Religion and Violence
is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
August 4, 2005
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today we’ll probe the connection between religion and violence. My guest, Miroslav Volf, is a Croatian-born theologian. He has experienced bloodshed that justified itself in Christian terms, and he’s spent his life as a scholar and activist trying to understand that. We’ll speak this hour about the power of religion to fuel violence and to overcome it.
MIROSLAV VOLF: When things go wrong with religion, it’s religiosity reduced to a formula. It’s religiosity reduced to a simple symbolic gesture. So you believe in one God, that God is powerful, and that God is for you.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
I’m Krista Tippett. Religious extremism is driving some of the most intractable conflicts around the world. My guest today, Miroslav Volf, knows this shadow-side of the Chrisitan faith in his personal history. We’ll speak this hour about what goes wrong when religion turns violent. Volf belives that the cure is not less religion but more religion, or rather stronger and more intelligent practices of faith. From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas.
Today, a discussion of Religion and Violence with Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. Miroslav Volf grew up amidst ethnic tensions in Communist Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s after the breakup of Communism, competing religious histories and identities took center stage in a bloody civil war as they had in the Balkans for centuries. Croats historically are predominantly Catholic, Serbs Eastern Orthodox, and Bosnians Muslim. Miroslav Volf belonged to the Protestant minority. He watched in horror as nearly a quarter of a million people died in Bosnia and Croatia and two million were left exiled or displaced. Volf has spent his life as a scholar and activist trying to make sense of these experiences, asking what goes wrong when religion is used to justify violence and how that can be made right again. He gained wide attention with his 1996 book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. He is engaged in global, multi-faith initiatives. Within Christian circles, his ideas are heeded by conservative as well as liberal thinkers.
Here now is my conversation with Miroslav Volf as it unfolded before a live audience at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
MS. TIPPETT: Good evening. This gentleman to my left is Miroslav Volf. He has often been described to me as a Reinhold Niebuhr for our time. Now, he may have some theological objections to that…
DR. VOLF: Big — big — not — not so much theological objection, but big pair of shoes to step in.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. All right. But — well, what I mean by that is that a tradition in this country of public theology, of public theologians, which we have lost and many people feel that we would do well to recover in our time. So I’d like to begin tonight to ask you — if I asked you to reflect on our topic, this enormous subject of Christianity and violence through the story of your life, where you would begin.
DR. VOLF: Oh, I’d probably start with growing up as a kid of a Pentecostal minister in Communist Yugoslavia and reading those textbooks about the Second World War and all the atrocities that religious folks have committed, at least according to these books, and feeling that my dad is implicitly one of them, and I am the black sheep in this whole school who’s identified with this retrograde form of belief called Christian faith. But I think where it hit home and where it became a major challenge for me is during the war in former Yugoslavia when a third of my country, Croatia, was occupied by Serbian forces, and I had to ask myself, `Well, how do I respond to this?’ Once this occupation of my own country had taken place, I suddenly felt a surge of violence within me, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I ought to do as a Christian.
MS. TIPPETT: Your a Pentecostal tradition was pacifist also, right?
DR. VOLF: My Pentecostal tradition was pacifist, unlike many of the Pentecostals presently in this country, but like many Pentecostals in this country in the ’20s.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And you were also there as a teacher, is that right, in from ’91 to ’95 when the civil war was taking place?
DR. VOLF: I was there. I was traveling as a teacher. And when the war really started, I taught in exile in Slovenia. Our whole seminary moved from Osijek, which was surrounded by Serbian forces about five miles around the city, and we couldn’t stay there. Our city was shelled day in and day out. And then we moved to Slovenia in a small parsonage. And from there six to a single room and teaching I don’t know where in what corners of that small house, we were observing what was happening in our own country.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, speak to me out of your experience in Croatia. I know you’ve also studied conflict in other countries. What do you think goes wrong? Take that apart for me, when Christianity becomes fundamentally associated with violence.
