As the first plane was crashing into the World Trade Center, Miroslav Volf was giving an address at the UN headquarters along the East River in Manhattan, just blocks away from Ground Zero. As the first plane shook the first tower and smoke rose into the sky, Miroslav was quoting Romanian poet Paul Celan. Specifically, his poem "Death Fugue"—which paints a dark picture of human suffering during the Holocaust and the living death that was the concentration camps. "We shovel a grave in the air."
Miroslav went on to outline the features of reconciliation as embrace. "Embrace," he said that morning, "is the horizon of the struggle for justice. You will have justice only if you strive for something greater than justice, only if you strive after love."
In this episode, Miroslav talks about his experience on 9/11 with Evan Rosa, including short clips from his UN remarks 20 years ago. They consider the lasting impact of 9/11 on both American and global life, and how the event and its continuing aftermath have shaped the world.
- This podcast featured theologian Miroslav Volf
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
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- Production Assistance by Martin Chan & Nathan Jowers
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Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
Miroslav Volf: You know what struck me as I was reflecting on 9/11 - as I was speaking about reconciliation, an act of aggression was occurring. The second one was in the way in which we responded and reacted to this as a nation and many of us individually. In some sense already at the moment of memory, a revenge has an attempt to right and answer the wrong and exterminate the evil out of the world that has led to something like that, had already taken root in ourselves. And I think that it's this reaction to the violation that has stayed with me for such a long time, reflecting on, you know what an incredible cost that reaction has inflicted; the trauma that we've experienced, costs us and cost the world immensely.
Evan Rosa: This is for the life of the world, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Hello friends, thanks for listening to For the Life of the World. Today marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And for those of us who were old enough to remember where we were 20 years ago, this morning it's become kind of a flashbulb memory. It's one of those unique memories where at a particular day, and at a particular time, many of us can reconstruct where we were, what we were doing sometimes in surprising detail. It's stamped on our individual and collective consciousness. But on this 20th year remembrance of 9/11 it's significant to reflect not just on what occurred that morning twenty-years ago, but everything that has occurred since, everything that has stamped our individual and collective consciousness. I've asked Miroslav will have to come on the show today, to reflect on his own memory of where he was on 9/11, because as the first plane was crashing into the World Trade Center, Miroslav was giving an address at the UN headquarters along the East River in Manhattan, just blocks away from Ground Zero.
Miroslav Volf: 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 the 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. Allow me to start by drawing your attention to the character of the world in which we live.
Evan Rosa: As the first plane shook the first tower and smoke rose into the sky, Miroslav was quoting Romanian-Jewish poet, Paul Celan. Specifically his poem, Death Fugue, which paints a dark picture of human suffering during the Holocaust and the living death that was the concentration camps.
Miroslav Volf: Black milk of daybreak, we drink it at evening, we drink it at midday and morning. We shovel a grave in the air. There you won't lie all too cramped.
Evan Rosa: Miroslav went on to outline the features of reconciliation as embrace. Embrace, he said that morning,
Miroslav Volf: Is the horizon of the struggle for justice. You will have justice only if you strive for something greater than justice. Only if you strive after love.
Evan Rosa: In this episode, we begin by talking about his experience of that morning 20 years ago, listening to a few short clips from his UN remarks. And we consider the lasting impact of 9/11 on both American and global life and how the event and its continuing aftermath have shaped the world.
Thanks for listening friends.
Miroslav, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast this week for a commemoration, really, of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Miroslav Volf: It's good to be with you here Evan.
Evan Rosa: Your story of where you were on 9/11 is pretty remarkable. I wonder if you'd recount some of that. Where were you on 9/11 and how did you find out about the attacks?
Miroslav Volf: Well, at that day, I was in New York. I was early in the morning speaking, at the prayer breakfast meeting at United Nations. I was at the UN building itself inside the UN and I was addressing a group of Christians for, from all vocations of, from many countries gathered, gathered there. And I was giving the main address that was at 10 o'clock in the morning. Present from Japan, peace gong was to be sounded and thus the, I believe it was, 56th Assembly to be opened.
Evan Rosa: How did you actually find out about the attacks? I mean, that was that morning, right?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. It happened that morning and I was actually speaking and I saw what I thought were security personnel coming through the back door of the room where I was speaking which was a prayer breakfast, so it was more like a set of tables spread out. And I knew something must have happened. And as soon as I had finished speaking, they have immediately stepped up and said, "You need to evacuate the building right away," but not much explanation given as far as I could recall.
