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Daniel PhilpottApril 04, 2005

Christian ethicists are far more reticent about how the United States should proceed in an Iraq exploding with car bombs than they were about whether to launch the present war in the first place. Their reserve is unsurprising, for both just war ethicists and pacifists have much to say about whether to fight, when to fight and how to fightbut little about rebuilding riven societies. Over most of the past century, Christian political thought has focused on defining morality in warfare and prescribing responses to discrete offenses: jus ad bellum, jus in bello, pacifism, punishment. But what should ethicists make of Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor and Iraq, places where peace not only falls short of justice, that are utterly devastated and where the social and physical landscapes resemble Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones? Here, memories of death and injustice are recent and fresh, ready to ignite into revenge. What is needed is a jus post bellum, a morality of repair.

John Paul II on Reconciliation

In his message for the 2002 World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II affirmed the right to defend oneself against terrorism, but made forgiveness and reconciliation his central theme. In the Old and New Testaments, reconciliation means restoration of right relationship. The Christian tradition emphasizes restorative practices of healing, repentance and forgiveness between individuals. Now John Paul II is advocating these for collectivities: nations, civilizations and the church itself.

In a quarter-century of statements and speeches, the pope has taught reconciliation under three headings: apology, forgiveness and dialogue. By his own example he has shown the importance of apology. According to the Italian journalist Luigi Accatoli, John Paul has led the Catholic Church in apologizing for its own members’ past sins at least 94 times for 21 categories of historical offenses, including hostility toward Jews, slavery, denials of religious freedom, the Crusades and the Inquisition.

He has taught also forgiveness as a practice for nations and states, beginning with his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy, 1980) and repeating the theme in several later messages, including his post-Sept. 11 message for the World Day of Peace in 2002, in which he appended to Paul VI’s famous no peace without justice the phrase no justice without forgiveness.

Finally, the pope has led the church in dialogue, which, he explains, involves the charitable uttering and hearing of disagreement in the hope of a deepened understanding. Besides urging dialogue between Christian churches and world religions, John Paul II has called for a dialogue between civilizations, an invitation to which Muslim leaders, including President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, have responded warmly.

The Ethics of Reconciliation

A social ethic of reconciliation is an important development in Catholic social thought. Besides the pope, Catholic thinkers like William Cavanaugh, Robert Schreiter, William Bole, Drew Christiansen, S.J., Robert Hennemeyer and others have advanced the idea, as have Protestant ethicists like Donald Shriver, Miroslav Volf, Gregory Jones and Mark Amstutz. What all of these voices suppose is that a Christian social ethic, like the Gospel in the life of an individual person, is incomplete if it consists solely of a set of norms prescribing what is good, just, right and consonant with natural lawthe logic of most Christian political thought since the Middle Ages. A new social ethic must also teach how a society ought to proceed when everything has gone wrong, and how it can realize healing, forgiveness and restoration as social processes grounded in the Cross and the Eucharist, a logic that dates back to the Gospel itself.

Ethicists must now translate these theological concepts into an applied political ethic, specifying how and by what moral criteria reconciliation might take place. Much still remains unclear. Following the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, for example, who was supposed to forgive? President Bush? The American people? The families of the victims? And whom were they to forgive? Osama bin Laden? Al Qaeda? Muslims? Should Saddam Hussein now be forgiven? Does forgiveness preclude trials? Can states forgive while also conducting war against their attackers, which John Paul II, after all, affirmed could be just? What does reconciliation mean today in Iraq?

The way toward an applied ethic is being highlighted by religiously inspired leaders who have discovered ways to practice reconciliation in the testy politics of today’s recovering societies. In many sites of suffering, they have helped create and conduct truth commissions, official bodies that investigate past injustices. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Bishop Carlos Belo in East Timor and President Patricio Aylwin in Chile have supported commissions by speaking publicly about repentance, forgiveness and healing, by comforting victims and by inspiring contrition in perpetrators. In Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi, not satisfied with his government commission’s failure to name perpetrators, formed an independent commission to investigate human rights abuses in his country’s long civil war. On the day after he released the commission’s report in 1998, he was assassinated.

Religious leaders and communities can work more directly for reconciliation within civil society. Drawing from its charisms of friendship and prayer, the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association, brought together political leaders, diplomats and church officials to negotiate an end to a civil war in Mozambique that had claimed the lives of over a million people. Religious communities have succeeded in bringing together embittered enemies in Nicaragua, Bosnia and Northern Ireland. In Kashmir and Sudan, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy has conducted faith-based diplomacy aimed at fostering a moral vision of reconciliation among leaders of civil society and government alike. In Kashmir, where I have been closely involved in the center’s work, I have seen bitter partisans coming to forgive their enemies and then helping form a network of leaders in civil society who are committed to reconciliation.