DR. VOLF: Well, Croatia is a very good example, I think. And it’s an example of something larger than simply is the case in Croatia or Serbia, and that is my sense is that when things go wrong with religion is when one practices what I like to call “thin” religion, which I distinguish from “thick” religion. It’s religiosity reduced to a formula. It’s religiosity reduced to a single symbolic gesture. And once you reduce religion to that, for instance Christian faith, what happens is that you can then project everything that you want onto that. So you believe in one God who is one, who is all powerful and who is also for you, and then suddenly you’ve got this immense servant of yours to do all the dirty work that you need to be done and for yourself to feel good as that has happened. And I think that can…
MS. TIPPETT: But,I mean, that’s serious business, right?
DR. VOLF: It’s serious.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, you also somewhere quote a bishop in Rwanda who said it was his best, most faithful churchgoers who were there every Sunday who took up the machetes in their hands. “Thin” doesn’t sound quite as powerful as the results can be.
DR. VOLF: Well, I want to differentiate. I think you’re right. I want to differentiate, “thin” does not mean “not zealous.” Right? You can have a very zealous religiosity that is also…
MS. TIPPETT: Very passionate even.
DR. VOLF: …thinned out. Very passionate in terms of you identify with that. That’s what you stake your life on in many ways, which is at a same time not — let’s say something else instead of “thick” — it’s not textured. It doesn’t have depth. It doesn’t have relief. It doesn’t rely on the long history of that religion with all the varieties of reflections that have gone on in the religion, or even doesn’t rely on the full understanding of the sacred writings of the scripture.
MS. TIPPETT: Hm. Give me another example. Can you think of an example of…
DR. VOLF: During the war in former Yugoslavia you could occasionally see a Serbian fighter sitting in a tank and flashing three fingers like this. This is not a misshaped victory sign, this is exactly what was supposed to be flashed, three fingers. And those three fingers represented, believe it or not, the Holy Trinity. And these two fingers represented two natures of Christ. Flashing that sign meant, `We Serbians, we know how to cross ourselves,’ because that was the gesture of crossing one’s self, with three fingers symbolizing doctrine of the Trinity and two fingers symbolizing two natures of Christ. `But those barbarian Catholics — not to speak of Protestants who don’t even cross themselves, right? — but those barbarian Catholics, they cross themselves with their just undifferentiated hand,’ like that. Now, clearly he was making a religious statement, but what kind of religious statement was it? It was a religious statement as a marker of cultural identity, right? It was a religious statement as indicator of his belonging to a particular group that has a particular religious history. It was maybe also some indication that he wants to do something with that religion, maybe an indication that, as he’s riding on this tank, this religion symbolized with his three fingers and two is somehow behind him. But that is a very thin religiosity. And it’s only when the religiosity’s thin of that sort then you can manipulate it. Thin religion is manipulable virtually.
MS. TIPPETT: I think Muslim theologians I’ve spoken with also would say that the Islamic justification of 9/11 was a thin expression of Islam.
DR. VOLF: You know, that can very well be. My sense is also — sometimes people talk to me when I make this distinction between thin and thick — they say, `Well, but here’s the case in point of fundamentalists. Don’t they represent thick religion?’ My sense is that, in fact, that’s rather thin religion because it’s reduced to certain formulas and does not let the thick texture of religion, sacred book, resonate in the soul and therefore be able to respond in very differentiated ways to particular situations, but rather, `We know, we have our little formula. Our world is organized around that formula. On one side is white. On the other side is black, and this formula differentiates between the two.’ That seemed to me an example of thin religiosity.
MS. TIPPETT: Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today with a discussion on Religion and Violence that was recorded before an audience at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. My guest, Miroslav Volf, points out that however destructive religious passions can be, faith is not going away. “Whether we like it or not,” he says, “we will continue to live with a plurality of religions that play a robust role in shaping individual lives and communities.” I asked him to respond to an idea put forward by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that in the post-9/11 world, for the sake of peace, the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, must give up exclusive claims of truth.
