reconciled. That seems preposterous! But then I remind myself that when you wronged me you sinned most egregiously not against me but against God, and God forgave you of that sin just as God forgave me of my sin. Then remembering your wrongdoing as forgiven by God helps me to forgive it myself. And then remembering our reconciliation by God in Christ helps me to reconcile with you face-to-face.”

After this imagined encounter, Volf shares with a friend about his imagined experiences with Captain G. We don’t all get here quickly, but this is reconciliation motivated by Gospel.

He writes:

I told a friend about the encounters I’d imagined between Captain G. and me and about my labor of reconciliation. She was puzzled.

“Your brand of reconciliation seems cheap to me,” she said.

“Why cheap?” I asked, just to hear her say what I knew was on her mind.

“You’re letting him off the hook! He and the likes of him should have charges pressed against them. Your Captain G. should be punished: You harm others, you pay. It’s that simple. Otherwise you’ll have evildoers growing like weeds.”

“Punishment is too petty, and it doesn’t help that much. I want more. I want Captain G. dead.”

“What?! Where did that come from? You seem to me to want the ultimate punishment for him, not no punishment. I fail to see where reconciliation fits in to that picture! Which is it: death or unconditional forgiveness? Isn’t there some middle ground between the two extremes?”

“No, there isn’t—at least not good middle ground. Those extremes may sound incompatible, but they aren’t. This ‘death’ that I’m talking about is the word the Apostle Paul uses when he speaks of human transformation. He describes it as dying and rising with Christ. I want Captain G. to become a new person—dead to his old self and alive to his new self. I believe that Christ took all of our deserved punishment upon himself when he died on the cross. The only ‘punishment’ left for Captain G. to undergo is this ‘death’ to his old self.”

“And what if he doesn’t want to die?”

“Then we’ll want to make sure that he doesn’t pose a danger to others. What I am against is retribution. It’s incompatible with forgiveness and reconciliation. I am for transformation and, when necessary, containment and discipline, including incarceration. Do you think that’s cheap?”

“He hasn’t paid for what he’s done! Isn’t that cheap?”

“On the contrary—as expensive as it gets. In Christ, God was judged in his place!”

“God certainly comes in handy for you—does all the important work.”

“Would you have me believe that the Source of all that exists and the merciful Guide for all who walk the path of life just sits in a far corner of heaven twiddling the almighty thumbs? Either God exists and is then at the center of everything and affects it all, or God doesn’t exist. It is foolish to believe in a God who does nothing. An idle God is a false god.”

“There are worse ways for God to be false.”

“I agree. But I wouldn’t count on shouldering the sin of the world among the ways of being a false god—and certainly not a cheap form of reconciliation!”

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