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Promotio Iustitiae
At the service of Faith that does Justice   

Reconciliation and Justice: Ethical Guidance for a Broken World

David Hollenbach SJ

In a world deeply divided by injustice reconciliation is an urgent need if the divisions that set people against each other are to be healed. Both the injustice and the longing for reconciliation were visibly evident to me during the months I spent recently at Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya, and visiting Jesuit Refugee Service work in the eastern Africa region.

For example, there have been debates about the relation of justice and reconciliation in Uganda. In September, 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued warrants for the arrest of Joseph Kony and other leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) for committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, such as abduction of children as soldiers and sex slaves, grotesque murders and numerous rapes. Following the issuance of the arrest warrants, however, Kony declared that he would not participate in peace negotiations. This led to some, for example, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, to state that the ICC indictment blocks the attainment of peace.[1] Such an analysis suggests that promotion of reconciliation can sometimes call for abandonment of the pursuit of justice, at least for a time.

The issue raised by the Ugandan case is not unique. Similar claims that ICC actions for justice impede peace have been raised in Sudan and Kenya. Nor does the tension between justice and reconciliation always suggest that reconciliation has priority over justice. For example, the amnesties granted in the name of reconciliation to political and military leaders following massive human rights violations in Chile and El Salvador delivered neither reconciliation nor justice.[2] These debates have important political dimensions. It may be useful here, however, to consider some of the ethical issues that arise in the relation between justice and reconciliation.

We need first to clarify the meaning of terms. Reconciliation, theologically considered, is the restoration of broken relationships between God and people. God initiates this process of restoration, humans respond to God's initiative through faith, and the outcome is the rebuilding of human community as a new creation.[3] For Christians, therefore, hope for reconciliation is closely linked with faith in Christ's saving work among us.

For some this theological meaning erroneously suggests that reconciliation is a strictly spiritual reality, concerned only with our relationship with God. Seen this way, reconciliation comes about when individual sinful persons are justified by a gracious act of forgiveness by God. Analogously, reconciliation among humans is seen as coming about when one person forgives another, re-establishing a positive relationship among them on the interpersonal level. In this individualistic perspective, reconciliation has little to do with justice in social and political life.

Justice, of course, also has significance in one-on-one relations of persons with each other. Thomas Aquinas called the type of justice that is achieved in interpersonal relationships "particular justice." Justice of this sort requires fairness in the interactions between particular individuals. This kind of justice is also called commutative justice, which requires reciprocal relations among individuals or private groups on a basis of equality. For example, commutative justice requires not stealing what belongs to another and not physically assaulting another person. If these requirements are violated, justice calls for making the situation right by returning stolen goods to their owner. This is restitution, one form of retributive justice. Retributive justice can also require punishment, such as requiring someone who harmed another to provide compensation, for example by paying the victim an amount of money that provides at least symbolic compensation for the harm done. Retributive justice can also require that the perpetrator of injustice be subjected to a form of correction that seeks to change likely future behaviour and that will serve to deter similar behaviour by others. When people argue against toleration for "impunity" in the aftermath of grave abuses, they are appealing to the breakdown of retributive justice understood as a corrective or deterrent of this sort. Retributive justice can also be understood to mean administering a kind of punishment that subjects the perpetrator to a penalty equivalent in weight to that of the injustice committed. The biblical injunction "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Lev. 24:20, Ex. 21:23, Deut. 19:21) exemplifies this understanding of retributive justice.

When reconciliation is considered in relation to one-on-one injustices such as theft or bodily harm, it is often understood as calling for forgiveness and foregoing a demand for the punishment required by retributive justice. "Eye for an eye" punishments that inflict harm on the perpetrator risk turning retributive justice into a form of revenge. They can lead to a tit-for-tat cycle that makes reconciliation impossible. Thus Jesus called for replacing "an eye for an eye" with love for one's enemies (Mt. 5:38-43). Following this call, Pope John Paul II argued that forgiveness must often accompany justice if reconciliation is to be obtained; otherwise retributive justice may lock people into a repetitive cycle of violence and counter-violence rather than leading to reconciliation.[4]

Reconciliation, however, goes beyond one-on-one interpersonal relationships to the political realm. Reconciliation as the overcoming of alienation, division and enmity and as the restoration of peaceful, cooperative relationships is surely needed in the life of nations.[5] Thus it has social and even political dimensions. But what is the role of forgiveness in the political realm? Some reject the relevance of forgiveness in the political domain because they recognise how easy amnesty for major human rights violations can encourage continued injustice. Retributive justice, properly understood, seeks to stop further injustices. It imprisons perpetrators to restrain them from committing further acts of injustice. The punishment it administers seeks to deter others from thinking they too can commit injustice with impunity. For example, those who argue against the dropping of ICC charges against Joseph Kony fear that extending forgiveness may encourage the continuation of his injustices. Retributive justice, therefore, can sometimes be a prerequisite of reconciliation.