DR. VOLF: Well, first I suppose we would have to talk about a principled issue, and that is: Is it true that we have to agree in order not to be violent with one another? I consider it a major insult to me as a human being that somebody would consider that I have to agree with somebody in order not to be mean to that person, or vice-versa. That strikes me as really not, well, not worthy of humanity, right, to postulate it. And the implication of that would be also a certainly dulling and reduction of complexity in human cultures. I’m all for celebrating plurality, right? Which means if you want to celebrate plurality, that means that boundaries are good, which means that boundary maintenance must be good. Which means that religions, it is a good thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Which translates into strong identities?
DR. VOLF: Which translate into identities, and we can talk about what kind of identities it would be, right? Because you can think of identity in a positional way, and you can think of identity in an inclusive, non-oppositional way but, nonetheless, be concerned for identity. Back to Thomas Friedman question, I would probably want to say, well, what these three religions need to do, they have to engage in what some people call scriptural reasoning. Sit together — they have a common scripture that they share — they have to sit together and read those — each their own scriptures together, all right? And so in reading those scriptures together, they can come to understand each other better, they can come to appreciate one another better, challenge one another in various ways, and it may be that the result will be certain convergence of opinions. It may be that it will not. But it certainly will be the case that they will understand each other better and, hopefully, as those who understand each other better, also be able to live in peace with one another even if they — even if we — let me put it in first-person plural — even if we disagree with one another.
MS. TIPPETT: And they would also be sitting together as people of faith if what they took were their scriptures…
DR. VOLF: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: …as what they would engage together. I think that cuts against the grain of the way we sometimes do pluralism, religious pluralism, by trying to find what we have in common. Say, trying to have — well, having a worship service. Not that this is bad, but what you’re proposing is that difference would be brought to the table and depth would be brought to the table.
DR. VOLF: And some of my best experiences in interfaith dialogues — by the way, also interecumenical dialogues between different denominations — were of that sort where we did not bracket our difference and then talk about something that we postulated that we have together in common, but rather where we sat together with our differences, discussed those, respected each other as we do that. I’m involved now in a Muslim/Christian dialogue. One of the sessions is going to happen here in DC that Archbishop Rowan Williams is organizing, Muslim/Christian dialogue. Basically, it’s a dialogue around scriptural texts. It’s a scriptural reasoning dialogue. I think that’s much more profitable. And the reason for it is because it’s concrete. It’s something that — we respect our scriptures. Scriptures shaped our lives, right? And therefore I think it’s more fruitful.
MS. TIPPETT: Now something else counter-intuitive that you suggest is that — now, let’s say if I try to think of thick Christian practices, I would think of the pursuit of justice as something that reasonable Christians could agree on as a central pursuit. And you say that if the pursuit of justice and freedom is at the center of a Christian’s understanding of moral responsibility, that is going to skew things as well.
DR. VOLF: Well, depending how one understands justice, I suppose.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And that’s right.
DR. VOLF: If simply at the heart of Christians’ pursuit is justice of justly recompensing the other for what they have done to you, right?
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Then I’d say that’s thin, right?
DR. VOLF: That’s thin.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. Well, talk about this real, central, theological, scriptural notion of justice as a Christian pursuit. How can that be problematic at the center of a moral Christian life? How can that lead to violence?
DR. VOLF: Well, I mean, if you have — I suppose if you have simply one-sided pursuit of justice. And if you have a one-sided pursuit of justice when two people find themselves in conflict, each one of them persuaded that they are right and the other person is wrong, you can anticipate what is going to happen in that situation. That’s exactly how I was led away from emphasizing or organizing the whole of engagement with social realities around the question of justice when I was looking at situation in former Yugoslavia. Here my Serbian friends, they feel that injustice was committed against them, the war that they’re waging is the war of “Just War” to return something that was taken from them or to prevent something that could possibly happen to them. My Croatian compatriates would have said exactly the same thing. Justice was plotting against justice, and there was no way to get out of this stalemate. I think that the very interesting dimension of the Christian tradition that lies at the very heart of Christian faith lies in the fact that God has died for us while we were still enemies. So there’s now movement opened up, right? It’s not that you have a situation where, `Well, OK. Shape up and get your act together and then we’ll talk. We’ll pursue justice here. When we pursue justice, we’ll go figure out how we’re going to relate to one another.’ Another important dimension of why justice is not sufficient — Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher and political philosopher, has emphasized in some of her books the need for forgiveness, for forgiveness in politics. And here’s what she says why forgiveness is important. Simply put, time does not run backwards. You cannot undo the done deed. And therefore no amount of pursuit of justice is going to attend to what has happened in fact. Right? And therefore, in order to have a hopeful kind of politics, you have to have something like the experience of forgiveness, which is not setting justice aside but which is saying, `I’m setting aside at least some of my just claims against the other, and I’m looking toward the future without necessarily wanting to satisfy the demands of justice with respect to infringement from the past.’
