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Forgiveness is God’s work done through us, Volf tells Trinity Institute

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

Photo: Trinity Institute, Trinity Wall Street
Miroslav Volf, Director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School   (Photo: Trinity Institute, Trinity Wall Street)


Miroslav Volf is the author of the just-released “Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace.” The book was commissioned by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to be the Anglican Communion’s Lenten study book for 2006.

“Miroslav Volf, one of the most celebrated theologians of our day, offers us a unique interweaving of intense reflection, vivid and painfully personal stories and sheer celebration of the giving God . . . I cannot remember having read a better account of what it means to say that Jesus suffered for us in our place,” Williams has said about the book.

[Episcopal News Service]  Forgiveness and reconciliation pave the "hard path" that Jesus calls Christians to follow, Yale Divinity School's Miroslav Volf told the audience on the concluding day of "The Anatomy of Reconciliation--from violence to healing," a conference sponsored by Trinity Institute.

Volf, a native of Croatia, used his struggles to deal with the psychological abuse he experienced in 1984 at the hands of a Yugoslavian army security officer as a way to explain his understanding of the practice of reconciliation.

Volf is the director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of nine published books and more than 60 scholarly articles, including "After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity," "Exclusion and Embrace: Identity, Otherness, Reconciliation" and "Haunted and Healed: Mistreatment, Memory and Reconciliation," due to be published later this year.

Volf, who was serving a compulsory stint in the disintegrating country's army at the time, said he was viewed as a national security threat because his father was a pastor, he himself had studied in the West and was married to a U.S. citizen.

He was interrogated by the officer, Captain Goranovic, and others for weeks in an attempt to get him to confess to what they told him they believed was true about him and his intentions. He said he was never physically abused but that he spent most of this time in constant, almost paralyzing terror, "trembling before the false gods of power run amok."

When the interrogation inexplicably stopped, Volf found that he saw the world "through the lens of abuse" and that Goranovic was still "colonizing my interior life." He tried to put Goranovic aside, or at least "banish him to the basement of [his] interior home," with varying degrees of success.

Often a "cold, enduring anger" that wanted to exact sadistic vengeance battled with Volf's determination "not to lose what I believe is best in human nature" and what he believed he was called to do as a "person created in the image of the enemy-loving God."

Many people believe they can have no other response to those who wrong them but that of "strict enforcement of retributive justice."

"Now, I understand the force of that position. At some level I am tempted by it, but I don't share it," he said. "It tramples underfoot the most beautiful flower of our God-given humanity: the love of the enemy."

Volf said this notion of love must not be confused with "mushy sentimentality unconcerned with the demands of justice."

Evil, Volf told the conference, wins when two things are accomplished: the act of original abuse and the decision of the abused to return the evil in kind--or worse.

"In my own situation I could do nothing about the first victory, but I could prevent the second," Volf said. "Captain Goranovic would not mold me into his image. Instead of returning evil for evil, I determined to heed the apostle Paul by trying to overcome evil with good. After all, I myself had been redeemed by the God who in Christ died for the redemption of the ungodly."

Volf made it clear that he was not only speaking about physical revenge but that he also had to decide how he would treat the memory of Goranovic's wrongdoing. The central question, he said, was not whether never to forget the abuse, but how to remember it rightly.

The answer to that question for Volf began with reading the Psalms. He realized that if Christians pray the Psalms asking that God will not remember them according to their sins, then he needed to remember Goranovic "the way I prayed for God to remember me and my wrongdoing."

As he began trying to remember Goranovic's abuse "rightly," Volf said he realized that his answer would shape not just his future stance towards his abuser but towards every person and setting he encountered. Thus, his answer could not be a private, interior exercise.

Volf realized he would have to try to understand Goranovic's life and motivations, so he invited Goranovic into his attempt to remember rightly. Volf allowed Goranovic to listen to his remembering and to speak, and Volf agreed to listen, knowing that neither of them would have the ultimate last word. The last word, he believed, would come on the last day and be spoken by the Judge who knows each of us completely.

"It is not that I agonized about whether or not this was the right decision. I think it was the right decision," he said. "The problem came with sticking to it. When I granted that I ought to love Captain Goranovic, and I mean love not in the sense of warm feelings, but in a sense of benevolence, beneficence, searching for communion, when I made that commitment . . . every time I said 'loving Captain Goranovic,' a small-scale rebellion erupted in my soul."

"At times it would not have taken much to get me to switch sides except that loving those who do me harm was precisely the hard path Jesus called me to follow," he said. "Failure to follow in that path would be both a betrayal of the one from whom, through whom and for whom are all things, and a reckless squandering of my own self."

Volf said he also had to concede that his belief in God's salvation meant that he and Goranovic would some day be eating and drink together at the heavenly banquet. It was "a very scary thought but not an unlikely scenario," he said. It forced him to ponder if he would remember his abuse at the banquet table and every time he saw Goranovic in that life.

In response to a question Volf said that reconciliation and right remembering must always be handled as a possibility given to us by God's salvation. "What I really do not want is to think of forgiveness as a must that is laid as a burden upon the one who has suffered the wrong," he said.