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I have a confession to make: I was once considered a national security threat. For months I was interrogated - not only about details of my own life but also for incriminating information about other people suspected of posing a threat to the state. No wonder, then, that the photos of mistreated Abu Ghraib detainees in Iraq shocked me to the core. I still remember where I was when I first saw the image of a person hooded and hooked to electrical wires standing helplessly with arms stretched out in what looked like a modern-day crucifixion. Terrible as these windows into mistreatment were in their own right, they also flooded my mind with scenes from my own - albeit less severe and humiliating - interrogations of more than twenty years ago.
Charges and Threats
It was the year of our Lord 1984, though to me it seemed more like the year of his archenemy. In the fall of 1983 I was summoned to compulsory service in the military of then-communist Yugoslavia. There was no way out of it. I had to leave behind my wife and asoon-to-be-born Ph.D. dissertation to spend one year on a military base in the town of Mostar, sharing a room with forty or so soldiers and eating stuff like cold goulash with overcooked meat for breakfast at 5:00 a.m. But as I stepped onto the base, I sensed that not just discomfort, but danger, awaited me.
My wife was an American citizen and therefore, in the eyes of my commanders, a potential CIA spy. I had been trained in the West in a "subversive" discipline that studies everything as it relates to God, who is above all worldly gods - including those of totalitarian regimes. I was writing a dissertation on Karl Marx, whose account of socialism and how to achieve it could only serve to de-legitimize the kind of socialism the Yugoslav military was defending. I was the son of a pastor whom the communists had almost killed as an enemy of the people after World War II and whom the secret police suspected of sedition and regularly harassed. I was innocent, but Big Brother would be watching me. I knew that. I just didn't know how very closely.
Unbeknownst to me, most of my unit was involved in spying on me. One soldier would give me a politically sensitive book to read, another a recent issue of Newsweek or Time, while a third would get his father, who worked for the Croatian magazine Danas, to give me a subscription. All this was designed to get me to talk about religion, ethnic belonging, politics, the military - anything that would expose my likely seditious proclivities. I had a Greek New Testament with me, and some soldiers pretended to be interested in discussing its contents, a topic prohibited on the base. I was named the administrative assistant to the captain, an otherwise attractive job, but given to me so that I would spend most of my time in a single room that was bugged. For a few months, almost every word I said was noted or recorded and every step I took, both on and off the base, was monitored.
My ordeal started not long after I stumbled onto a soldier translating to the security officer a letter my wife had written to me. I was summoned for a "conversation." "We know all about you," said Captain G., the security officer. He was flanked by two other officers, their faces expressionless and menacing at the same time. They had plenty of "proof" of my subversive intentions and activities. A foot-thick file lay on the Captain's desk - transcripts of conversations I'd had in my office, reports of what I'd said to this or that soldier elsewhere, photos of me entering buildings in town, sometimes taken from somewhere high above. Obviously, they knew a great deal about me. And they didn't seem to like any of it.
Like the court in Franz Kafka's The Trial, my interrogators were going to pull out "some profound guilt from somewhere where there was originally none at all." I had engaged in religious propaganda on the base - I must therefore be against socialism, which in Yugoslavia was linked officially with atheism. I had praised a Nazarene conscientious objector for acting according to his principles - I was therefore undermining the defense of our country. I had said something unkind about Tito - I was therefore an enemy of the people. I was married to an American and had studied in the West - I was therefore a spy. The charges should have been embarrassing for the interrogators. Restricting freedom of speech, not engaging in it, should have been viewed as morally reprehensible. And some of the charges were just plain silly Is every expatriot American a potential spy? But the officers were utterly serious: I must be out to overthrow the regime. The real issue, which they sensed rightly, was that the seams holding Yugoslavia together were at their breaking point. An enemy could be hiding under any rock, behind any bush.
