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.

Asylum Seeker Policy, Miroslav Volf, and the Will to Embrace

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference headlined by Miroslav Volf.

The man is extraordinary.

It’s not only his piercing insight and profound wisdom, but also the way he models the message that’s so impressive. The conference, in particular, was about public faith, and I have never before seen someone so fully articulate and embody the art of speaking in an ‘authentic voice’ from a faith perspective in the public domain.

Professor Volf is, I believe, one of the most important theologians of our time. His book Exclusion & Embrace, I would argue, is possibly the most important theological work in the past 100 years.

I don’t say that lightly.

In that book, Volf outlines a profound vision for true reconciliation, which he pictures as  ’embrace’. I want to pick up on just a couple of aspects of that vision in this post and the next, specifically in regards to how it might be useful for Australian Christians—and, indeed, Australians in general—when thinking about the political process and specific public policy.

In this first post, I want to focus specifically on Volf’s articulation of the will to embrace, and to think about what it could look like in regards to Australian policy towards asylum seekers.

In Exclusion & Embrace, Volf suggests that:

The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. (p. 29)

This is, no doubt, a challenging thought.

For Christians, however, I can’t see any way in which we can get around the idea. The essential core of Christian belief is that this is precisely what God has done, and indeed is central to who God is. The Christian God, as demonstrated most fully in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, is a self-giving God who always makes the first move towards reconciliation. It is God who makes space in God-self for humanity, long before humanity makes room for God. It is God who extends an eternal ‘welcome’ to broken humanity as a prior act to any movement of humanity towards God.

As such, if Christians are to make the claim that they are truly following the God of Jesus, this must be a central element.

For Australian Christians, then, the question needs to be asked what this might look like in regards to issues like policy towards asylum seekers.

Asylum seeker policy in Australia is a complex, disputed area. Both major parties seem to have concluded (admittedly rightly) that the majority of the Australian public are willing to allow—and even to vote for—harsh, punitive measures designed to ‘deter’ asylum seekers coming to Australia.* As I’ve previously argued, Australian political leaders have even callously co-opted the language of compassion, arguing that ‘stopping the boats’ is the truly compassionate response as it stops people dying at sea on the dangerous journey. It is conveniently ignored, however, that our policy measures do nothing at all in regards to dealing with the ‘push’ factors, which see many people without any other viable option but to flee their countries of origin. Current Australian policy simply pushes the ‘problem’ out of sight, out of mind, and cares not whether these vulnerable human beings die somewhere else, as long as they do so quietly, or at least out of our view.

I want to ask the question, then, as to whether or not this view is compatible in any way with a Christian understanding of the world. The issues are complex, to be sure, but I believe the question needs to be asked whether ‘deterrence’ measures, on their own, have any redemptive qualities whatsoever.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not convinced that it is possible for a Christian truly to support a policy of ‘deterrence’ alone—without a significant level of cognitive dissonance, at any rate.

Some may argue that this is precisely why ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ should be kept separate (in the interests of keeping religious belief from meddling in ‘necessary’ policy measures). I would suggest, however, that it is not possible for a Christian to approach the political process in any other way than as who they truly are (in precisely the same way as any other person—religious or otherwise—approaches the whole of their life from a certain philosophical frame of reference, whether they are conscious of it or not). The focus should not be the impossible task of trying to divorce one’s ‘religious’ outlook from their political decision-making, but rather to learn to speak in one’s own voice in the task of working towards true and full human flourishing in the context of multiple other voices (with each having the same right to speak into the public space and truly to be heard).

For Christians, then, as Volf notes:

A genuinely Christian reflection on social issues must be rooted in the self-giving love of the divine Trinity as manifested on the cross of Christ. (p. 25)

As such, there is no (authentic) way that I can see of escaping from a theology of embrace—even when it comes to such tricky issues as asylum seeker policy. Whatever specific policy measures Australian Christians decide to support in regards to asylum seekers, this point simply cannot be ignored.

Once asylum seekers are recognised as human,** Australian Christians have no other choice but to ‘welcome’ them, and “to readjust our identities to make space for them”. This is necessarily prior to any form of judgment, whether it be in regards to reasons why someone is seeking asylum in the first place, or in regards to certain social or cultural issues which could be viewed as ‘threatening’.

But this is not the end of the story.

Some may be convinced, at this point, that I am arguing for a naïve policy of ‘open borders’. While it is true that I have significant problems with the idea of hard nationalistic boundaries (in light of the Gospel message that seems to subordinate ‘identity markers’ of every kind to the idea of the fullness of humanity made ‘in the image of God’), I am not arguing here for Australia simply to accept any arrivals uncritically.

As Volf notes, though the will to embrace is necessarily prior to everything else, the fullness of embrace is a little more complex. The will to embrace is unconditional; the embrace itself (full reconciliation) is conditional on truth and justice (p. 29).

As such, I believe that there does need to be some clear process of determining the refugee status of asylum seekers, as well as measures to ensure the health and security both of asylum seekers themselves, and of the Australian public. In addition to this, a certain consistency is necessary in regards to responding to asylum seekers and other displaced peoples around the world, not just those who are able to make it Australian territory for the processing of their claim.

