After the Grave in the Air
True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace.
While terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, theologian Miroslav Volf was only a few blocks away, speaking at the 16th Annual International Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations. Although family, friends, and coworkers tried to contact several of the attendees—which included 50 ambassadors and 150 others—neither he nor the other participants were told of the horrific events until the meeting was over. But his remarks on reconciliation are strikingly appropriate for the attack’s aftermath. The following is his speech in full:
Mr. President, Mr. Minister, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen: It is indeed my honor to address you today on the day of the opening of a new session of the General Assembly. It is appropriate, in this place where you do such important and tireless work to resolve many of the conflicts that rage around our world, for us to come before God and ask for God’s wisdom and God’s guidance. It is also appropriate, I think, for the theme of my talk to be reconciliation. I thank you for your attention as I reflect on this theme.
Allow me to start by drawing your attention to the character of the world in which we live. I will not do so by quoting statistics about many dangers and sufferings in our world, statistics that you know better than I do; instead I will offer a meditative text written by a young Jewish poet immediately after World War II. It is a poem with unpredictable rhythms, a poem with grim metaphors, a poem with a startling combination of tenderness and brutality. Here is the first stanza.
Black milk of daybreak.
We drink it at evening.
We drink it at midday and morning.
We drink it at night.
We drink and we drink.
We shovel a grave in the air.
There you won’t lie all too cramped.
A man lives in the house.
He plays with his vipers.
He writes when it grows dark to Germany,
Of your golden-haired Margarita.
He writes it and steps out of doors.
And the stars are all sparkling.
He whistles his hounds to come close.
He whistles his Jews into rows,
Has them shovel a grave in the ground.
He commands us “play up for the dance.”
This poem must be one of the most remarkable literary creations about the most infamous event of the twentieth century. The event is the Holocaust; the poem is Paul Celan’s Death Fugue. Behind the outlandish images of digging graves “in the air” and “in the ground” and about “playing up for the dance” lies a brutal reality. It was common practice in Nazi concentration camps to order one group of prisoners to play or sing nostalgic tunes while others dug graves or were executed. Young German men who were cultivated enough to occupy themselves with writing, and who were tender enough to daydream about their girlfriends’ golden hair, were masters of death.
Now the Holocaust is in many ways unique, perhaps not so much in its scale and brutality as in its technological sophistication and the single-mindedness with which murderous intentions were directed against particular people. But the reason that I read this poem to you is because in so many places in the world today, similar things are happening. In many respects, the Holocaust is not an anomaly in the world in which we live. Death is not just a blue-eyed master from Germany.
Rivers of blood have flowed and mountains of corpses have grown most recently in my own country, Croatia, as also in Macedonia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and other places—you name them, you know them all better than I do. They all bear horrifying testimony to the fact that the world in which we live is also a world in which the most brutal practices of exclusion are the order of the day. And I have not even mentioned living rooms. You may know that, statistically, most of the violence in this world does not happen on battlefields but in homes, between estranged spouses, parents and children, and siblings.
The poem that I quoted, Death Fugue, ends with the following line: “Your golden hair, Margarita – your ashen hair, Shulamite.” It is clear who “Margarita” is: the blond-haired German girl, the romantic ideal drawn from Goethe’s poetry, of whom the executioner tenderly daydreams. But who is “Shulamite”? Shulamite is no ash blonde, but the black and comely maiden of the Song of Songs, whose hair has grown pale because the ash of burning has fallen on it. Shulamite is the Jewish people, experiencing the most horrid events in their history. When, in Death Fugue, Paul Celan puts together Margarita and Shulamite, nothing can reconcile them—they stand next to each other as symbols of the unbridgeable gap created by unspeakable evil.
Now it is understandable why this would be so for Celan; when he wrote this poem, the ovens that had sent his own parents and many of his kin into their grave in the air had barely cooled down. But the issue remains for us today. Can we simply leave Margarita and Shulamite side by side as symbols of the unreconciliation that governs so prominently in our world. Or can we do something to reconcile estranged individuals and peoples? Sometimes it feels as if very little—almost nothing—can be done to make our world a more peaceful place, nothing except maybe to keep “containing the situation”—until the next outburst of violence.
I want to draw your attention to the resources offered by the Christian faith for fostering more peaceful social environments. One such resource is signaled in the theme of my talk: the theme of reconciliation—the reconciliation of humanity to God and the reconciliation of peoples and individuals to one another.
Now some of you might object—that objection has been in fact mentioned already today—that religion often is not a positive influence in the world of social relations. Religion, Christianity included, can and does cause conflicts.
In my experience, however, Christianity is a factor in conflict (1) when it is regarded as primarily a cultural resource, a marker of a particular group’s identity, in the name of which they then struggle against another group, rather than as the living faith of individuals and of whole communities; and (2) when there is only a superficial (though not necessarily lukewarm!) relationship to that faith, when one has not been inducted into, sustained and nurtured by a longstanding tradition of that faith. Those who have been nurtured in the Christian tradition are more likely to became agents of peace than perpetrators of violence. That is a controversial claim, I know. But there are recent studies that have shown that to be the case. A similar claim could probably be made by other religions, but, at any rate, I think it stands for the Christian religion.
So it is important to look at the resources for creating more peaceful social environments that lie at the center of the Christian faith. One of them, as I mentioned, is the notion of reconciliation. I want first to dispose of twounacceptable notions of reconciliation and then to advocate a third one.
One unacceptable notion of reconciliation is what some people have calledcheap reconciliation. Cheap reconciliation sets in contrast justice and peace. To pursue this sort of “reconciliation” means to give up the struggle for freedom, to give up the pursuit of justice. It means to put up with oppression. If we were to pursue such cheap reconciliation, it is clear that this would amount to the betrayal of those who suffer injustice, violence, and deception. But I think also that this would amount to the betrayal of the Christian faith. As I read the Christian message, a prophetic strand which denounces injustice has a prominent place in it. You cannot take away that prophetic strand from the Christian faith without gravely distorting it.
