2006 Emergent Theological Conversation (Question to Volf)

On the third day of the conversation I (along with Tim Keel of Jacob’s Well and Emergent National Coordinator Tony Jones) was given the opportunity to engage Dr. Volf on his latest book Free of Charge.  Me and Tim both had questions for Dr. Volf.  Here’s the question I put forward to him.  This is an issue I am becoming more passionate about as I engage in this kind of ministry on the local level.  His thoughts were most helpful.  I am very much anticipating his next book that will be dealing with ‘memory’ or as he put it ‘remembering rightly’.  A very large part in the work of reconciliation is about dealing with the history.  Anyways….here is the question I put forward to Dr. Volf:

As someone engaged in the work of reconciliation along racial/ethnic lines in the church I was intrigued by your thoughts on the Forgiver’s Memory.   Specifically this notion that in our emulation of God as ‘forgetter of sin’ that we in turn ‘forget the particular sin’ of our offender.  And I want to quote a passage from the text:
Why should we let it slip into oblivion, someone may protest?  When offenses are forgotten, it looks as if they never happened at all!   But they have happened, and honesty demands that we acknowledge them.  For that reason, we should remember, the argument concludes

The next passages give us more nuance by reminding of us what you said previously about the work prior to actual forgiving.   You say:

So what happens to the obligation to remember when we let the forgiven offense slip into oblivion?  Notice that “forgetting” follows condemnation of sin and release from penalties and guild, it doesn’t happen apart from it….

Does this way of seeing and practicing forgiveness overly-individualize sin (giving too much to the narrative of Western individualism) and downplaying the systemic nature of sin. Let me give a concrete example (the scholar who offended me recently or the various instances in which I as a black man in America (in the Church) experience what I name as sinful racialized patterns of thinking and being in the world (or what the apostle Paul referred to as the ‘course of the world’ in connection to the dis-ordering work of the principalities and powers).  In going about the work of racial reconciliation I am encountering speech, ways of relating, and images that reflect the systemic reality of particular racialized patterns of thinking that bring harm and exclusion. We are not talking about isolated individual events of offense but continued racialized systemic patterns of thinking and being in the world.    

When I encounter my conversation partner who may have offended me with a particular racialized speech or way of relating in individualizing (isolating the offense to individuals) sin and not naming the systemic character of sin in our journey of racial reconciliation do I not leave him simply wrestling with flesh and blood and not (as the apostle Paul would say) with spiritual forces of wickedness; principalities and powers that influence sinful racialized patterns of thinking and being? Other systemic issues seem to become invisible as well: white privilege, what Cornel West refers to as black nihilism, etc..


5 thoughts on “2006 Emergent Theological Conversation (Question to Volf)

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  1. Anthony, it is interesting to consider your question with respect to our local revitilization planning efforts in West End Charlotte (the Beatties Ford Road corridor). The systemic nature of redlining (exclusionary finance) and then the relocation of those redlined districts to the depressed urban outskirts under Urban Renewal, is exactly the kind of systemic sin which has not only been forgotten, by and large, by your average American…but it kind of exists in a perpetual state of unaknowledged limbo, mostly I believe for economic reasons (though “economics”, of course, cannot be responsible for everything, nor can it be the convenient scapegoat–this a symptom of a western “self-atonement” complex).

    Local officials and planners do enact meager redemptive efforts, for example, the City Within a City (CWAC) employment districts, which reward employers for hiring within a specified catchment area. It is tough to justify such efforts, especially in larger scope, in our age, for obvious reasons, where such progressive measures are easily considered regressive (again for economic reasons). Although, you might think, the memory of the exclusionary practices that led to the problems these governmental efforts are addressing would seem to justify them, economics whipes white guilt completely off the radar screen. Somewhere, the muffled voice of justice speaks, but it does not seem to peter in the hearts of today’s rapidly urbanizing professional class…who do have charitable graces, but nevertheless find no personal responsibility for reversing patterns of systemic sin. The voice will exist, whether we like it or not and however much we squelch it, otherwise we can label the outsourcing of torture, for example, “economics” and we could sleep at night…despite the fact that some of leaders, God help us, already are.

  2. Eric,

    Eloquently said. I am really interested in sitting down with you and talking more in depth about how we could speak to the systemic issues in Charlotte…as Christians (maybe 33ad could explore what we are learning about Jesus in light of our context). This is something I plan on emphazing during the bridge building class. Because I believe conscience-raising requires that we find creative ways to speak biblically in order to move beyond ‘charitable graces’ into taking personal and social responsibility for our community as Christians.

    I look forward to talking with you this Sunday.


  3. Actually, our last session offers one insight:

    Exodus 34:5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in Lovingkindness and Truth; 7 keeping Lovingkindness unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.

    The last sentence is a clue that God remembers, in spite of forgiving. Iniquity is systemic, it needs dealing with, it needs to be removed by redemption. Hebraic wisdom, an amnamnestic reason, never forgets…it redeems.

    I look forward to Sunday as well.



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