Evan Rosa: Wow. Did they cut your speech short?
Miroslav Volf: No, they waited until I completely finished. And I think I finished with quoting from Paul Celan's, Death Fugue, if I'm not mistaken. And then they stepped in and ushered us very quickly. And it's only then that I realized what had happened. I think by that time only first plane has hit the tower, and very soon thereafter, the second must have followed.
Black milk of daybreak, we drink it at evening. We drink it at mid-day 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, 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 Jews into rows. He has them shovel a grave in the ground. He commands us, "Play up for the dance."
Evan Rosa: Let's talk a little bit about that poem. I mean, this poem in particular, and of course the substance of your talk that morning on reconciliation, really is the remarkable element here that, that you, that this, that these two things would correlate, that your talk on reconciliation and the recitation of Death Fugue, which speaks about shovelling a grave in the air.
Miroslav Volf: Yes, obviously I couldn't have known any of what would transpire. And in some ways you may think reconciliation is the right theme, especially given my background, my writing and my interest in reconciliation and given where we were, the United Nations, the challenge of living together in diverse settings and the small conflicts and larger wars was present. But I certainly could not have in any ways anticipated how relevant the Death Fugue would be. It speaks of course, about it's a poem about Holocaust, about Auschwitz and shovelling the grave in the air, in some ways, it describes the gas chambers and the burned bodies that are going up into, into the air. And that's in a sense what has happened. Resonances were present.
Evan Rosa: I mean, yeah, this sort of dual images of ash surrounding Auschwitz and ash surrounding the World Trade Center. I mean, of course we can't compare the two events. I mean, they're both unique in their historical, historical toll and the cost of human life that was involved in both, but really, I mean, you used these words, these verses to describe the reality of brutality and exclusion in the world and, and trying to call attention to the really dire context that, that is the human condition that, that does find itself so tempted toward exclusion and brutality and violence.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, in some sense, I think the Holocaust was a unique, certainly unique and magnitude ferocity of evil, the kind of event, but also it sketched the horizon of darkest of possibilities for us. And on small scale, similar atrocities have happened in many places in the world.
Evan Rosa: I mean, this being the 20th anniversary of this collective American trauma of 9/11. The fact is it also marks the 20th anniversary of the longest American war and the kind of brutality and violence that war leaves, makes such a lasting imprint on the human community. Of course, not all of us are exposed to this. You've been exposed to it in your own life, but this is really a commemoration of a very painful memory, a memory that seems to repeat itself yearly when the country turns to memorials and reflections on 9/11, but has stayed with other people and other global communities in Afghanistan and these painful memories are there. How can our country and how can the world deal with these painful memories? And what role does Christian theology have?
Miroslav Volf: You know what struck me as I was reflecting on 9/11 and how 9/11 was not even remembered, you may put it, but perceived, which is to say, how it was read very soon after it occurred. In some ways I thought that I might talk at the UN experience dual mis-confirmation.
Evan Rosa: Say more about that.
Miroslav Volf: Dual crossing and one crossing obviously was an obvious one. That is to say, as I was speaking about reconciliation, an act of aggression was occurring. The second one was in the way in which we responded and reacted to this as a nation and many of us individually. In some sense already at the moment of memory. a, revenge has an attempted to right the wrong and exterminate the evil out of the world that has led to something like that, has already taken root in ourselves.
And I think that it's this reaction to the violation, that has stayed with me for such a long time, reflecting on, you know, what incredible cost that reaction has inflicted. The trauma that we've experienced cost us and costs the world. And you've mentioned two wars and more of those that have happened.
And I'm thinking well, that, from my perspective, and I know that a lot of people, especially maybe on 20th anniversary of 9/11, might disagree with this, but from my, in my judgment, these were and certainly Iraq War or in Afghanistan War were unjust wars, which is to say there were also unchristian wars, which is to say that they weren't themselves, without denying the evil of the attack, they themselves represented a moral action and evil. And that's an incredible thing to do in response to evil, to commit another one that seems to be kind of a moral cost of violation of other people in the process of. Hoping to right the wrong or pardon my French, as our President has said, "To kick some ass," and it's really this expression that captures the animal behind and certain kinds of moral emptiness of it, but it struck me also, that it's not just the moral cost in this regard, namely an unjust war. But I think that somewhere, I have read that the wars in the Middle East, after 9/11 has cost our country $6.4 trillion dollars.
