Remembering well – the importance of memory and healing in peacebuilding

Integral mission and theologyPeacebuilding

In my last post I ended by saying that ‘remembering well’ was the last step in the Embrace approach to peacebuilding that Tearfund uses. It is this that makes it possible for people to live and thrive with people who used to be their enemies. It is important for people to be able to remember their pasts without holding grudges or being hurt by them on a daily basis.

People lighting candles. Photo by Peter Aschoff on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Aschoff on Unsplash

The theologian Miroslav Volf describes remembering well as a ‘kind of forgetting’: he points out that while the memory of evil can be a protection against the same evil occurring again it also acts as a barrier between one person and another. This can be a continual wound in the relationship that often becomes a motivating force in future conflict. 

In one lecture, Volf described how we remember, using the image of where we keep a chair in our house. A painful memory that dominates us is like a chair sitting in the doorway of our house: we always have to work our way around it or fall over it when we enter or leave the house. A less painful memory, one we have learned to live with, is like a chair that sits in a room, out of the way: we can see it, and we know it is there, but it does not dominate our lives and hurt us all the time. 

Volf describes four aspects of remembering well in order to do justice: 

  • Truthfully: this involves telling the truth about the past, and recognising that our perspective is our own and is limited. 
  • Hopefully: this involves placing our memories in the context of a hopeful vision of the future and in the knowledge that we are loved by God. 
  • Responsibly: this involves recognising that we have a responsibility not to repeat what was done to others, as the Israelites were commanded to treat strangers well because they were once strangers in Egypt (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:34).  
  • In reconciling ways: this involves acknowledging that salvation and reconciliation are offered to our enemies as well as to us.

‘Healing is found by telling ourselves the story of the injuries we have suffered in the context of grace.’

Miroslav Volf

All people are shaped by their experiences and their memories of these experiences. But to some extent we have control over how we remember the things that we have experienced – and this can make it possible for people to heal. For Volf, this is done by telling ourselves the story of the injuries we have suffered in the context of grace. 

The sin must be remembered in order for repentance, justice and transformation to take place. But we must also remember that God forgets a sin repented of and forgiven, knowing that the salvation of the Cross is offered to the perpetrators of injustice just as it is to the victims, and that in the new creation, the former sins will be washed away.  

‘See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.’ (Isaiah 65:17) 

It is this bigger understanding of a bigger picture of reconciliation that really enables humans to reconcile with each other. If we have experienced love and forgiveness it is easier to offer it, and it is an offer that is demanded of those who have accepted reconciliation with God. 

In this short clip, René August describes a pilgrimage to Robben Island, a place of memory for South Africa, and its potential to be a part of healing conflict.

You can read Hannah’s complete series of peacebuilding blogs as well as the latest peacebuilding resources on Tearfund Learn’s website.

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Hannah Swithinbank
Hannah Swithinbank is Tearfund’s Theology & Network Engagement Manager.