Cheap reconciliation, I think, is what has taken place in many countries in recent decades. Oppressive regimes have been replaced by more just governments, but those who committed crimes were never brought to justice—in the name of national reconciliation. The strategy was: do not rock the boat. That kind of strategy has its own virtues but has significant disadvantages as well, above all disregard for the suffering of the oppressed.
If I see things rightly, in western cultures, cheap reconciliation is not so much of a problem. If anything, we are tempted to pursue justice without even asking the question of reconciliation. That brings me to the second unacceptable notion of reconciliation. This might be described as follows:first justice, then reconciliation. Once the requirements of justice have been satisfied, then we can sit around the table and talk about reconciliation. I suggest that this way of going about “reconciliation” suffers from at least three major problems.
First, taken seriously, this stance, first justice, then reconciliation, is impossible. As Nietzche—not a theologian but nonetheless a valuable dialogue partner for theologians—rightly noted, given the nature of human interaction, all pursuit of justice not only rests upon partial injustices but also creates new injustices.
Moreover, all accounts of what is “just” are to some extent relative to a particular group and therefore invariably contested by rival groups. Those of you who have two or more children know exactly what I am talking about. How do you get to the bottom of the little quarrels that happen between children? It’s virtually impossible, because each of them has their own perspective. Multiply that in a certain way, and you get the situation of nations. So no peace is possible within the over-arching framework of strict justice for the simple reason that no strict justice is possible.
Second, even if justice could be done, it would be insufficient, because justice done would not really bring people together. In order to have healing, you have to have people brought together and reconciled.
One of the reasons why this is so is because our identities, our personal and collective identities, are not simply self-contained and internally determined; rather, they are always shaped by interaction with other people. I am Miroslav Volf, not only because I am distinct from my wife, Judy Gundry-Volf, but also because over the past 20 years, I have been shaped by a relationship with her. This holds true also for nations. I was talking to the Ambassador from my native Croatia this morning. It just happens to be the case that to be a Croatian means to have Serbs as your neighbors. You may not like it, and we Croatians certainly have not liked it at certain points because it was a difficult relationship. But that is the way it is. So because the other is part of my own identity, my own healing depends on healing of the relationship with the other.
Thirdly, justice pursued first—in addition to being strictly impossible and anyway insufficient—would also be undesirable. Recall the Old Testament law “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We think that is very excessive, very harsh; and yet when you think about it, it’s not sufficiently just. Say somebody breaks my tooth. How can it be just if, in recompense, I or somebody else breaks only one of that person’s teeth? Our relationship is asymmetrical: I haven’t done any wrong to that person. So it would seem that at least two of his teeth ought to be broken! Then we might have something like justice! But it should be clear that if we pursue “street” justice in such ways, the result will be a maimed and finally humanly unsustainable world.
As an alternative to these two unacceptable ways to understand reconciliation by relating it to justice, I want to look at the resources that lie at the very heart of the Christian tradition. At this center we find the narrative, the story, the event of the cross of Christ as an act of reconciliation of God with humanity. On the cross of Christ, God is manifested as the God who, though in no way indifferent toward the distinction between good and evil, nonetheless lets the sun shine on both the good and the evil; as the God of infinite and indiscriminate love who died for the ungodly in order to bring them into divine communion; the God who offers grace even to the vilest evildoer.
I want to draw four implications from this Christian account of who God is for our understanding of inter-human relations.
First, the will to embrace another person is unconditional. The starting point must be the primacy of the will to embrace. Since the God of Christian belief is the God of unconditional love and the God who died for the ungodly, the will to embrace the other, even the evil other, is a fundamental Christian obligation. The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, the will to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good’ and “evil.”
This is a scandal when you think about it. But it is qualified by my second point. Truth and justice are preconditions of actual embrace. Notice that I have described the will to embrace as unconditional and indiscriminate, not the embrace itself. A genuine embrace—an embrace that neither play-acts acceptance nor crushes the other—cannot take place until the truth has been said and justice established. Hence the will to embrace includes in itself the will to find out what is the case and the will to determine what is just; the will to embrace includes the will to rectify the wrongs that have been done and the will to reshape relationships so as to correspond to truth and justice.
But does this not bring us back to the unacceptable first justice, then reconciliation? Not quite. For, third, the will to embrace is the framework of the search for truth and justice. How do we find what has transpired between people so as to be able to pursue truth and justice in a particular case? My argument is this: Unless you will to embrace the other and be reconciled to her, you will not find what is truth and what is justice. For you can always interpret somebody’s outwardly generous action as a covertly violent action—as a bouquet of flowers in which a dagger is hidden. You have to want to see the other’s goodness in order actually to perceive it—provided, of course, that the other actually does manifest goodness.
Fourth and finally, embrace is the horizon of the struggle for justice. As in many of our activities, so in the struggle for justice: much depends on the telos, on the goal of that struggle. Toward what is it oriented? Is it oriented simply toward ensuring that everyone gets what one deserves? Or is it oriented toward the larger goal of healing relationships? My contention is that it must be oriented precisely toward the latter. The reason is simple. You will have justice only if you strive for something greater than justice, only if you strive after love.
My time is up. In addition to emphasizing priority of embrace while not disregarding justice I want to leave you with invitation to creativity. I don’t have time to suggest how you would acquire the will to embrace or practice embrace in concrete situations, whether in your personal or in your more communal lives. I pray that God will grant you wisdom to find creative ways to practice embrace in our world shot through with violence.
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