Remembering Rightly

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Miroslav Volf is a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. But in the fall of 1983 he was a soldier, drafted into military service in a communist country. Leaving behind his life, he spent a year on a military base in what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From the moment he stepped on base, Volf felt himself in danger.

The first surprise was his appointment as administrative assistant to the captain in charge of the base. Though he didn't know it, his assignment made it easy for his superiors to keep a close eye on him since the office had been fitted with listening devices. Volf had come under immediate suspicion for three reasons: his father had been a pastor suspected of sedition in the aftermath of World War II; he was a Christian theologian who had studied in the West; and his wife was an American citizen.

One day the captain summoned Volf to his office. There on his superior's desk lay a file a foot thick detailing many of his conversations with other soldiers. No wonder so many of them had been asking his views on religion, politics, and the military. The entire base had been spying on him. Volf, the captain stated, was certainly a traitor. Unless he confessed on the spot, he could be imprisoned as a spy. Despite his innocence, Volf felt helpless, knowing that nothing he said would convince the captain otherwise. Week after week he was interrogated, verbally abused, and threatened. The accusations and threats kept piling up. Finally and without any explanation, the interrogations stopped.

Though Volf calls his mistreatment "mid-level abuse," mild compared to what others have endured, he admits that the effects lingered long after his stint in the military ended. "It was," he said, "as though Captain G. had moved into the very household of my mind, ensconced himself right in the middle of its living room, and I had to live with him.... I wanted him to get out of my mind on the spot and without a trace. But there was no way to keep him away, no way to forget him. He stayed in that living room and interrogated me again and again."

Though Volf was outraged by how he had been treated, he was determined to find a redemptive way of dealing with the abuse he had suffered. Unwilling to grant evil the final victory, letting it shape him into a bitter, vengeful man, he realized that the key lay in how he would remember what had happened. He could store up the memory in a bitter, vindictive way, doing damage to his soul in the process; he could absorb it in a masochistic way, forever identifying himself as a victim and thereby giving continued power to his oppressor; or he could try to repress it and simply forget about it. Knowing that none of these options would bring peace or enable him to love his enemy, he searched for another way, one that involved both telling the truth and extending grace without excusing the behavior of his interrogator. What he learned in his quest is told in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, a book that offers great insight into our struggle to find peace despite the memory of wrongs suffered. In the posts that follow, we will explore a few of his central insights.


Originally published June 11, 2020.