Friday, September 21, 2001

I've been thinking about President Bush's speech last night, especially the line, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." But what does it mean to do justice? And can true justice be brought about? How is justice related to punishment, retaliation, revenge, reconciliation, forgiveness? One of the most significant theologians currently teaching and writing is Miroslav Volf. He is Croatian, received his graduate training in the United States and Germany, taught in the former Yugoslavia, now Croatia, and now teaches in the U.S. and Croatia. Toward the end of a book review about the Balkan War, in Books & Culture, Volf engages the author concerning the concepts of justice and reconciliation, including the limits of justice:
Finkielkraut [the author, jbb] starts the last chapter on reconciliation—an interview first published in Politique Internationale—on the wrong foot. "What other means, in effect, [are there] than justice to get out of the infernal cycle of revenge?" he asks rhetorically. Well, there are other means—such as forgiveness and reconciliation—and the rest of the text is in fact devoted to exploring them. But he never clarifies the relation between justice on the one side and forgiveness and reconciliation on the other. He seems to believe in the power of justice—but perhaps not in our ability, given the state of international relations, to implement it. So reconciliation becomes little more than a concession to our inability to realize justice; it rests not so much on moral engagement as on political shrewdness (in some situations "it's better to chose the path of history rather than that of a trial").

Finkielkraut does offer some wise warnings about reconciliation: for example, (1) that reconciliation presupposes the existence of discrete identities and is therefore compatible with the initial separation of parties; and (2) that reconciliation takes time and cannot be pursued effectively immediately after a war in which atrocities have been perpetrated. But missing from his account are some deeper insights into the relation between reconciliation and justice, insights on which the proper practice of reconciliation is predicated: (1) that justice can never be fully done in human affairs, and indeed that justice fully done would be disastrous, so that humane life depends on the tacit or explicit grace of forgiveness; and (2) that reconciliation and forgiveness are contingent not on the abrogation of justice but on not letting the claims of affirmed justice have full sway. Without justice as a structural element, reconciliation will always be attended by the whiff of a dirty compromise at the expense of those who suffered. With justice as a structural element, reconciliation becomes a way of affirming the humanity of both victims and perpetrators and of healing their relationships.

Finkielkraut ends his book by affirming the need to punish those who have committed "crimes that are so terrible and radical that no one has the power to pardon them." In such cases punishment is indispensable. Well, yes—depending on what one means by punishment. Informed as I am by Christian sensibilities about forgiveness, I think that the role of the courts is to identify the crime, establish the extent of culpability, and impose punishment, but only for the sake of prevention and restoration, not for the sake of retribution.
Volf goes on to discuss the link between repentence and reconciliation. Volf explores these issues in depth in a profound book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. He brilliantly brings together his personal experience of the Balkan conflicts and their aftermath, postmodern social and identity theories, and Christian theology to explore what a Christian response might be to the type of atrocity we experienced last week.

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