Forgetting in Heaven

I just recently came across the short 2006 article, “Letting Go: The Final Miracle of Forgiveness,” (available here and here) from Miroslav Volf, and it set off an “uh-oh” warning bell for me. Since it is a line of reasoning I’ve never thought through all the way before I figured I’d pop on here and see if any of you have greater wisdom than me.  So as to point out my concerns, I’ll very briefly sketch the logic of the piece, hoping that at the end you all can help me think through this…

First, he identifies divine forgiveness as that which allows for an offense to be “completely dissociated from the offender, and its harm… completely dissociated from the one who was offended” (page 28 from the Christian Century version). Indeed, he goes on:

When we forgive those who have wronged us, we make God’s miracle of forgiveness our own. Echoing Gods unfathomable graciousness, we decouple the deed from the doer, the offense from the offender. We blot out the offense so it no longer mars the offender. That is why the non-remembrance of wrongs suffered crowns forgiveness (28).

Second, he goes on to support this claim by challenging those who would have him remember the “more egregious” offenses, among which he counts “the slaughter of indigenous populations” and the bombing of Hiroshima (29). If we are to remember these wrongs, Volf says, then it follows we must “remember all wrongs – each misdeed of every person, not only notorious atrocities and public crimes but also all the private misdeeds committed under the protection of impenetrable darkness and hidden behind the veil of silence… (30). That is, in fairness, if we are to remember genocides we must also remember rude glances and cheap thrills… But this isn’t the heart of Volf’s call for “non-remembrance.” That is even more troubling to me.

Why exactly shouldn’t we remember these offenses? Because if it was right and fair to remember them, then in heaven – where everything is right and fair – then we would still be remembering these things and that doesn’t seem like something heavenly. As Volf says, “the eternal memory of wrongs suffered implies the eternality of evil in the midst of Gods new world…[and] would this not represent a peculiar triumph of evil rather than its complete defeat?” (31)


So before I start ranting, I’ll just note two things.

  1. While I doubt that it was Volf’s intention to imply the things I read into his text, I think they must be addressed regardless even if they were not explicitly intended
  2. Though it might not seem so, I think I actually agree with Volf on the eschatological importance of “non-remembrance” and offenses, but his argument and delivery is chilling in its possible repercussions for the present order

That is, I might agree that in the finished and complete kingdom things are as he describes them, but what about now? What does this kind of reasoning suggest that a grieving mother is to do after her child is shot? What is the response called for after the sexual assault of the 26,000 men and women who suffer trauma while in the military during 2012? What are our sisters and brothers among the first nations peoples supposed to do when their children ask them how it used to be? Now I understand that Volf isn’t attempting to be deliberately coercive here: he does, after all, say that forgiveness and non-remembrance must be given “as all good gifts are given – voluntarily and joyfully” (29). That being said, I worry about the consequences of this kind of thinking.

Do I think that retributive vengeance is called for or want to forward the myth of redemptive violence? Unequivocally no, but isn’t there an equally valid claim to be made that the memory of injustice can – perhaps ought to – move us further towards justice (even if we never reach it?) Does Volf acknowledge that forgiveness must be given via God’s Grace and not by mandate? Yes… AND I would also like to know what we living in the present can do to walk with those suffering now.

To focus so particularly on the nature of heaven and its justice and read backwards from that into the present for normative forgiveness behaviors… well… it leaves me feeling like something is majorly awry and that once again those who are at the suffering side of the stick get shorted again. I long for a model that acknowledges God’s infinite forgiveness and plots a course for the affirmation of the reality of trauma and the ways it can make us feel we will never be whole like the promise of heaven we’ve been given…

Am I over-reacting? Misreading? On to something? Let me know.