Threats followed the charges against me. Eight years in prison for the crimes I'd committed! I knew what such threats meant. Had I been a civilian, I could have counted on the help of competent lawyers and public opinion, both within the country and abroad. But I was in the military, so there would be a closed military tribunal. I would have no independent lawyer. To be accused was to be condemned, and to be condemned was to be ruined ... unless I confessed. And "confessed as quickly as possible and as completely as possible." Unless I admitted everything they assured me they already knew, I was doomed. And so it went, session after session, week after week. I was force-fed large portions of terrifying threats with an occasional dessert of false hope. Except for Captain G., who was always present, new interrogators kept coming, their ranks reaching all the way up to that of general.
All this attention, to be sure, gave me a sense of importance - the kind of importance felt by a fox being hunted by a king and his entourage, with their fine horses, sleek hounds, and deadly weapons! But one overwhelming emotion drowned almost all others: fear. Sometimes paralyzing fear - fear that makes your body melt, not just your soul tremble. Though I was never physically tortured, I was firmly held in my interrogators' iron hand and completely dependent on their mercy. They could do with me anything they wanted; and their eyes, as they pummeled me with threats, told me they would relish seeing me suffer. I did not fear so much the threatened imprisonment - I feared the seeming omnipotence of these evildoers. It felt as though a ubiquitous evil eye was watching me, as though an evil mind was twisting for its own purposes what the evil eye saw, as though an evil will was bent on tormenting me, as though a powerful, far-reaching hand lay at the disposal of that will. I was trapped and helpless, with no ground of my own on which to stand. Or from which to resist. Trembling before the false gods of power, I was something, all right. But as a person, I was nothing.
Memory of Abuse
The "conversations" stopped as abruptly as they had begun - and without an explanation. After my term in the military was up, security officers made a lame attempt at enlisting me to work for them. "Considering what you've done, we have treated you well," an officer told me. "You know what you deserved. You can show your gratitude by working for us." Gratitude? For months of my life stolen by interrogations just because I am a Christian theologian and married to an American? For all the mental torment? For fear, helplessness, and humiliation? For colonizing my interior life even after I was discharged from the military? For causing me month after month to view the world through the lens of abuse and to mistrust everyone?
My interrogations might be categorized as a mid-level form of abuse - greater than an insult or a blow, but mild compared to the torture and suffering many others have undergone at the hands of tormentors, especially those schooled in Red Army methods. No prolonged isolation, no sleep deprivation, no starvation, no painful body positions, no physical assault or sexual mistreatment. Yet, even afterward, my mind was enslaved by the abuse I had suffered. It was 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. I knew that it would not be wise to forget anyway, even if I could. At least not right away. Psychological as well as political reasons spoke against it. So gradually I pushed the Captain a bit to the side and arranged to live my life around him. When little else was going on, he would still catch my eye and make me listen for a while to his charges and threats. But mostly I had my back turned to him, and his voice was drowned in the bustle of everyday activities. The arrangement worked rather well. It still does - in fact, now he is confined to the far corner of my dark basement and reduced to a dim shadow of his former self.
My success at sidelining the Captain, however, left the main worry about my relationship to him almost untouched. That worry had surfaced as soon as the interrogations started: I was being mistreated, so how should I respond? The way I felt like responding was one thing. I wanted to scream and curse and return in kind. In his novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West reports the musings of the interrogator Kamenev: "Once you have taken a man to pieces under questioning, once you have laid out the bits on the table and put them together again, then a strange thing happens. Either you love him or you hate him for the rest of your life. He will either love you or hate you in return." I don't know what my interrogator felt for me, but I felt absolutely no love for him. Only cold, enduring anger that even vengeance, if it were possible, would not alter. But I sensed - maybe more subconsciously than consciously - that if I gave in to what I felt, I would not be responding as a free human being but reacting as a wounded animal. And it did not matter whether that reaction happened in the physical world (which was impossible) or in my imagination. To act as a human being is to honor feelings, even the thirst for revenge, but it is also to follow moral requirements stitched by God into the fabric of our humanity. Fear-ridden and humiliated as I was, I was determined not to lose what I believed was best in the human spirit - love of one's neighbors, even if they prove to be enemies.
