The Gift of Forgiveness

Part One of our extended interview with Miroslav Volf is a conversation about the radical notion of forgiveness.



Loving enemies – dangerous & absurd


Part One of our extended interview with Miroslav Volf is a conversation about the radical notion of forgiveness.

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: Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Exclusion and Embrace and more recently, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

Miroslav Volf, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MIROSLAV VOLF: I’m delighted to be with you.

SIMON SMART: Forgiveness and reconciliation are the topics you’ve written a lot about. How did you come to be thought of as a threat to your people in Yugoslavia, and indeed the subject of interrogation?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Well, I was obviously a Christian in then communist Yugoslavia. And as in most of the communist regimes Christians were somewhat suspect. They were suspect as not quite giving full allegiance to the state and therefore potentially dangerous elements.

And I had also contacts with the West; I had studied at that time at Fuller Theological Seminary… and then I was doing a doctoral dissertation on Karl Marx and they weren’t sure that I was going to praise the old bearded man, so I was suspect.

SIMON SMART: I bet you were. And that led to some quite traumatic events for you: interrogation over some length of time.

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yeah, precisely because of my contacts with the West and because of travels in the West it was then deemed necessary to figure out what was going on with this young gentleman. So I was first subjected to… All of my conversations were taped, my movements were monitored and after a thick file was assembled on me then interrogations started where all the way up to the top generals from Sarajevo and Belgrade would come and engage in those interrogations.

SIMON SMART: It must have been a deeply troubling period for you, psychologically if not physically. It’s a…

MIROSLAV VOLF: Physically not so much, although a connection between physical and psychological in those kinds of situations is relatively deep. So, but it was a time of uncertainty, it was a time of threats, of imprisonment for about eight years or so for having said this or that, with no recourse to an attorney—independent attorney—and so where a person who is accusing you is also the one who is sentencing you and also the one who is allegedly defending you. This was not a very pleasant kind of situation.

SIMON SMART: How do you even begin to go about forgiving someone who’s hurt you to that degree?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yeah, well first I think it has to be said that forgiveness is never an easy thing, never an easy psychological thing. There’s… Everything, so to say, within one rebels against an act of forgiveness and indeed, you know, forgiveness is kind of a, if you want, an irrational, strangely irrational and yet I would say deeply human act. Strangely irrational because you are giving a gift to someone who has injured you. We say also that a gift, true gift, is an irrational thing, right. You expect nothing in return and you’re extending yourself—it’s not part of the logic of calculation.

The same is true, even to a greater degree, with forgiveness. And so you have to overcome a good deal of inner resistance and rebellion as well as figure out in what sense that act makes sense—to forgive.

And then I think all of us, most of us feel that act of forgiving is a profoundly healing act, healing not just for the self, but healing for the other, potentially healing also for the relationships.

SIMON SMART: It’s fair to say that’s it’s much more a process than perhaps a single act and certainly not a quick thing, is it?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Right, and I think if one reduces forgiveness to simple… to a single act then one makes it at the same time more difficult and is more flippant about it than one ought to be.

I think there’s also a kind of a lifetime of character preparation for forgiveness and then when one forgives, one forgives always partially—one forgives and then takes back and one goes in a circle and in a sense it’s living oneself into the forgiveness one has imagined and one has named as something valuable, something conducive to human flourishing.

SIMON SMART: Your book is titled The End of Memory, but you’re not simply saying we need to forgive and forget, it’s a much more rich, textured thing.

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yeah, maybe the forgiveness… maybe the title is a little bit too cute, because I’m playing on the word… dual meaning of the word ‘end’ as the goal of memory as well as a termination of memory, and before the termination can come—and I try to argue that there is a place for non-remembrance—but before that can come there is a goal that remembering has to achieve and I think that goal is in many ways a goal of protection of the self, but as well as then inserting that goal of protection within the goal of reaching reconciliation with the other person.

There can be no forgiveness without memory. What would I forgive if I didn’t remember the insults or the harm that has happened to me? And therefore to forgive I have to remember, but when I forgive well, I am able, hopefully, under certain conditions, to let go of these memories.