Archive - October 27, 2017

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Debating Forgiveness: In Warm Appreciation of Colleen Murphy’s Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice

Debating Forgiveness: In Warm Appreciation of Colleen Murphy’s Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice

I delivered the following remarks at a panel launching philosopher Colleen Murphy’s outstanding new book, The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice at the University of Illinois-Urbana on Monday, October 23rd, 2017.

It is such an honor to comment on Colleen Murphy’s new book on transitional justice, which I believe is an outstanding success and deserves to be regarded as one of the leading accounts of transitional justice. Colleen succeeds both in showing that transitional justice is a distinct circumstance, or context, of justice, and how transitional justice can be a compelling substantive concept of justice. It is out of deep sympathy and admiration for the aims and achievements of Colleen’s book that I would like to pay it the tribute of engaged critique, focusing on her second task, the substantive content of transitional justice.

What I would like to argue is that Colleen’s substantive concept of transitional justice is one and the same as the concept widely known as restorative justice. Were Colleen to accept this argument, it would in no way negate her intricate and well-defended claims, but it would serve the cause of unity and conceptual progress in the global conversation about transitional justice and would fortify a widely recognized school of thought.

Restorative justice is a concept of justice that has arisen within stable western democracies to address crime within communities, especially that involving juveniles. Several theorists, though, have sought to expand restorative justice to entire societies addressing past injustices. Restorative justice articulates all of the major core features of Colleen’s concept of transitional justice, indeed the very features that, in my view, make it so compelling: a central stress on relationship; a holistic and interdependent approach to harms and restorative practices; the participation of relevant stakeholders; the retributivist insight that justice must address wrong and guilt; and a conception of crime and its redress that is broadened to the wide web of victims, harms, and perpetrators. Restorative justice, in my view, is virtually synonymous with another concept familiar to political transitions, reconciliation, which is the holistic restoration of right relationship. Reconciliation was the central concept that Colleen defended in her last book, A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation, and on p. 120 of the present book she notes the close link between reconciliation and her rendering of transitional justice. If reconciliation and restorative justice are also one and the same, then Colleen herself points to the resonance of her thinking with restorative justice.

Now, early in the present book, Colleen explicitly considers restorative justice but declines its invitation. Her reason? Restorative justice centers upon forgiveness, which she explains does not properly belong in the justice of societal transitions. In fact, though, the restorative justice literature itself does not center forgiveness as she believes it does. True, some theorists of political restorative justice include forgiveness. I am one of them, as is, far more prominently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, whose book, No Future Without Forgiveness, weaves forgiveness tightly into the fabric of restorative justice. But the broad literature on restorative justice, including some of its most distinguished theorists like John Braithwaite and Howard Zehr, does not integrate forgiveness into restorative justice. So, Colleen could well render her theory restorative justice while maintaining her skepticism of forgiveness.

I wish to argue further, however, that forgiveness ought to be included in restorative justice and reconciliation in collective, political, transitional contexts and to enter a dialogue with Colleen about her reasons for rejecting it, which she spells out on pages 23 and 24, echoing her previous book’s position. She makes clear that she has no objection to forgiveness in interpersonal contexts where basic background conditions like reciprocity and respect are in place. But, she argues, when these background conditions are not in place, as is the case with war and dictatorship, forgiveness is a no-go. It is a passive, submissive response that can serve to maintain conditions of oppression or injustice and fails to recognize the value of anger or resentment, which can be critical to the self-worth and self-respect of victims, she maintains.

I want to argue for a different way of thinking about forgiveness, though, and to show, if briefly, how it can help construct right relationships in transitional political orders. I draw not only upon arguments about what forgiveness is but also upon an empirical investigation of forgiveness in the wake of armed conflict that I conducted in Uganda, a country whose experience Colleen reflects upon towards the end of her book. Through a nationwide survey of 640 inhabitants of five regions where armed violence took place, ten focus groups, and twenty-seven in-depth interviews, I investigated the frequency and character of forgiveness in fraught political contexts.

Forgiveness is not foreign to countries facing gargantuan violent pasts. A discourse of forgiveness could be found in South Africa, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Guatemala, Chile, Northern Ireland, Germany, Timor Leste, and numerous other transitional countries of the past generation. Global leaders, most notably Tutu and Pope John Paul II, advocated it as well. Discourse does not mean just practice, of course, but it does establish that forgiveness is not merely the brainchild of scholars sitting in offices in western universities.

