Lessons in Mercy: Justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities
Three tales about bishops find their setting in what may be called our “age of peacebuilding” in the church and the world. The work of Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Uganda, Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala and Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor has been part of a global wave of efforts to deal with past injustices in order to build peace and stability. These efforts take place in the wake of a third wave of democratization that has brought an end to dictatorships in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and East Asia; after the end of civil wars in locales as diverse as Yugoslavia and Mozambique, El Salvador and Cambodia; and in the aftermath of interventions by the United States and NATO in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
On July 14, 2002, donning full episcopal regalia, Archbishop John Baptist Odama traipsed through the bush of Northern Uganda with a delegation of religious leaders to visit the hide-out of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose war of two decades against the Ugandan government has resulted in over 200,000 deaths and the abduction of thousands of children who were then forced into combat. Odama’s diplomatic safari helped to elicit peace negotiations with the L.R.A. The archbishop advocates reconciliation, opposing the International Criminal Court’s indictments of war criminals and instead urging Ugandans to forgive perpetrators—even Kony—and to practice traditional mato oput rituals of reconciliation that can help reintegrate soldiers into civilian communities.
Another bishop who advocated reconciliation, Juan Gerardi of Guatemala, was bludgeoned to death by army officers in the garage of his home in Guatemala City on April 26, 1998. Gerardi’s murder came two days after he had delivered the report of the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, which he had launched in 1995 to bring exposure to and healing from the atrocities committed during Guatemala’s generation-long civil war. Remhi was unique among the globe’s truth-recovery efforts for its personalist approach to taking testimony, involving several hundred animadores, or volunteers, who fanned out across the countryside to hear the stories of ordinary peasants and to offer them spiritual and psychological support.
A third bishop, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Carlos Belo of East Timor, stressed judicial accountability for human rights violators, particularly for Indonesian army generals who committed atrocities against Timorese civilians during Indonesia’s long occupation between 1975 and 1999. But Belo has also spoken for reconciliation, which East Timor has pursued through community justice panels that combine truth-telling by victims with apologies and community service that aim to reintegrate perpetrators of atrocities back into their societies.
As each bishop’s story attests, the age of peacebuilding is fraught with contentious questions about justice. Should top war criminals be granted amnesty in order to secure a peace agreement or a transition to democracy? Is amnesty for them ever justifiable? Should victims forgive them? May leaders apologize on behalf of nations? Do representatives of past generations merit reparations? Who owes them? Beneath all these is the question: Of what does justice consist in the wake of its massive despoliation?
Over 30 truth commissions have been established in recent decades. Two international tribunals and a permanent International Criminal Court have been erected. Trials in national courts, laws to disqualify perpetrators from holding office, reparations, apologies, museums, monuments, acts of forgiveness, traditional tribal rituals and civil society initiatives for reconciliation and trauma healing have combined in an unprecedented entrepreneurship of social repair.
Nunca mas! (“Never again!”) is the dominant answer to the question of justice within the community of human rights activists and international lawyers. The prosecution of human rights violators and war criminals is their chief demand; the International Criminal Court is their signature accomplishment; the blanket granting of amnesty common in Latin America during the 1980s is their chief nightmare. Their natural partners are Western governments and the United Nations, for whom peacebuilding has meant building regimes based on human rights, democracy, free markets and the rule of law.
Other voices, though, have articulated an alternative approach: reconciliation. They come disproportionately from religious communities and include the likes of Bishops Odama, Gerardi and Belo. Though they usually embrace human rights and sometimes punishment also, these voices advocate a far more holistic restoration of right relationships, one that addresses the wide range of wounds that human rights violations and war crimes inflict and that involves a far wider set of practices for healing these wounds.
It is only natural that the Catholic Church would take an interest in reconciliation. At the source and summit of Christian life is the Eucharist, the sacramental re-enactment of the event through which sin, evil and death are defeated and friendship with God and justice are restored. Is not peacebuilding an imitation of just this transformation? And does not a global wave of societies struggling to restore justice make the present moment a propitious one for the church to offer a teaching on social reconciliation, just as it has offered teachings on war, economic development and democracy in past encyclicals?
The foundations of such a teaching can be found in the life and writings of Pope John Paul II. Living under Nazism and Communism in Poland taught him the need for reconciliation and led him to a personal devotion to mercy. He made it the subject of his second encyclical, Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia, 1980), which he ended with the striking declaration that forgiveness and reconciliation could be practiced in politics, not just in personal relationships or in the confessional. He developed this teaching in subsequent addresses for the World Day of Peace, culminating in 2002, when, just after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he supplemented Pope Paul VI’s famous dictum, “no peace without justice,” with the phrase “no justice without forgiveness.” Pope Benedict XVI affirmed his own commitment to this teaching in part by taking a papal name reminiscent of Pope Benedict XV, who gave strong witness to reconciliation during and after the First World War.