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And there we’re getting at what Reinhold Niebuhr, to whom I compared you, might call one of those impossible ethical…
DR. VOLF: And I’m pleased with the comparison, but you’re too generous. You’re kindly unjust to me. (Audience laughs)
MS. TIPPETT: No, he described the Sermon on the Mount as the impossible ethical ideal.
DR. VOLF: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think this beautiful idea that you just presented of nations forgiving because the past can’t be undone is an impossible ethical ideal in that sense as well. But you’re a theologian, so I suspect you have a way around that. I mean — I mean…(audience laughs). Let’s hear it.
DR. VOLF: It can be presented as an impossible ideal. Hannah Arendt talked about forgiveness in politics also, and talked about Jesus as being the inventor of forgiveness in the realm of politics. I think it can happen at the political realm. I think we do have to differentiate between personal relationships, relationships between collectivities, even political relationships, international relationships. At all those different levels you have to make certain adjustments, and you cannot simply transpose the experience and the theory of forgiveness from a personal realm to a larger political realm. It doesn’t work. But there are analogs to forgiveness in politics. There are apologies that take place in politics. There’s also forgiveness that takes place at a different level in politics. But we need to make some adjustments. It’s clear. For instance, if you take Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, it was…
MS. TIPPETT: A new model.
DR. VOLF: It was a wonderful process, right? But it was also a strained process because there were expectations, there were pressures, there were needs of the political situation, how the pace of reconciliation ought to go. But then there are individual lives of people, ruined lives, they’re telling their stories. The political process wants to go on, but the individual cannot go on, right? So you have two processes that are somewhat out of sync. And you can see there how you have to adjust things. You cannot simply transpose one onto another. But if you make those kinds of adjustments, I think it’s quite possible to have equivalents.
MS. TIPPETT: Yale University theologian Miroslav Volf. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more of our conversation recorded live at the National Cathedral co-sponsored by Washington, DC, public radio WETA FM. Go to our website at speakingoffaith.org where you’ll find an annotated guide to today’s program. The particulars section presents images and details about all the references, ideas and music you’ve just heard. You’ll also find web exclusive audio of Miroslav Volf answering questions from the audience, as well as links to his articles and books. And while you’re there, learn how to purchase MP3 downloads of each week’s program and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each program as well as previews and exclusive extras. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, an interview with theologian Miroslav Volf recorded before an audience at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Personal experiences in his native Croatia have shaped Volf’s scholarship on the role of religion in fueling violence and in overcoming it. He sees the will to embrace one’s enemy as an overarching theme of the New Testament. This contains practical instruction, he says, for the behavior of individuals and of nations. He brought this idea to wide attention with the publication of his 1996 book Exclusion and Embrace.
MS. TIPPETT: In your work Exclusion and Embrace, I think in some ways you recast a vocabulary as a way of recasting what must be done.
DR. VOLF: Theologians do that all the time.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. But I think it’s helpful. I mean, you talk about violence being done to others also as a form of exclusion, or a possible consequence of exclusion, and you propose embrace as a model which I think would incorporate this act of forgiveness that you’re describing. Part of the way you do that, which is so interesting, is by pointing out that, in fact, we are always in relationship even with our worst enemies.
