Justice, Christianity and reconciliation
In Part Two of our interview with Miroslav Volf, he explains what it means to love our enemies.
Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale. Volf is the author of a 150 editorials and 11 books including Exclusion and Embrace as well as The End of Memory – Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. At Yale he teaches a class with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on ‘Faith and Globalization.’ Volf has been described as “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day,” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
A victim of intense and sustained interrogation by the government of then communist Yugoslavia, Volf’s work focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation and remembering wrongs sustained in the past. He maintains that the Christian vision of the world entails the possibility of overcoming the past for both the victim and the perpetrator of wrongs.
In this five-part interview conducted at Yale, Volf explains his ideas on forgiveness, memory and identity. He also talks about religion and violence and why he thinks, contra Dawkins and Hitchens, more religion (of a particular kind) not less can lead the way to a peaceful future.
SIMON SMART: How then should we remember, when we’ve been wronged?
MIROSLAV VOLF: Memory is a… it isn’t just a cognitive act. It’s not just something we do as we… with our minds identifying and describing what has happened. When we remember, we always also do something with our memories. Memories have a pragmatic and not just a cognitive side. And then when one thinks of this pragmatic side of memory, then one asks, well what am I doing in remembering? And I’m doing many things, and I maybe ought to be doing many things as I remember.
As I remember I am being cognisant of what can potentially happen to me and therefore I am being aware of potential future dangers. But as I remember, hopefully I am learning not to put myself in similar situations. As I am remembering, hopefully—I want to argue—I am also learning how to live a kind of life that will create bridges toward another person.
SIMON SMART: Are there really no deeds that are beyond forgiveness?
MIROSLAV VOLF: That’s a very interesting question. I would say there are no deeds that are beyond possibilities of forgiveness, but then when I say that I think we all have to think about what must be true about the world, about relationships between people for my statement to be plausible, right?
SIMON SMART: Yes.
MIROSLAV VOLF: And many find that statement implausible. And I think what must be true of the world, in a sense, and the grounds on which Christians make this kind of a claim is that they worship a God who is radical and utter love and who has forgiven, already, all human beings. And it’s only on account of that divine forgiveness, only on the account of the forgiveness so to say, that lies at the foundation of the whole reality that anything like forgiving that which is and seems unforgivable is possible.
SIMON SMART: Christopher Hitchens says that to love your enemies is not only an absurd idea, but a dangerous one. Why is he wrong?
MIROSLAV VOLF: Well, I think from his perspective he may not be wrong, right? So if you think of the world as each of us maximising our own utility, each of us maximising our own pleasure, possibly also under certain circumstances maximising the pleasure of those who are around us, I’m not sure that love of enemy isn’t a dangerous and implausible idea.
But, if you think that the world is created by God who is radical love, then the idea of love of the enemies is fundamental to the way in which reality is made up.
And I think sometimes, also, it’s not just a question of the larger metaphysical picture of the world that is at stake, but sometimes critics of Christianity misunderstand what love of enemy means. It is not love which is blind to the misdeeds of enemies. It is also not love which is completely negligent about the safety of oneself or of a third party. It is rather a love that can be described as benevolence and beneficence with a particular goal. The goal is not some strange notion of me satisfying a peculiar need to love somebody who is awful to me, but rather the goal is somehow to return the wrongdoer back to the good. That is really what undergirds the whole idea of the love of the enemy—not a mushy sentiment but rather very hard-nosed understanding that beneficence toward the other is that which leads the other person to realise what the good is and how he or she has transgressed against that good and returned back to it.