The more severe the wrongdoing, the more likely we are to react rather than respond, to act toward wrongdoers the way we feel like acting rather than the way we should act. Would I have clung to the principle of loving one's enemies had I been as severely abused as the Abu Ghraib detainees - or worse? I might not have. The force of the abuse might have overwhelmed my capacity even to think of loving my abusers - of wishing them well, of seeking to do good for them, of working to establish a human bond with them. Would, however, my inability have canceled the requirement to love my enemy? I think not. It would simply have postponed its fulfillment until some power beyond my own had returned me to myself. Then I would be able to do what deep down I knew I should do. Then I would be able to echo in my own way the struggle and the victory given voice in the sermon by nineteenth-century abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth titled "When I Found Jesus":
Praise, praise, praise to the Lord! An' I begun to feel such a love in my soul as I never felt before - love of all creatures. An' then, all of a sudden, it stopped, an' I said, Dar's de White folks dat have abused you, an' beat you, an' abused your people - think o' them! But then there came another rush of Love through my soul, an' I cried out loud - "Lord, I can love even de White folks!"
Fortunately for me, it was only Captain G. that I had to love, not "de White folks," not people who hack others to death, not monsters out to exterminate entire ethnic groups.
To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life. In my own situation, I could do nothing about the first victory of evil, but I could prevent the second. Captain G. would not mold me into his image. Instead of returning evil for evil, I would heed the Apostle Paul and try to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). After all, I myself had been redeemed by the God who in Christ died for the redemption of the ungodly And so once again, now in relation to Captain G., I started walking - and stumbling - in the footsteps of the enemy-loving God.
How, then, should I relate to Captain G. in my imagination now that his wrongdoing was repeating itself only in my memory? How should I remember him and what he had done to me? Like the people of God throughout the ages, I had often prayed the words of the psalmist: "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O Lord" (25:7). What would it mean for me to remember Captain G. and his wrongdoing in the way I prayed to God to remember me and my own wrongdoing? How should the one who loves remember the wrongdoer and the wrongdoing?
That is the issue I have set out to explore in this book. My topic is the memory of wrongdoing suffered by a person who desires neither to hate nor to disregard but to love the wrongdoer. This may seem an unusual way of casting the problem of memory of wrongs suffered. Yet, to embrace the heart of the Christian faith is precisely to be pulled beyond the zone of comfort into the risky territory marked by the commitment to love one's enemies. There memory must be guided by the vow to be benevolent and beneficent, even to the wrongdoer.
Many victims believe that they have no obligation whatsoever to love the wrongdoer and are inclined to think that if they were in fact to love the wrongdoer, they would betray rather than fulfill their humanity. From this perspective, to the extent that perpetrators are truly guilty, they should be treated as they deserve to be treated - with the strict enforcement of retributive justice. I understand the force of that argument. But if I were to share this view, I would have to give up on a stance toward others that lies at the heart of the Christian faith - love of the enemy, love that does not exclude the concern for justice but goes beyond it. In this book, I do not make the argument for a love of the enemy that at the same time affirms justice and goes beyond it; I simply assume it to be a given of the Christian faith.
In looking at the kinds of questions that arise when a victim seeks to remember in accordance with the commitment to love the wrongdoer, I will refer throughout the book to my own interrogations, since in large measure these have been the crucible for my exploration of this topic. For me they have also been a window into the experiences of countless others both today and in the past, especially the sufferings of people in the last century, the bloodiest of them all. In Chapter Two, I will join the larger ongoing conversation among psychologists, historians, and public intellectuals about the importance of memory, a conversation that started largely in response to the great catastrophes of the last century, such as two world wars, Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, purges by Stalin and Mao, and the Rwandan genocide. I will argue that it is important not merely to remember, but also to remember rightly. And in the rest of the book I will explore from a Christian standpoint what it means to remember rightly. But here, in the second part of this current chapter, I will register how the struggle to remember rightly looks from the inside, in the experience of a person who was wronged but who strives to love the wrongdoer. So now that I have sketched the memory of my interrogations, I turn to examine critically - even interrogate - that very memory.
Excerpted from THE END OF MEMORY by Miroslav Volf Copyright © 2006 by Miroslav Volf. Excerpted by permission.
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