DR. VOLF: Well, let me tell you a bit about how I think of relationships, especially in the context of enmity, how I think about identity in the context of enmity because what one witnessed in the former Yugoslavia is certainly, if you want, purification of identity. Serbian identity, Croatian identity had to be pure. All extraneous elements had to be pushed out. The soil had to be pure, blood had to pure, language had to be pure. You can see different groups associate with these phrases. And this logical purity that wants to drive out of self-perception of that particular group. And yet it is very clear from the start, and sometimes I’m teasing my fellow Croatians, and I said, `Well, you can rant about it, you can be furious about it, but it is the fact that you would not be a Croatian if you did not have Serbian neighbors. It’s only the fact that you’ve had Serbian neighbors for I don’t know how many centuries that you can be defined as Croatian, as who you are. So you can push that out as much as you want, it still remains part and parcel of your identity.’ And therefore then when you start talking about embrace, it is really in a sense recognition that we have been from the start shaped by another, especially a person with whom we are in conflict. And so you have a much more complex identity. Then possibly you may come to the point where you would open yourself for the other, and you would say, `Well, the fact that the other is part and parcel of who I am, that’s good. That’s who I am,’ right? And so I can invite the other to be present while at the same time still maintaining the boundary.
MS. TIPPETT: This is a hard thing that you’re talking about. I mean, you know, you give an example also in some of your writing about a colleague of yours who’s Cuban speaking with an elderly woman…
DR. VOLF: Oh, that’s wonderful. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: …in his mother’s Cuban neighborhood and she says, `Tell me, Father, will Castro be in heaven?’ And he says, `Yes, possibly.’ And she says, `Well, I don’t want to go there.’ And you say we all have our Castros.
DR. VOLF: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And sometimes it’s not that distant. I mean, it could be our next door neighbor.
DR. VOLF: Of course. Of course. Well, we ought to think most, statistically, most violence that happens in the world does not happen in battlefields between nations. It happens in living rooms, right? Between people who share often the same faith, the same, generally, the same outlook on life. And it happens for exactly the same reason why my two-year-old and my six-year-old fight. One wants what the other wants too, right? A similar desire. Or one wants and the other one doesn’t want something done, right? And I have all sympathies with this Cuban woman who thought, `Well, if Castro ends up in heaven, no thanks. That’s no heaven for me,’ right? But on the other hand, when I reflect about this as a Christian, it seems to me that at the heart of the Christian tradition is a particular way of relating to those who are our enemies, a typical way of relating toward our enemies. You can see that whether in politics, you can see that at homes. `Yes, well an enemy is an enemy, a friend is a friend.’ You divide the world into friends and enemies. You use force to hold enemies in check, and you reward your friends. That’s how life is run, right? Now, Christian faith has an alternative politics, if you want, to this type of kind of Hobbesian, if you want, politics, and that is that you may certainly want to protect yourself from your enemies, but what you also want to do is you want to befriend your enemies. That’s what Christian faith is, if you want, all about. Because God has befriended humanity when humanity was still God’s enemy and pursued humanity precisely in humanity’s enmity to God. Now, I think that that lies at the very heart of the Christian tradition, at the very heart of our faith, and it seems to me that it ought to lie at the very heart of our daily practices.
MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Miroslav Volf in conversation at the National Cathedral. I asked Volf how he’s reflected on these principles in American political life in recent years.
DR. VOLF: Well, I suppose I wish that our public life today was organized less around use of overwhelming force to fight our enemies and that more effort was undertaken to befriend them. There are too many enemies around for us to hold in check. And so my sense would be that though I do appreciate very much the sense that we need to protect ourselves, we need to protect our boundaries, but we cannot pursue politics simply as politics of world divided into friends and enemies and fighting friends and rewarding enemies. We have to pursue alternative policies, too, which is a policy of befriending which is a policy of diplomatic wisdom, of creating a situation in which enemies would not do us harm and, indeed, the enemies would become our friends. And so this is probably the most what is in the forefront of my mind as I think about our national politics today. I know that that’s not easy, but on the other hand a country as powerful as ours maybe allow itself luxury to do something of that sort.