On the other hand, a half century ago, following the horrors of World War II, political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that forgiveness has an important political role. It can "undo the deeds of the past" in political life, setting both victim and perpetrator free of an ongoing cycle of injustice and retribution, enabling them to begin again in a new, more productive relationship with each other.[6] Arendt saw Jesus as the discoverer of the importance of forgiveness in human affairs. However she argued that forgiveness is not confined to either the religious or the individual realm; it has secular and political dimensions. The forgiveness shown toward those who admitted their crimes before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission facilitated the kind of new beginning Arendt envisioned. It helped in the creation of a "new South Africa."[7]

The relation of political forgiveness and reconciliation to justice can be clarified by noting that justice goes beyond the one-on-one relationships that are the focus of commutative and retributive justice. In contemporary discussions of political reconciliation, the idea of restorative justice plays a complementary role alongside that of retributive justice. Restorative justice is forward looking. It seeks the future reconstruction of community by repairing relationships and reintegrating unjustly excluded persons into civic life. Restorative justice has similarities to what Thomas Aquinas called "general justice," which enables and requires all members of the community to contribute to the common good.[8] General justice, like the concept of "social justice" in modern Catholic social thought, governs corporate behaviour in civic life and the structures of social and political institutions. It guarantees that all members of society can actively participate in social life, both by contributing to the common good and sharing in the common good to the degree necessary to protect their human dignity. Restorative justice brings this participation back to civic life when society has been fractured by conflict and injustice.

Restorative justice, therefore, can set limits to the pursuit of retributive justice, though it does not replace it. From the point of view of restorative justice, punishment of perpetrators aims primarily at stopping the injustices they have been committing and restoring their victims to a just participation in the shared life of the community. This means taking the steps needed to ensure the injustice has really ceased. For example, the restorative work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa could only occur when the gravest injustices of apartheid had already been ended by the protection of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the new South African Constitution. Restorative justice in Uganda, therefore, requires ensuring that Joseph Kony and the LRA have truly stopped their killings, abductions and rapes. Forgiveness may be called for once these atrocities have been stopped, but not before.

Restorative justice thus means that impunity should be addressed by considering whether past patterns of injustice have been stopped and whether there are institutions in place to ensure that they will not return. Stopping past injustice in this way is essential if all persons are to return to full participation in civic life. Once institutions that protect justice and basic human rights, such as the rule of law, are in place, forgiveness may further contribute to the restoration of social unity. But the goal of renewed social unity will certainly not be achieved by amnesties that permit perpetrators to continue their oppression. Nor will social unity be achieved if the truth of what has happened in a deeply conflicted society is suppressed. Reconciliation thus requires that injustice cease and that the truth be told.

Reconciliation and forgiveness, therefore, in no way suggest a lessening of the commitment to justice. Indeed movement into a future of authentic reconciliation demands a continuing struggle to eliminate the oppression, exclusion and harm that so many people continue to experience today. The gospel calls Christians to be ready to forgive once justice is attained.[9] It rules out revenge and forms of retaliation that simply replace one injustice with another. In the face of really grave injustices like apartheid and the abduction of children, renouncing revenge may call for a spirit of forgiveness that is sometimes heroic. But the gospel is certainly not a call to tolerate injustices like apartheid or abduction. Premature forgiveness will lead neither to restoration of social unity nor to reconciliation. Reconciliation requires justice, though it can go beyond justice in the granting of forgiveness. How forgiveness is to be blended with the ongoing commitment to justice in specific social circumstances will call for wise political insight and prudent moral discernment. Developing these virtues is one of the great spiritual challenges in the political life of our fractured world.

[1] Sunday Monitor (Kampala, Uganda), 9 October 2005, 2. Cited in Kashia Phillip Apulia, "The ICC Arrest Warrants for the Lord's Resistance Army Leaders and Peace Prospects for Northern Uganda," Journal of International Criminal Justice 4 (2006):179-187, at 185.

[2] See Stephen Pope, "The Convergence of Forgiveness and Justice: Lessons from El Salvador," Theological Studies 64 (2003): 812-835.

[3] Robert J. Schreiber, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbits Books, 1998), 13-19.

[4] Pope John Paul II, World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 2002, "No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness," no. 9.

[5] Mark R. Amstutz, The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 97-98.

[6] See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1959), 212-219.

[7] I recognize the limitations of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, esp. the lack of reparation to the victims of injustice. Nonetheless, the TRC was an extraordinary achievement.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 58, arts. 5 and 6.

[9] Margaret A. Farley has called this "anticipatory forgiveness" in her excellent essay "Forgiveness: A Work of Mercy Newly Relevant in the Twenty-first Century,"  in Fire Cast on the Earth--Kindling, ed. E. Davis, A. Hannon, et al. (Dublin: Mercy International Association, 2009), 185-97.

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