Intractable conflicts are marked by pain and loss, and when we meet for the purposes of reconciliation, we must examine how we remember the pain and loss we have suffered without allowing the emotions that accompany them—anger, resentment, bitterness, hurt—divide us. In our reconciliation encounters we rarely have participants that directly inflicted pain on each other. However, we are involved in a collective conflict, not individual conflicts, so our societies have grievances against the other which we carry with us, whether we are aware of it or not. Memories of these grievances shape us, and memories of how we have suffered at the hands of the other are part of our identity.
The question for us, then, is not should we remember the wrongs each side has committed against the other, but rather, how should we remember our suffering? And how do we remember the offending party or society rightly? How do we love the offending society—“love not in the sense of warm feeling but in the sense of benevolence, beneficence, and the search for communion,” which is imperative for reconciliation? When we remember the past, we allow it to come into the present along with the feelings associated with the memory (whether positive or negative). And, “since memories shape present identities, neither I nor the other can be redeemed without the redemption of our remembered past.”
The Shortcomings of Memory
Before discussing how to remember, we first need to understand what we remember. As finite beings, we cannot remember everything, and what we and our culture remember is selective and significant.
“We are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us. And since we do so, the consequences are significant; for because we shape our memories, our identities cannot consist simply in what we remember.” This is significant because what we (or our society) choose to remember of traumatic events in our past, influences how we think and what we do. How we remember the Holocaust, the Nakba, Israeli victims of Palestinian aggression, or Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression, shape us and our societies. But since we remember selectively, and it is impossible to recall all the facts, we can be guilty of distorting memories, perhaps downplaying the part we play in offending someone or exaggerating the suffering someone else inflicts on us. When it comes to ethnic and national groups and their memories of suffering, when these events are memorialized, they are brought into the present and often projected onto current events.
Redemption in Memory
In order to heal these memories and move forward, we have to name the past truthfully, coming “to clarity about what happened, how we reacted to it, and how we are reacting to it now.” In situations of conflict, we can only do this with each other, as we have both suffered and perpetrated wrongs, and can only see a fuller picture when the two sides are heard. For example, historical narrative is a part of this curriculum. We encourage participants to hear each other’s narratives, and then we critique elements of these narratives. For example, the Israeli side challenges the oft-repeated misperception that the 1948 First Arab-Israeli War was an example of David versus Goliath, defenseless Israel against the might of the surrounding Arab nations, emphasizing how well-prepared Israel was compared to the surrounding Arab nations, and how Israeli forces outnumbered the Arab forces dispatched to fight against it. This is naming the past truthfully. And when the Palestinian side challenges the Palestinian assumption that Jews have no religious and historical attachment to the land, recognizing the connection between Jews and the Holy Land, it names the past truthfully. Hearing the two sides offer self-critique and correct wrong assumptions, while painful, leads toward healing.Additionally, we have to integrate the past meaningfully into our own narratives. We often “integrate events into our life-story by giving them positive meaning within that story” and “we render the wrong-doings endured meaningful for us.” This proves to be therapeutic and provides an element of redemption to our memories.
Sometimes when we have suffered terrible wrongs and can find no redemption in them, we must simply “label them as senseless segments of our life-story. Once labeled, memories of horrendous wrongs are no longer loose beasts wreaking havoc in our inner being and external relationships; they are locked up in the basement of our mind. Though the imprisoned beasts may stomp and shriek, we can live in the rest of the house unthreatened.” For Israelis and Palestinians, the Holocaust and Nakba (respectively) are often seen as terrible, unredeemable memories that can only be labeled as senseless.
While this helps us deal with the memory inside ourselves, in order to be completely healed and reconciled, we have to heal the broken relationship with the offender. These tools help us remember our wounding memories truthfully and therapeutically, motivating us to struggle justly on behalf of victims, and move toward reconciliation with offenders. Coming to a place where we can, together, hear each other’s suffering, name the past truthfully, integrate the past meaningfully, and label when necessary can lead to healing and mutual affirmation.
Memory can be redemptive in a number of ways. Memory can be a means of:
1) Healing when a person interprets the memory in a new light.
2) Acknowledgement when the remembered offense is voiced and heard so the victim feels the injustice suffered is known.
3) Solidarity when society refuses to be indifferent and struggles with us against further similar offenses.
4) Protection when society punishes the offenders for the wrongs committed.16
Yet these are not sufficient in and of themselves and can be potentially dangerous if isolated from the wider issues. For example, acknowledgment fails when the recalled offense is brought to light, and subsequently, the offended does not remember truthfully. This is not to say that the victim speaks about a wrong that never occurred; on the contrary, the event occurred, but perhaps the perpetrator’s villainous role has become exaggerated in the mind of the victim, and thus the victim can do an injustice to the offender in his/her memory, and thus the public acknowledgement of the offense is distorted.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have played the role of victims and perpetrators, and have often become perpetrators as a result of their memories of victimization and victimhood.
Truth in Memory
In order to come to a place of reconciliation and remember rightly, we have to remember truthfully (as briefly mentioned in the previous section). But often in our telling of memories, we change certain things, and summarize others as we remember only parts of what we are recalling.
