Reconciliation, Miroslav Volf, and the Case for ‘Remembering Rightly’

In a previous post, I began to discuss the (incredibly important) work of theologian Miroslav Volf and how it might be applied to the issue of current Australian policy towards asylum seekers.

In this post, I would like once again to bounce out of Volf’s amazing Exclusion & Embrace and begin to think through how his ideas might be applied in Australia around the issue of Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This is a complex, wide-reaching topic, and I do not want to claim for a moment that what I’m about to say will somehow ‘fix’ everything. Neither am I going to pretend that what I’m about to say is all that needs to be said on the matter. Rather, this is intended to be a relatively simple reflection on Volf’s extraordinary work, and how it might offer some practical ways forward for these discussions. It is intended as a very small part in a much larger conversation; I do hope it’s received as such.

In addition to this, it’s important to note that what I say here is directed firmly and deliberately towards my fellow non-Indigenous Australians. I came to the conclusion a while ago now that, as a non-Indigenous Australian, it is not my[/our] place to tell Indigenous Australians ‘what they need to do’. The very idea is as naïve as it is offensive. Rather, my task (as I see it) is to stand in humble solidarity and conversation with my Indigenous sisters and brothers, as we seek first and foremost to ‘speak to our own mob’ and then to return to the conversation with each other1 (and then, of course, to repeat the process), as we walk together towards a better future.

Though there is much in Volf’s work that could be useful to this discussion, I want to focus here on his notion of remembering rightly. There are a number of steps in the process of ’embrace’ (Volf’s very helpful metaphor for reconciliation), but the act of remembering rightly holds unique relevance, I believe, to the current situation in Australia.

The Need to Remember Rightly

It’s worth beginning the discussion here by asking why remembering rightly is so important, or, indeed, if it’s important at all.

As Volf makes clear, memory of ‘how it happened’ is inextricably connected to justice:

Erase memory and you wash away the blood from the perpetrator’s hands, you undo the done deed, make it disappear from history. Erase memories of the atrocities and you tempt future perpetrators with immunity. (Exclusion & Embrace, p. 234)

Simply put: the failure to remember rightly means that there can never be true or full justice.

Failing to acknowledge the truth of the matter means that the perpetrators of violence, harm, oppression, and exploitation are not held to account. Failure to acknowledge how it was means that we are unable to understand fully why things are the way they are now.

As such, the failure to remember rightly robs us of the chance of full [R]econciliation.2

In addition to this, we must remember that deception is often the best friend of oppression. Deliberate attempts to veil truth and to control the historical record allow for ongoing oppression and systemic inequality. It is often noted that the victors write history, but it should also be noted that the powerful manipulate (or obfuscate) history in order to maintain their power.

And this is why, of course, speaking truth is such a dangerous, subversive act. In many situations, to do so can cost one their life! This can be seen clearly in the record of the Hebrew prophets (calling things as they are and doing so often with significant personal cost), and in the life of Jesus himself. ‘Setting the record straight’ is no small thing.

How does all of this, though, relate to the Australian context?

In general, it seems clear that Australia has done a truly terrible job of remembering rightly when it comes to the last 200-odd years. From the violence and the massacres to the denial of full humanity to Australia’s First Peoples, from the good intentions with bad consequences to the attempted cultural and physical genocide, (perhaps the majority of) Australians are quite often clueless to the full extent of the trauma experienced by our Indigenous population. In addition to the general apathy towards understanding Australia’s modern history, it must be said that there are also many attempts to deliberately obscure elements of the past. Sometimes due to well-meaning attempts to ‘leave the past in the past so that we can move forward together’, sometimes with a much more sinister motive, these attempts to disconnect us from our past leave us with situations such as the arguments over the ‘culture wars’. The current Australian Government, for example, has suggested that too much focus on the sad history between Indigenous Australians and colonial powers constitutes a ‘black armband’ view of history, and is not a helpful exercise.3

The use of language here is interesting, to say the least.

It might be said, of course, that the current attempts to obscure the reality of Australia’s modern history constitutes an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the historical record. (My choice of language here is quite deliberate.)

At any rate, the result is that we are left with this situation where ‘how things are now’ is effectively disconnected from ‘how this situation came to be’. Detached from the truth of the historical record, systemic inequality is often kept from view and we are left with simplistic notions of ‘personal responsibility’ divorced from social and historical context.

The salt in the wound, of course, is that the attempts to ‘leave the past in the past so that we can move forward together’ or to ‘draw a line under the past’ thus become grotesque acts of injustice and of sweeping truth under the rug. In doing so, we also sweep away all hopes of full and genuine Reconciliation.

The Difficulties with Remembering Rightly and a Way Forward

For anyone who’s still reading at this point, the obvious problem that we are now faced with is the enormous difficulty we have in defining ‘truth’ and how it relates to the study of history (and thus the task of ‘remembering rightly’).