Three Tasks

Some staple principles of an applied ethic of reconciliation are emerging from this practice. Among them is the importance of acknowledging the injustices others have suffered. One of the remarkable results of the truth commissions in South Africa and Chile was that the victims of political violence found healing through the public recounting of their suffering. In Kashmir, what brought Hindus and Muslims to repent and forgive was having members of their opposing community hear their suffering. In Latin America, large populations came to a restorative knowledge of suffering in their midst through the reports of the truth commission, which became best sellers in the streets. Acknowledgment, of course, is not always restorative; many victims remain adamant in their demand for revenge. But it has proven a boon to reconciliation in South Africa, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, East Timor and many other lands.

Even with the acknowledgement of their suffering, victims commonly demand that their perpetrators be made to come to terms with their injusticesand rightfully so. Accountability is an essential principle of reconciliation; without it, reconciliation is cheap. For this reason, John Paul II teaches in Dives in Misericordia that forgiveness does not replace or supersede justice and reparation for evil. Politically, this means that reconciliation should never be advanced through general amnesties. Such arrangements typically arise not from principled decisions but in response to demands made by powerful perpetrators and the acquiescence of populations desperate for peace. This was the case when President Carlos Menem of Argentina pardoned the generals who fought the Dirty Wars of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But neither does accountability always require strictly proportionate punishment. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission achieved the open testimony and sometimes the contrition of perpetrators through an amnesty that was conditional upon full disclosure.

Apology and forgiveness are the crowning principles of a social ethics of reconciliation. But how do they take shape in the affairs of nations? Apologies, though far from common, are accepted practice, as are financial reparations for victims. As state policy, forgiveness is far rarer. Nevertheless, committed leaders can encourage it, promote it and legitimize it. Although the South African commission did not officially mandate forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu proclaimed it, creating a cultural momentum that encouraged many South Africans to practice it. Churches and organizations in civil society promote forgiveness in communities and among leaders through their moral influence.

Reconciliation in Iraq

Acknowledgment, accountability, apology and forgivenesswhat do these principles mean in Iraq? Accountability surely demands the tribunals for Saddam Hussein and other perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity that the Bush administration and the Iraqi interim government now envision. Leading human rights groups agree, though they insist that only international auspices can avoid a perception of victors’ justice.

But trials will go only a small way toward repairing a social order in which tens of thousands of Kurds, Shiites and others have suffered. Kanan Makiya, who heads the Iraq Research and Documentation Project, captured the need for reconciliation when he told The (London) Sunday Times that the legacy of pain and violence is going to be one of the hardest things to resolve, which is why the process has to be about truth-telling. There has to be accountability and some forgiveness. At least six Iraqi parties have drawn up blueprints for a truth commission. A report of the International Center for Transitional Justice, based on interviews with nearly 400 Iraqi citizens, also found broad support for a truth-recovery process.

By allowing victims to relate their suffering publicly, an Iraqi truth commission would reveal the truth about the atrocities of the past quarter-century and construct a national narrative of human rights abuses. For deeds less heinous than genocide and crimes against humanity, perpetrators might be pardoned in exchange for their testimony and contrition. Coupled with trials, truth commissions could help to establish the rule of law and legitimacy for the new regime.

Apologies and forgiveness, by contrast, are best fostered through forums at the community level, in which identifying historical wounds, hearing stories of suffering and practicing rituals of reconciliation provide the context in which healing can occurr. In this, Iraq might learn from East Timor, which combines a national truth commission with local community reconciliation forums. Just as the Catholic Church is a major promoter of East Timor’s approach, so in deeply Islamic Iraq, religious organizations ought to be especially effective in promoting reconciliation on the community level.

Can an Islamic state, like a Christian one, be a site for an ethic of reconciliation? Although reconciliation is understood most deeply in its scriptural setting, it is broadly enough understood to be portable across borders and civilizations. John Paul II’s efforts to engage Muslims in dialogue about forgiveness assume just such intelligibility. Indeed, Islam’s Koranic injunctions to forgive and reconcile, as well as its traditional rituals of sulh, constitute a communal practice of restorative justice that is as rich as anything found in Christianity.

Far more difficult will be the problem of stability. A truth commission is unlikely to be feasible before insurgencies cease. But paradoxically, stability and legitimacy are unlikely to come about without reconciliation efforts. It is better that these be made sooner rather than later.

Reconciliation is not a miracle cure. Not all of the truth will be told; not every perpetrator will face trial; only some will apologize and forgive. It is rather a salve that gives healing a start. In the current situation, applying a salve is good statecraft. Ethicists, then, must realize how important it is to develop an ethic of reconciliation. In making it relevant to shattered societies like Iraq, they will be carrying on one of the most important legacies of Pope John Paul II.

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