Although we are limited and subjective in our recalling and retelling, we can still “speak meaningfully of truthful memories. When we claim to remember, we are claiming that, to the best of our knowledge, our memory is true in the sense that it corresponds in some way to events as they occurred.” “Those who recognize the moral obligation to reconcile have, as a result, an additional reason for remembering truthfully. Above and beyond the fact that truthful remembering is a way to treat others justly, such remembering is an indispensable precondition of reconciliation between parties estranged by the transgression of one against the other.”
But what happens when the ‘truths’ we are telling clash, as they often do in our conflict? The problem with this is that both sides claim to possess the truth, and are more interested in this so-called “possession” of the truth than “the moral obligation of both parties to seek the truth. When we are so fixated on possessing the truth, it is impossible to even consider that that the other side might have some element of truth in what they are saying, and we find it nearly impossible to be self-critical and doubt what we know. “Seekers of truth, as distinct from alleged possessors of truth, will employ ‘double vision’—they will give others the benefit of the doubt, they will inhabit imaginatively the world of others, and they will endeavor to view events in question from the perspective of others, not just their own.” This is of essential importance when dealing with any difficult subject we encounter, whether it is historical narrative, identity, theology, or memory.
Theologian Miroslav Volf who has written extensively on conflict resolution, ethics, and peacemaking further discusses this issue, stating:
The purpose of truthful memory is not simply to name acts of injustice, and certainly not to hold an unalterable past forever fixed in the forefront of a person’s mind. Instead, the highest aim of lovingly truthful memory seeks to bring about the repentance, forgiveness, and transformation of wrongdoers, and reconciliation between wrongdoers and their victims. When these goals are achieved, memory can let go of offenses without ceasing to be truthful.
Remembrance and Non-Remembrance
The next logical question is, what does it mean that memory lets go of offenses? What do we do with these memories that we have? Do we remember grievances committed against us forever, and encourage others to remember our suffering forever as well? Or, is the best option to put them aside, forget them, and delete them lest they embitter us and our societies? And if we forget these wounds, putting aside these painful memories that have become part of our life stories, might that not then sever a part of our identities as part of our humanity is our ability to remember?
Volf affirms the importance of memory, as “without memory, you could not be you and I could not be I, for we could not recognize ourselves or each other as temporally continuous beings moving along the axis of time.” At the same time, he argues that “under certain conditions the absence of the memory of wrongs suffered is desirable.” He describes his position not as forgetting and deleting memories, but instead as “non- remembrance.” It is impossible to demand that people forget their suffering; instead he offers a few principles of non-remembrance:
Wrongdoers do not deserve to have their deeds forgotten. If the wounded party chooses to forget, this is a gift of the offended to the offender.
When we choose to give the gift of non-remembrance, we should do so not out of obligation, but to imitate God “who loves wrongdoers despite their wrongdoing.”
We can only give the gift of non-remembrance if we choose to forgive the offender, and the offender has repented and changed his or her behavior. While we can forgive someone who has not repented, we cannot give the gift of non-remembrance if they have not accepted our forgiveness directly from us.
This gift of non-remembrance has limitations in our lifetime. We can only fully give this gift in the world to come “where the wronged are secure, wrongdoers transformed, and both unalterably reconciled. Here and now, if we give the gift of non-remembrance at all, we give it only tentatively, haltingly, provisionally, and often with a great deal of pain.”
While memories of wrongs suffered play an important role in our lives, their main function is to act as “an instrument of justice and as a shield against injustice.” But when we wish to reconcile, we must be willing to give the gift of non-remembrance (as based on the aforementioned principles). At the end of the day, “only those willing to let the memory of wrongdoing slip ultimately out of their minds will be able to remember wrongdoing rightly now. For we remember wrongs rightly when memory serves reconciliation.”
Our sense of identity is not jeopardized by this in any way, because while remembering is part of being human, we are who we are not simply because of what we remember, but because of what we do not remember. Without an element of forgetting, we would find it difficult to understand anything. For example, to see a specific object, we need to focus on it, blocking out the objects surrounding it. Or to listen to a certain instrument in an orchestra, we must block out other instruments in order to hear that one.
So, our perception and ability to remember is enhanced, in part, by “forgetting” that which surrounds what we are trying to remember.
Memory makes us who we are. In the course of our conflict, painful memories have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. But in reconciliation, non- remembrance and a certain type of forgetting play a constructive role in our perception of the world and our conflicts. In order to remember rightly, we must remember that memory is provisional, and be willing to remember redemptively and truthfully, embracing self-criticism and doubt when confronted with clashing ‘truths,’ and be willing to see with ‘double vision’ from both our own perspective and the other’s perspective. It is not an easy task, but it is a challenge we must undertake for the purpose of reconciliation.
The proper goal of the memory of wrongs suffered—its appropriate end—is the formation of the communion of love between all people, including victims and perpetrators. Imagine this as a suspension bridge in which the roadway hangs on a concrete arch anchored on both sides of the divide. The roadway is the reflection on memory. The arch that upholds the roadway is the process of reconciliation. The anchors that support the process of reconciliation are on one side the death of the One for the reconciliation of all, and on the other the hope for the world to come as a world of love. Perfect love is the goal of memory. And when that goal is reached, the memory of wrongs itself can end. Put simply, love is the ‘end’ of memory in the twofold sense of that term.
Volf, Miroslav. The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.
———. Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.