For what it’s worth, this is why I personally back increasing funding to UNHCR facilities throughout our region, which would help create some sense of order and the possibility of a safe pathway for asylum seekers to attain refugee status in a reasonable timeframe, and for claims for asylum to be reasonably (and impartially) assessed. I also argue, in the interests of justice, for Australia to increase its asylum seeker intake, both from our region and from refugee camps around the world, to ensure that asylum seekers can see that there are other viable (and much safer) options than getting on a leaky boat and setting out on the perilous journey to Australia. Finally, it’s why I also back a limit of 1 month for reasonable on-shore detention of irregular maritime arrivals who do make it to Australian territory (to determine security and health status), before being released into the community while their request for asylum is processed.**

The specific policy measures are not so much the point, however, as the framework that underpins it. That framework, I have suggested, must include the will to embrace as an essential initial step, and then a pathway of truth and justice towards the fullness of embrace. None of these steps may be ignored.

In Volf’s words:

There can be no justice without the will to embrace. It is, however, equally true that there can be no genuine and lasting embrace without justice. (p. 216)

In summary, then, I would suggest that, for Australian Christians, the constant and necessary stance towards asylum seekers must always begin with the will to embrace. This sort of ‘welcome’ is precisely the sort of thing that is embodied so well by Welcome to Australia. This initial stance doesn’t deny the necessity for truth and justice to follow, however it always precedes them.

The fullness of embrace, however, follows the necessary process of truth and justice. There does need to be ‘right judgement’ in regards to the determining of refugee status. Once that process is completed, the fullness of embrace is made possible (and, perhaps, required).

This, I would argue, must be the necessary basis for Christian reflection on asylum seeker policy in Australia. Whatever the final form of the policy measures might look like, this framework is non-negotiable. If Christians in Australia implemented such a framework, it is my belief that public discourse concerning asylum seekers would be changed dramatically. Australian Christians, by embodying these principles, could substantially alter the sickening course of asylum seeker policy in this country.

But I don’t think the framework is only applicable for Christians.

The framework itself is rooted in what it means to be human. Human flourishing is best and most fully achieved in healthy relationship with the other, rather than the fragmentation of society, the enforcement of arbitrary markers of exclusive group identity, and the victory of self-interest above everything else.

As Volf notes:

We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges. (p. 66)

There is not only the possibility of humans finding the fullness of their own identity in the other, indeed the fullness of one’s own identity can only be found in the self-giving (and other-receiving) of relationality. It is worth noting that this fullness is not found in the erasing of all difference (and the assimilation of all into a faceless nothing), but rather in the receiving of the (distinct) other in embrace, and the growth that comes from making room in oneself for the other, and vice versa.

It is my belief that Volf’s articulation of this framework could lie at the heart of significant reform of asylum seeker policy in Australia and the tone of discussion about these issues, and that the framework is workable for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is my prayer that this would be so.

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* It’s worth noting that this is not some passive recognition of the mood of the Australian public. I would argue that there has been a deliberate attempt by Australian political leaders to manipulate precisely this situation.

** This sounds like a silly point, but the deliberate dehumanisation of asylum seekers has reached extraordinary levels. This is precisely why, I would argue, the majority of Australians currently support not only harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers, but many are in favour of even harsher measures(!).

*** I can’t understand, though, why it is seemingly only those who arrive by boat who need to be ‘locked up’, rather than the tens of thousands of visa over-stayers each year (who usually arrive by plane). I would suggest that it is largely an issue of blatant racism, but I’m not sure that it would be helpful for the discussion at this point.

A Reflection on Sameness and Difference for Australia/Survival/Invasion Day

It seems to me that one of the significant causes of tension around Australia/Survival/Invasion Day is the increasing tendency towards narrowly defined (and increasingly aggressive) nationalism in majority Australian society.

Now, please let me say this clearly: there is nothing necessarily wrong with being proud of one’s nation or culture or identity. Having a positive (though not blinkered) view of one’s identity is fine; it’s when this identity seeks to define itself over and against the other in negative terms that we have the beginnings of the problem.

In the words of Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, this type of situation ends up in exclusion, which can manifest itself either as a cutting off from interdependence (the other becomes the enemy), or as the disintegration of the difference (the other becomes assimilated).

This is the sort of thing, I think, we’re seeing around ‘Australia Day’ (as well as ANZAC Day and in general conversations that include discussions of ‘national identity’), in regards both to attitudes towards Indigenous Australians and towards ‘new’ Australians. The only options, it seems, are either full assimilation or (therefore necessary) separation. One can either (quite literally) lose themselves in the prevailing culture, or they can, as is so eloquently put in numerous social media memes, f@#k off!

Such a limited and aggressive understanding of identity is distressing in so many ways.

But is there really no other option? Are we Australians so small-minded that ‘sameness’ is really the best that we can come up with?

I don’t think so. Though the angry voices for ‘unity’-based-on-exclusion are usually the loudest, I am convinced both that there is a better way and that Australians, in general, are clever enough and big-hearted enough to embrace it.

In Volf’s words:

We are who we are not because we are separate from others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.*

Surely we can be sophisticated enough to recognise difference within our larger category of what it means to be ‘Australian’. We can be different but still united; we can be united but still different.

(In another post, I may seek to explore the theology of this in more detail. I’ll say here simply that this is part of the very core of Christian theology.)

This, it seems to me, would allow us to recognise that Indigenous Australians can ‘be Australian’ in a different way than I, as an Australian of British heritage, am, and that different Indigenous Australians will do so in a variety of ways (i.e. there is not just one way of being an ‘Indigenous Australian’). In the same way, more recent arrivals to our shores should be able to embrace what it means to be ‘Australian’ without needing to lose what it is that makes them who they are.

Personally, I can’t see how ‘being Australian’ can mean anything else.

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* Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, p. 66.