Defense begins with definition. Colleen says that forgiveness is a matter of overcoming anger and resentment, which it is in part, but I hold that forgiveness involves another dimension, a will to construct right relationship. The forgiver wills to construe a perpetrator as one against whom he no longer holds an offense and to treat the perpetrator accordingly. This critical component of forgiveness helps to reframe forgiveness as something other than a passive acquiescence to injustice, which it might be were it merely a matter of relinquishment. Now, the forgiver is an active, constructive agent who seeks to build peace, both with respect to the perpetrator but also, in contexts of political injustice, in the society that badly needs to address its past injustices. In becoming an active constructor, the forgiver arguably regains agency rather than reinforces her passive position.

Importantly, forgiveness does not condone, but rather presupposes, a full identification and condemnation of injustices. It shares this construal with resentment and, like resentment, seeks to overcome or defeat this injustice, albeit in a different manner. Indeed, in contributing to restoring relationship, forgivers arguably enact the transitional justice of restored relationships.

Consider Angelina Atyam, a Ugandan mother of a girl whom the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted from a girls school along with 130 other girls in 1996. Meeting with other parents of abducted daughters in a local church, Atyam sensed a call to forgive, which she followed. She even sought out the mother of the LRA soldier who held her daughter in captivity and, through her, forgave the soldier along with his entire clan. When the soldier later died in the conflict, Atyam sought her out and wept with her. Atyam became a public advocate for forgiveness, which she believed could contribute greatly to peace.

Other prominent cases of forgivers who actively constructed better social worlds might be mentioned, too –Nelson Mandela, for instance. Both Mandela and Atyam also illustrate that forgiveness is compatible with other kinds of efforts to build justice. Mandela actively sought the demise of apartheid and spent 26 years in prison for it. Atyam and the other parents formed an association to advocate for the girls’ release. When Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, felt threatened by the international exposure that these efforts elicited, he approached Atyam and offered to release her daughter if she and the other parents would cease their efforts. Atyam refused: She would only cease if all the girls were released. No passive acquiescence to injustice can be found here.

I have argued in my book, Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, that there are theoretical reasons why forgiveness is compatible with judicial punishment, reparations, the telling of truth, and public apologies on the part of perpetrators, all of which provide compensation or vindication to victims. Ugandans agree. The survey showed victims being widely sympathetic towards all of these measures but also, interestingly, willing to practice forgiveness even when these measures were absent, as they by and large were in Uganda.

Are Atyam and Mandela rare saints? Here is where the survey is telling. It revealed that 68% of Ugandans who suffered violence in contexts of war exercised forgiveness. 86% agreed with the statement that it is good to forgive in the aftermath of armed violence. These startlingly high numbers were corroborated in the focus groups, where participants offered thoughtful reflections on forgiveness, including some of its liabilities, but in no case argued that forgiveness was beyond the pale or the preserve of the rare saint. Broadly, Ugandans living in the aftermath of violence agree that forgiveness is in principle an appropriate action and have undertaken it frequently.

One of the standard charges against forgiveness, reflecting the worry about victims becoming more victimized, is that it is, but should not be, pressured upon victims. The criticism is right. Forgiveness, which depends uniquely upon the inward will of victims, ought not to be pressured. The problem, though, is the pressure, and not the forgiveness. 94% of the Ugandans who forgave reported that they were not pressured to forgive, showing that pressure is not endemic to the practice of forgiveness in political settings.

Contributing to the plausibility of forgiveness in Uganda is a dimension that it is critical to its performance: religion. Ugandans are predominantly Christian and rank high in measures of religiosity. 82% of those who forgave reported having done so on account of their religious beliefs. Forgiveness was equally religiously motivated in one region that was predominantly Muslim. This reflects a trend that applies to transitional justice globally, which has taken place predominantly, though not exclusively, among majority Christian populations in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and East Asia. It should not be surprising that religious leaders have been major voices in transitional justice debates and are often advocates of reconciliation and forgiveness. Such was true in Uganda, where 70% of victims who forgave reported that a religious leader encouraged them to do so.

The place of religious warrants in transitional justice, of course is a debate all of its own. A case could be made that religion reframes the concepts of burden, agency, resentment, construction, and right relationship that are at stake in debates about forgiveness. This would require a foray into theology. What is important here is that forgiveness can be understood to be a practice that constructs right relationship and thus arguably has a place in Colleen’s formidable theory of transitional justice.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.