Religion and Violence
In Part Three of our interview with Miroslav Volf, he examines how forgiveness can be just.
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: What about justice? I can imagine people saying, well surely we have to fight injustice and oppression. Where does that fit into your scheme of thinking?
MIROSLAV VOLF: Well I think justice is part and parcel of love. We cannot construe love in such a way that it becomes an unjust thing. Love and justice are closely intertwined, and indeed love is that which motivates the struggle for justice and nothing that is unjust can be loving. You immediately see that if you think of love as beneficence, how can I love somebody by doing something that isn’t beneficent to them, namely, by doing injustice towards them?
So I think love is very much connected with justice, not opposed to justice at all, so that even in regard to the previous comment that I made, love is a struggle to return back to justice, if you want, to the good of the one who is profoundly, in many ways, unjust. And it cannot be done if you’re blind to injustice and have this teary-eyed sentiment of empathy simply and fuzzy feelings toward them, but rather you have to have a hard-nosed pursuit of justice which is framed in the context of love and therefore return of that person to the good.
SIMON SMART: Does Christianity have a unique contribution to make to this discussion of reconciliation?
MIROSLAV VOLF: Well, you know, I think Christianity has at its heart… At Christianity’s heart is the message of grace, message of grace toward those who are needy and the message of grace toward who are wrongdoers. That’s at the heart of Christian faith. That is embodied in the life of Christ, that is embodied also in the death of Christ. And so that’s the heart of the Christian faith.
Now if you ask me, ‘Is that unique to Christianity?’ I’m not even interested in answering this question in many ways. I’m not interested in what’s unique to Christianity, I’m interested in what’s at the heart of Christianity and the more other people embrace the idea of forgiveness the happier the Christian I am, because God is the God of all people, all creation, and therefore I would want to say that I’m hopeful that the idea of forgiveness would resonate deeply and find its equivalence and its own echoes in other religious traditions, whether that is Islam, certainly Judaism from which Christianity learned the idea of radical love. Certainly it’s found there; certainly it’s found in Buddhism in certain strands so I’m hopeful that this isn’t… as much as it’s central to Christianity, is not simply peculiar and unique.
SIMON SMART: I wonder whether the sort of embrace and welcome and reconciliation that you talk about is even possible without God. We’re not God. Can we do it or strive towards it without him?
MIROSLAV VOLF: In my judgement that’s not possible without God. But, I would want to say it may be possible… Forgiveness may be possible without conscious embrace of faith in God. Indeed, I know people who explicitly reject God and still, are forgiving. Now my explanation of this is that they’re not forgiving without God, but rather that notwithstanding their not desiring God, God is present to their lives. So that God’s presence and activity is broader than simply the scope of those who name God and give allegiance to God.
Now, of course I would that those who give allegiance to God would find additional motivation, additional grounds for living the life of forgiveness, but I think forgiveness is possible. Forgiveness is possible because God is present in human lives.