MS. TIPPETT: I think what’s been very thought-provoking for me is this notion that we are always in relationship with our enemies, trying to transpose that onto our political life now, onto geo-political, military life. What is our relationship to our current enemies?
DR. VOLF: Well, for instance, we would be wise not to allow ourselves to use corresponding means that our enemies use in fighting them, right? There may be alternative ways in which to accomplish goals that we have set for ourselves than, in some sense, just more powerfully mirroring the image of our own enemies. I think one of the things that I was so afraid in the war in former Yugoslavia, in Croatia, Croatia was mirror image of the Serbian aggressive war against my country, and I thought this was not quite right. We have other strictures upon ourselves than the stricture simply of response to a situation in which we have found ourselves. And if we have greatness, and if we have strength, we would be able to act differently, I think.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have an experience of this kind of embrace of a former enemy?
DR. VOLF: I do.
MS. TIPPETT: You do?
DR. VOLF: I don’t want to tell you about it.
MS. TIPPETT: You don’t? Can you tell me anything about it?
DR. VOLF: Well, I do.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me what you learned about why this is hard through that experience.
DR. VOLF: I do, and I’ll tell you about it. When I was in former Yugoslavia, I was just about two months away from finishing my PhD work. I was conscripted to then Yugoslavian military, and I had to go otherwise I couldn’t return back to the country and teach, though I was, on the whole, a certain kind of pacifist, and therefore I said to my superiors, `I won’t bear arms.’ When I came, the whole unit was organized around spying on me. So there was a file that thick after about three months because they had recorded every word I said, every thought I thought. Every move I made, pictures would be taken from I don’t know what angles, right? And then came months of interrogation where I did not have recourse to any help from outside. I was completely at the mercy of the military interrogators and was threatened with years imprisonment, would be woken up at odd hours of night and day, would be brought, waited for hours — typical methods, right? — and then interrogated left and right and so forth. Now I had to deal with a particular individual. His name is Captain Goranovich. And I had to ask myself, `Well, how do I relate to Captain Goranovich as a Christian. What would I do if now I would meet Captain Goranovich?’ And I think what I would do is I would talk to him and would talk to him about forgiveness, forgiveness that I’ve received and forgiveness that I want to give him. And I would want — whether I would have all the strength, I don’t know — but I would want to be a friend — for him to be my friend.
MS. TIPPETT: You make that point as you explicate this idea of embrace that it’s not always a perfect act, but that the will must be unconditional.
DR. VOLF: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And that you think we’re all capable of that will even if we’re not capable of the perfect action.
DR. VOLF: Even will is sometimes very difficult. You know, I was talking about this issue when my book Exclusion and Embrace was published in Croatia, and I was speaking to an audience, and a journalist was sitting in the audience, and he was fidgeting, and I knew he was going to come and ask me a question. And he wasn’t coming, so I was wondering, `What’s happening? Why? What? Have I misread him?’ And after everybody has cleared away, then he came and he said to me — and I talked about this will to embrace the other person — and he looked at me in the eyes and says, `But how does one get it?’ And I’m not quite — it’s been some time since I talked. I talked to a number of other people. `How does one get what?’ I said. `But how does one get the will to embrace another person,’ right? And that is kind of a deep mystery. And I think I can point in my case, other people can point in their own cases to examples of great people who have shown such will to embrace, other people who have shown great moral fortitude and courage and ability to transcend boundaries, who have inspired us to do that. I can point to my saintly nanny who was absolutely fantastic. And I thought most of my theology and most of my Christian faith I received from this semi-literate woman who couldn’t have been better, right? It’s these kinds of examples that are nurtured in the community that generate, I think, the will to embrace other people, to give us courage to step in to what is uncertain land. You don’t know what is going to happen. Every act of grace is a stepping into an unknown land. Because it is grace. Justice is predictable, right? If you operate on justice, you know exactly what’s going to come. On the outside you write a contract, and therefore you know what penalties are there. But once you show grace, you don’t know how the response is going to look. And that stepping into that land that is not known, it’s almost like Abraham’s call when you step into, go into `a country that I will show you’ and you don’t know where it is. And when you’ve tried a number of times and still didn’t happen, and it’s always an unknown land, you need strength.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s an act of vulnerability where we normally want to make shows of strength with our enemies, or when we’ve been wounded, or are frightened.