Evan Rosa: Its unfathomable.
Miroslav Volf: That is absolutely incredible. I don't know whether that's true. Let's say it's half of that. It's much more, but if you think, "What a waste of resources that could have been done could have been used to do a great deal of good in the world." And I feel that that the burden of what we haven't done with $6.4 trillion, the good that we haven't done, it weighs on the moral conscience as well as that it took so much, in order to commit the evil that we did.
Evan Rosa: The moral injury that follows from these 20 years, it's less a flash bulb event for folks, because such a long war numbs the person to its very existence. But it's fascinating to think about your comments, about the American response following 9/11 through that slogan that came up almost immediately after 9/11, which is, "Never forget."
Miroslav Volf: Yeah.
Evan Rosa: And it's, hard to, of course we want to never forget in a kind of memorialization of those we've lost, but it's inflicted so differently when you see it through the lens of revenge, and that "never forgetting" is a kind of never reconciling, never embracing.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. I mean, do you put it quite well? And after 9/11, I have tried to articulate some of what you've just said in the book, The End Of Memory. So it's not the question of how we remember. It's not a question whether we should remember or not. And I certainly do not want to contest the claim that we should not forget. I might contest a claim that we should never forget, but we certainly should remember and memorialize it. But everything depends on what we do with our memories, how we frame our memories. And the memories have not only a kind of cognitive side, kind of knowledge side: This is what happened. But they have also a pragmatic side. And it's that pragmatic side - you used the word inflection - they were inflected in order to do certain thing in the world. That is to say, in order to motivate action of taking a certain kind of revenge or doing justice that turned out not to be justice, that turned out to be unjust.
Evan Rosa: Yeah.
Miroslav Volf: So key for me, there is how one remembers, because if one remembers wrongly, our memories themselves become a source of conflict. We can see that in many parts of the world where conflicts are always motivated by remembered past and how one remembers past then is central to whether those conflicts are going to be continued to whether they are going to be attended to with just, or unjust means. And hence the memory becomes a fundamental shift for us.
Evan Rosa: I mean, in your UN talk, you talk about these two kinds of reconciliation because that's where you're going ultimately with that talk that you gave just as that first plane was crashing into the first building. First, you outline these two different kinds of reconciliation: There's cheap reconciliation, where really the status quo remains. We never deal with injustices done. Don't rock the boat, just keep things secure. And then there's another kind of failure of reconciliation where first you try to find justice and only then after justice, would you try to seek reconciliation. Both of these are insufficient and I'm not going to ask you to spell these out, but you do qualify a kind of reconciliation as "embrace" that offers a positive vision for what healing can be in a violent world. It's the how, right? So you talk about that. "How we remember," is such an important factor.
Miroslav Volf: 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 the 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 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 evil doer.
Evan Rosa: And I wanted to start there with the "will to embrace," because you describe it as unconditional. You describe it with reference to God, that kind of indiscriminate and infinite love that God offers. So those words, infinite and discriminate and unconditional, they really stand out to me as a kind of description for that "will to embrace."
Miroslav Volf: And many people when they listen to you talk, when they listen to me talk and mentioned those words, don't know quite how to react and consider them to be inappropriate, consider them to be a betrayal of justice. And I certainly have sympathies with that.
On the other hand, I have really deep commitments to the Christian faith and to the kind of life that Christ embodied. And if one has those kinds of commitments, then the only possible way to respond to a violation, is not to simply react, but to relate to a violator in such a way that at the minimum, their humanity is recognized, the evil deed has not dehumanize the person. Nothing can dehumanize the person, because person is the person held as a human in God's hands.
And second step related to this is that love is called upon for a person, no matter what they have done. Their humanity and love are central. Now from there, then we have to ask ourselves, well, what does it then mean to love somebody who as a human being has in many ways, betrayed their very humanity that I still affirm. And the steps toward reconciliation, we can go through them. Sometimes it's necessary to isolate the person in a sense, not to allow them to continue, permitting the kinds of deeds that they have already once permitted. In other words, something like discipline seems to me quite appropriate. You have kids and I have a small kid. There's such thing as time-out and those are very good things. There are other forms of disciplines that are very good things, because their goal is to help the person return back to themselves and to the good from which they have fallen and help them not to continue on the same path and then hurt other people.
