If you have either visited the Holocaust Museum or read any of the many works of Elie Wiesel — like Night — you will know one word pushes itself to the front of his vision: Remember! Remember the Holocaust is his mantra. In Miroslav Volf’s brilliant new book, The End of Memory, Volf both renews and extends — if he does not also challenge — the vision of Wiesel.
Can memory save? Is there salvation of pain and suffering in memory? Many have suffered injustices — as Volf has — but what takes injustice from simple memory and leads it into redeeming memory? Friends, this is a very serious issue: those who have suffered are shaped by their memories. How can the memory be used to heal?
Memory, Volf argues, can be either a shield or a sword. Remembering wrongs suffered can lead to pleasure and pain. Memory brings the past into the present. In fact, “if in memory we are re-experiencing evil committed and suffered, we are not yet fully freed from its effects” (23).
Memory and Identity: if we sever ourselves from our pain, we lose who we are; we cut from our identity part of who we are. We must hold fast, he says, to our memories and their pains. But, his secret here is that we are not only shaped by our memory but we shape our memories. Identity formation can occur only if we remember truthfully and incorporate our past into a meaningful narrative of the future.
I have a student who told me of a tragic accident; she makes sense of this tragedy by remembering the persons involved but also by incorporating her life into what she knows is God’s purpose for her life. Her identity is redeemed by understanding a tragedy in a larger story.
Memory is a means of salvation in four senses:
1. Healing: healing only occurs through memory; but memory itself does not heal. That memory requires interpretation if the tragedy is to be redeemed.
2. Acknowledgement: we can only redeem tragedy by acknowledging that tragedy; but (once again) acknowledgement does not redeem it. Some acknowledge only to become vindictive. Unjustly remembering (or acknowledging) can distort truth and identity.
3. Solidarity: it makes sense to think that remembering can provoke us to identify in compassion and sympathy with those who suffer, but some memories do not provoke compassion. Memory alone does not create solidarity. Something larger can transform memory into solidarity.
4. Protection: Like solidarity, memory can lead to protecting those who suffer. Some memories lead to further perpetration of crime and evil. What is it that leads memory to become protective of those who suffer?
This is the heart of Volf’s proposal: something more than memory is needed.