DR. VOLF: And I suppose if we are strong enough, we will show that. It’s interesting to me that it’s more likely for the victim to forgive than it is for the perpetrator to ask for repentance. Because forgiveness itself, this will to embrace is, on the one hand, it’s a very difficult act, but on the other hand it’s an act of power. Right? Repentance is an act of relinquishment of power, and that’s why repentance is so difficult. So you have perpetrators, and you think they might repent. No, they won’t, right? You’ve pushed them against the wall, they mutter something out through their teeth, and they still haven’t repented. You smash their head against the wall, and then they start saying something, right? You threaten them with 10 years of prison, and then you have apology that comes without — and hasn’t come out of the heart, right? You can’t force repentance, right? That’s why in the Christian tradition repentance was seen as the work of the Holy Spirit, right? There’s a miracle that needs to happen for repentance to take place. I think there’s a slightly lesser miracle — and we can’t speak of lesser/higher miracles as Kant and other folks have told us — but you know what I mean, right? — slightly lesser miracle is the miracle of forgiveness, miracle of grace. Grace is a gift, right? It comes as an echo of something from outside us, just like every act of love is that, just like every act of evil is, in fact, also that.
MS. TIPPETT: An echo from something outside?
DR. VOLF: Yeah. It’s an act of freedom, right? Which you cannot really explain. It’s inexplicable act of freedom. I’m a Christian, I tend to associate that and connect that with the presence of the Holy Spirit, with that, really, it’s through that act of freedom that God is present to us. It is God’s act, my own forgiveness. And, in fact, and the Christian tradition has always thought of it in those terms. It is not we that forgive fundamentally. It is we who participate in divine forgiveness. And that puts it in different perspective, and it makes it somewhat easier. After all, how would you be able to forgive? Why would you have the right to forgive? That’s the big question too, right? How do you have right to forgive? Yeah the right to forgive only if you participate.
MS. TIPPETT: I interviewed Elie Wiesel, which was a great honor, and I asked him — this came up, and he said, “Who am I to forgive?”
DR. VOLF: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. We’re exploring Miroslav Volf’s thoughts on conflict and forgiveness in individual and political life. Here’s the final segment of our public conversation in Washington, DC.
MS. TIPPETT: We need to finish. I just want to ask a couple of more questions. Your current work is on memory, and I’d like to ask you what memory might have to do with all of these things we’ve been discussing tonight.
DR. VOLF: Well, one of the main reasons why we do or do not reconcile is our memories. It’s on account of our memories that enmities are perpetuated. It’s possibly on account of our memories also that friendships, new friendships out of enemies are forged. And memory has become, especially since ’60s, has become such an important piece of the public discourse. You have mentioned Elie Wiesel, and his whole work can be described as one large ode to memory, right? Salvation lies in memory. And, of course, what he has in mind is a Holocaust, a need to remember that event. What hasn’t been addressed as much as this need to remember is what I call the ambiguity of memories. Wiesel emphasizes memories are good, memories are saving. If we were to be safe, we need to remember. But if we remember, we may as well have enough reasons to go into conflict with one another. Most of the conflicts have been fueled with particular kinds of memories. That was true in former Yugoslavia, it’s true in Ireland, it’s true — and you can go down the line.
MS. TIPPETT: And when you talk about the ambiguity of memory, are you also talking about the fact that people on different sides of a conflict will literally have a different memory of what transpired between them?