And it seems to me that it's this kind of stance, that is essential for reconciliation. Namely to appreciate the humanity and love the person, as a person, and try to find ways in which to return them back from the betrayal of the Good, which they have committed
"The will to embrace another person" is unconditional. The "will to embrace" precedes any truth about others and any construction of their justice. Truth and justice are preconditions of actual embrace, 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 is 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 to actually perceive it, provided of course, that the other actually does manifest goodness. Embrace is the horizon of the struggle for justice. You will have justice only if you strive for something greater than justice. Only if you strive after love.
Evan Rosa: You say also in the talk that "embrace" is the horizon of the struggle for justice, and that you'll only have justice if you strive for something greater than justice, only if you strive after love. I wonder if you'd just comment on that as a kind of closing reflections on the lasting impact of 9/11 on faith and culture in American and global life.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, so one of the impacts, which I wanted to imagine possibly, is that's a kind of retroactive effect that 9/11 has had on American Christians, especially Evangelical American Christians. I think that was one of the factors in the rise of Christian nationalism which, again from the perspective of the faith of Christ, it is a profound distortion of faith. In some ways, I speak in that address in that speech, also the reasons why religion is deployed in the violent and serves as the legitimization of violence. And that reason is too close of an association of a faith where the particular political project with a life of the nation, as a whole, and an absence then of critical distance on the basis of faith from the political community. And if one observes what has happened after 9/11 effects were such that you have a transformation, almost, of American Christianity, Evangelical Christianity, into something that has stepped away from the foundations of faith in the Gospels and in the life of Christ. And that seems to me to be a consequence of 9/11 that we don't talk about very often, but it has profound effects and will continue to have profound effects, not simply in terms of the loss of Christian substance by the people who take these kinds of stances, but also in the loss of ability to transmit faith to younger generations who find that this kind of association of faith and a nation, is deeply problematic.
In my experience, however, Christianity is a factor in conflict, when it is regarded as primarily a cultural resource, a marker of a particular group identity, in the name of which they then struggle against another group, rather than as the living faith of individuals and the whole communities, and when there is only a superficial, though not necessarily lukewarm relationship to that faith, when one has not been inducted into it, sustained and, nurtured by a longstanding tradition of that faith.
Evan Rosa: One last question, you end your UN talk with a call to creativity.
Miroslav Volf: I want to leave you with an invitation to creativity. I don't have time to suggest how you would acquire the "will to embrace" or practicing grace in concrete situations. Whether in your personal or in your moral communal lives, I pray that God will grant you wisdom to find creative ways to practice embrace, in a world shot through with violence.
Evan Rosa: Ultimately the work of embrace, the "will to embrace" and the practice of it in concrete situations requires a kind of creative wisdom in the life of the individual. Where have you seen that and how do you think about that today?
Miroslav Volf: Yes I think I try to practice embrace in my own life more. I'm cognizant that the no situation is the same, that clear rules on how to proceed cannot be formulated, but that it requires attentiveness to the particularities of the situation, to the character of the person with whom you are engaging. And that then means a certain kind of sympathetic identification with the person or also empathetic identification with the person and at the same time, a sense of how one might be perceived by them and why one might have been the target of the kind of action that one was when one was violated. We have life in the imagination of others and so when we empathize with them with. We thematize also this life that we have in the imagination with others - that requires creativity, that specific situation, that requires improvisation.
And I mean, if I want to put it in the Christian form of a language that the Spirit of God is the spirit of wisdom - Spirit of the new openness for the new situation to realize the great good of the life of Christ being lived in us.
Evan Rosa: Miroslav, thanks so much for joining me today and sharing some of these reflections 20 years ago. It's amazing that it's been that long. Thank you for your words here.
Miroslav Volf: It is painful to remember these things, but it is good to think about them.
Evan Rosa: Yeah, thanks.
For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian nearest levels production assistance by Martin Chan and Nathan Jowers. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday with the occasional midweek. If you're new to the show, so glad that you found us. Remember to hit subscribe, so you don't miss any episodes. And if you've been listening for awhile, thank you friends. If you're liking what you're hearing, I've got a request. Would you support us?
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