As Volf notes—and, in the interests of keeping the discussion relatively simple and not getting lost in the detail, I’ll keep this discussion fairly short and (hopefully) to the point—the modernist approach to history was well and truly overly optimistic in its belief in and its search for ‘detached objectivity’. Simply remembering history ‘as it was’ (with ‘what is true’ lining up with ‘reality’) is not so simple after all.4 Likewise, postmodern approaches are essentially bankrupt due to the equal but opposite error of a thoroughgoing relativism, not only in terms of the notion there can only be ‘interpretations’ of truth (due to the admittedly important notion of humanity’s inherent situated-ness and finiteness) but also in the undermining of the very notion of ‘independent truth’ (and the claim that all ‘truth’ is thus ‘constructed’ or ‘produced’ truth, accompanied by the power dynamics inherent in such notions).

All of this, of course, is on top of the natural tendencies of perpetrators seeking to minimise the offence or harm caused, and ‘victims’ tending to amplify the same.

An answer as to a way forward, Volf suggests, is through the notion of double vision. As Volf notes, we are not able to see the world in a perspective-less way. Acknowledging our own finiteness and situated-ness, however, does not mean that we should not attempt to see things from ‘there’, as well as from ‘here’.

As such, we must seek to ‘step outside ourselves’—if only with one foot—in order both to see things from another (admittedly finite and situated) perspective and that we might catch a glimpse of any obstructions to our own view. This requires both imagination and love; ‘love’ in the sense that we only seek to see things from ‘there’ in the first place out of a will to embrace, and ‘imagination’ in terms of the creativity required for any (even momentary) self-transcendence.

(Though Volf himself does not explicitly make the link, the suggestion here sounds close enough to the kind of Critical Realism proposed by Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan, and applied to the study of history as outlined by N.T. Wright in the first section of his magisterial The New Testament and the People of God. This approach recognises both our essential situated-ness, as well as the possibility of at least some form of self-transcendance. In Lonergan’s words, “Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.” But I digress…)

The benefit of this sort of thinking, I would suggest, is that we are able to hold in tension both our own finite and limited nature (and perspective), and the goal—motivated by love and the will to embrace—of genuinely hearing the other (and making room in ourselves for what they have to say). The resulting conversation, then, as the cycle is repeated, allows us to start better working towards defining what ‘remembering rightly’ looks like.

In regards to the Australian context, though I sometimes, in my more cynical moments, doubt that there is, in fact, a genuine will to embrace in these conversations (from both ‘sides’, though I am focused here more on the attitude of my fellow non-Indigenous Australians), I would like to believe that, in general, there is a solid foundational desire for genuine Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. As such, I am prepared to take for granted that we are already operating out of the will to embrace.

In light of this, I am more and more convinced that the very next step, at least for non-Indigenous Australians5, is the necessity of remembering rightly. Undercutting the objections of ‘the past is the past and we can’t change it’, this act would allow us at least to converse in the present on the basis of the truth of the past and how we came to be where we now find ourselves. It would be painful—both in terms of the grief and anger that many Indigenous Australians rightly feel in relation to the experiences of themselves and their ancestors, as well as in relation to the pain it would cause many non-Indigenous Australians to have to confront the horrors of the past and to find things in them[/our]selves that need confronting.

In terms of what it might look like, I guess it could be modelled in a (but not every) way on South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. Perhaps Archbishop Tutu and Professor Volf could even be enlisted as advisors for the process.

In terms of what might come from it, it’s hard to say. I suspect that there would certainly be opportunity for far more events like former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, though I suspect that such actions would need to resolve that they wouldn’t automatically be divorced from acts of material reparation/restoration from the outset.

There would also need to be large doses of humility and reminders that the process requires genuinely hearing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (and, in turn, that conversation is a two-way street).

This, it seems to me, is as good a way forward as any other option, and perhaps better than most.  Remembering rightly will not bring about Reconciliation overnight, but I am convinced that it is an important step along the way, and that it is one of—if not the—very next steps that we should work towards.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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1) The very idea of ‘conversation’ implies both speaking and listening. As a non-Indiegnous Australian, I would suggest that, due to the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in Australia, my/our speaking needs to be firmly subordinated to the listening to and learning from our Indigenous sisters and brothers. It seems to me that we haven’t had any trouble with the ‘speaking’ part, but we have certainly struggled with the ‘listening’ aspect. I’m not saying that there is no place to speak, but that, as things currently stand, there is a greater imperative to listen.

2) As noted in the previous post, though the will to embrace must precede all else (even truth and justice), the fullness of embrace cannot be achieved apart from truth and justice.

3) It does need to be said that the critique of the Australian Government’s actions towards Indigenous Australians is not necessarily a partisan issue. Though Paul Keating’s famous ‘Redfern Speech’ is a high water mark in regards to political rhetoric around these issues, the fact is that successive Australian Governments of both major parties have routinely failed to remember rightly and, subsequently, to move effectively through truth and justice towards the fullness of genuine reconciliation.

4) “To reconstruct the past as it actually happened, independent from a particular standpoint, is impossible.” (Exclusion & Embrace, p. 244.)

5) I do not for a moment want to be understood as suggesting here that this means that ‘the first step’ (and thus the power in the situation) lies with non-Indigenous Australians. I am convinced that there are certain things Indigenous people/communities can be doing that effectively alter the current power dynamic and put Indigenous people “in the driver’s seat” in these conversations. As I’ve noted above, however, I am focused on speaking with ‘my mob’ first and foremost, and working out where our responsibilities in these conversations lay.