DR. VOLF: Yeah, they will have different memories where you have to speak in terms of what does one do with conflicting memories, right? But even simple fact of remembering, to use Wiesel’s words, can be both shield and can be a sword. Now, my question is how do I prevent the shield of memory from turning into sword of memory? And I think that’s in a sense memory’s side of reconciliation work that I have been doing. And there are many pieces of this. How do we go about remembering? One of the controversial pieces that I bring in is that I want to retrieve the old Jewish and Christian notion of the importance of non-remembrance, of the importance of forgetting, understood in a particular way. Jewish tradition is full of this. What happens with sins in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Bible? Well, God disperses them. God covers them. God does all sort of things with them to hide them out of sight somehow, right? And so that forgiveness and dispersal of what has happened, or hiding or covering, is a very stable connection between the two. And we know in our own experiences, right, if we have relationships that we are trying to repair just on personal level, right? Well, the more the injury’s foregrounded, the more I see the other person, and whenever I see the other person, I remember the injury, the less likely it is that relationship would be rich, fruitful.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And we even know now what we know about the brain is that when you recall a memory, you retrace a pathway to that injury.
DR. VOLF: Yeah. Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I was once in conversation with a survivor of the Holocaust who said how abhorrent to her this Christian idea is of forgive and forget, and I don’t think you are resurrecting that the way it’s been used.
DR. VOLF: Yeah, the — but — but the…
MS. TIPPETT: But she, you know, she talked about how repairing the world is, for her, tikkun olam is what works, and that maybe that’s another way of talking about forgiveness the way it’s really meant. I mean, is that — what’s the distinction between non-remembrance and forgetting?
DR. VOLF: Well, you can — a very simple way to put it would be something like this. Here’s an example. In traumatic experience, what happens is what? You forget. And it’s a bad kind of forgetting, right? Because then you have pushed what you have experienced into your subconsciousness. Once you’ve pushed it into your subconsciousness, suddenly you have no control over it and that wreaks havoc on you. You have not healed yourself, but have simply bracketed this and pushed it underneath. What I’m suggesting is — and I think that’s what Christian tradition and Jewish tradition has suggested — is forgetting is not the first step, it’s the last step. It’s the result of healing; it’s not the beginning of healing. If you put it at the beginning, you deepen the injury and you deepen the problem. You don’t solve anything. And therefore, I always think it’s better to think of it as non-presence of that memory. The memory’s not operative anymore. Because it’s not that if you sat down in some dark corner and brooded over it long enough that you couldn’t remember it. Of course you could. But then you ask yourself `But why? I have repaired this relationship. This relationship is in such a good shape, why would in go in that dark corner? Why would I brood? What work, what good would that do?’ It does some work only when you have to keep the other at bay, right? When you have to guard yourself from other person. And that’s why we sometimes do remember, and that’s why sometimes it’s important for us to remember. And that’s why sometimes at the political level, even at the personal level, it would be wrong not to remember. But that at it’s best, a relationship ought to be qualified with certain form of inoperativeness, let me put it this way, of memory of injury. That seemed to me so patent because that’s what happens in our daily life in any case.
MS. TIPPETT: An idea has come to me as you were speaking. I was going to bring a Bible, and then I realized I was in a cathedral, so I was able to locate one. And I had marked this passage in Romans that’s very important to you, in Romans 12, about evil. I think I’m going to end by asking you to read that and let the text have the last word. So this is Romans 12:9-21, which talks about evil. And evil is part of our public vocabulary these days.
DR. VOLF: “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal. Be aglow with the spirit. Serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope. Be patient in tribulation. Be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Bless, and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceable with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written `Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord. Now, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him drink, for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright professor of theology at the Yale University Divinity School and the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He also serves as visiting professor of systematic theology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty of Osijek, Croatia, his undergraduate alma mater. His books include Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation.
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This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Marge Ostroushko, Brian Newhouse, Colleen Scheck, and Jody Abramson. Our web producer is Trent Gilliss.
Special thanks this time to WETA FM in Washington, DC, the National Cathedral, and the Yale Divinity School.
The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett. Next week, Listening Generously: Conversation About Stories, Loss and Healing, with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. Please join us.