Building on New Foundations
Now the task is to construct on this foundation an ethic that can address the dilemmas of dealing with the past to which the age of peacebuilding has given rise. Such an ethic might claim that reconciliation is itself a concept of justice. That claim will sound strange to Western ears accustomed to thinking of justice strictly in terms of rights, punishment and the distribution of wealth. But in biblical texts, justice means a comprehensive right relationship among the members of a community and God. Reconciliation, which appears often as a concept in the letters of Paul, means restoration to a state of right relationship and thus to a state of justice. Strong resonances of this meaning can be found in Second Isaiah, which uses justice to describe God’s holistic restoration of Israel, ultimately through a messianic suffering servant.
Closely related is the biblical notion of peace (shalom or eirene), which connotes a holistic condition of right relationship and of justice. One other biblical concept is essential and may be thought of as reconciliation’s animating virtue: mercy. As Pope John Paul II described it in Rich in Mercy, mercy is “manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man,” a broad, transformational virtue that resembles reconciliation.
Reconciliation as justice, peace and mercy—how are these concepts manifested in the politics of recovering societies? Through a portfolio of six practices that together address a wide range of wounds that political injustices inflict and that, if left unhealed, beget hatred, revenge and further injustices.
Six Ways to Reconciliation and Justice
In the first of these practices the social teachings of the church converge most closely with the commitments of the human rights community: building socially just institutions based on the rule of law, human rights and a commitment to economic justice. The relationships between citizens and states that these institutions embody are the very goal of reconciliation in the political realm and should not be compromised by other aspects of reconciliation. Such was the message of the South African black theologians who wrote the Kairos Document in 1985 against fellow church leaders who called for reconciliation while too feebly opposing apartheid.
But human rights and the rule of law are not enough, given the numerous wounds of injustice. One such wound is the loneliness and isolation that victims experience when their suffering is unrecognized by the community, a redoubling of the violation itself, as the South African political philosopher André du Toit has argued.
Acknowledgment, the second practice of reconciliation, imitates the God who hears the cry of the poor and remembers the suffering of his people. In the political realm it is accomplished most thoroughly by truth commissions, but also by public burials, monuments, museums and the rewriting of textbooks. Acknowledgment is at its best when it is most personal, as modeled by the animadores of Guatemala’s Remhi.
The third practice, reparations, also involves a bestowal upon victims by the state, but here it involves material payment. While reparations can only partially alleviate economic loss, their deeper purpose is, like that of acknowledgment, a symbolic recognition by the political community of victims’ suffering.
A fourth practice, punishment, may seem out of place in an ethic of reconciliation. Debates worldwide pit reconciliation against retribution and punishment against mercy, but it need not be so. From a Catholic perspective, punishment is a practice that restores shalom. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church affirms its purpose as “on the one hand, encouraging the reinsertion of the condemned person into society; on the other, fostering a justice that reconciles, a justice capable of restoring harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed.” For the masterminds of war crimes, only long-term imprisonment can communicate the gravity of their offense. Other criminal combatants, however, might be integrated back into their communities through restorative public forums like those Bishop Belo advocated in East Timor. Incompatible with just punishment are amnesties, which abandon restoration altogether; only when demonstrably necessary for a peace agreement ought they to be adopted.
Public apology, the fifth practice, is becoming more common around the globe. It involves the repentance of perpetrators and sometimes also a head of state speaking on the state’s behalf. Following the demise of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, for instance, Chile’s President Patricio Aylwin, who is a Catholic, issued a national apology to thousands of Pinochet’s torture victims with great healing effect.
Forgiveness is the sixth and crowning practice. It is also the most dramatic, for it is initiated by the victim, who not only relinquishes his or her own claim against a perpetrator but exercises a constructive will toward restored relationship. Theologically, forgiveness is a participation in God’s own redemption of the world—a world that includes the perpetrators of atrocities—through the cross. Politically, it can be restorative, sometimes dramatically so. Eugene de Kock, South Africa’s most brutal enforcer of apartheid, came to repent of his past after being forgiven by the wife of an anti-apartheid activist whom he had murdered. The Catholic Church has encouraged victims to forgive in many locales, including El Salvador, Chile, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, East Timor, Uganda and Poland.
These six practices can work together, each aiming to heal a different dimension of woundedness, each exercising mercy toward the restoration of peace, thus bringing about a greater degree of justice. In politics, the practices will always be incomplete: compromised by the powerful, hampered by differences over the meaning of justice, burdened by their sheer complexity and weakened by political institutions that have been destroyed and only partially rebuilt. This partiality, too, contains a theological dimension: original sin is also a component of a Catholic ethic of reconciliation. But faith, especially when guided by the Spirit and lived as a participation in God’s redemptive action, wins victories too. Even in politics there are moments when, in the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme.”