The Place of Justice in Reconciliation

Desmond Tutu

By Cameron Van Patterson

Many have applauded the success of South Africa’s post-apartheid efforts at racial reconciliation, but few have critiqued what is fundamentally flawed about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — namely, that it sacrifices justice on the altar of stability.


Reconciliation without justice is reconciliation under duress. It does not allow the unnatural rupture between two people, nations, or groups to be properly sutured and healed. Indeed, if the cost of reconciliation is disregarding justice, then the price is too high.


Although the TRC — an initiative lead by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and NGOs such as the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) — is based upon Judeo-Christian understandings of forgiveness and reconciliation that are not shared by all South Africans who suffered under apartheid, it is imperative that one consider the relationship between justice and reconciliation within this religious tradition in order to comprehend the problem posed by the substitution of truth for justice in the process of reconciliation.



"The price of the ticket"

In his collection of daily devotionals inspired by various scriptures from the Bible, the Christian theologian Oswald Chambers wrote: “I am made right with God because … Christ died. When I turn to God and by belief accept what God reveals, the miraculous atonement by the cross of Christ instantly places me into a right relationship with God. And as a result of the supernatural miracle of God’s grace I stand justified, not because I am sorry for my sin, or because I have repented, but because of what Jesus has done.”


In his reading of Romans 5:10, Chambers calls our attention to the fact that it is the crucifixion of Christ that reconciles mankind and God. The mere act of a person’s faith in God is not enough to reconcile him or her to God. A sacrifice was required in order to achieve this goal. That sacrifice was the gift of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ.


Through Christ's death the sins of mankind were expunged from the record, making it possible for God and men and women to commune together. Before this could happen, however, Christ had to become sin. His blood justifies man before God.


The point here is that God’s justice was a prerequisite to the reconciliation of God and all of humanity. The latter is moot without the former. Therefore, one would think that in accordance with this fundamental principle the TRC would prioritize the necessity of justice as a prerequisite to racial reconciliation, but this, unfortunately, was not the case.


Instead, Archbishop Desmond Tutu emphasized the power of love and forgiveness; both of which are pillars of faith within the Judeo-Christian tradition, but neither of which can be realized in the absence of justice. Justification is the inevitable price one must pay for reconciliation.


The heart of reconciliation

In his forward to volume six of the TRC report, Archbishop Tutu wrote: “For the sake of our stability, it is fortunate that the kind of details exposed by the Commission did not come out in a series of criminal trials, which — because of the difficulty of proving cases beyond reasonable doubt in the absence of witnesses other than co-conspirators — most likely would have ended in acquittals.”


The difficulty described by Archbishop Tutu is not without merit, but rather than absolve those responsible for crimes committed under apartheid of the consequences of their actions in the interests of stability, one must insist upon justice and invent a means of executing it where none exists.


This, perhaps, is the greatest challenge to otherworldly conceptions of Christian faith in an utterly tragic world where God’s judgment seems woefully inadequate. For such Christians, the ominous question of whether or not Christianity is relevant enough to provide an answer to the why of human suffering and oppression looms overhead like a cumulus cloud. At the very least, justice affords those who suffer at the hands of injustice a measure of recourse beyond the mere recognition of their pain.


Regardless of how impotent the Christian church may seem with regard to such questions in modern history, the social engineering of a process by which justice is manifested in this world is necessitated by the very idea of reconciliation as embodied in the life of Christ. Inventing such a process is precisely what it means, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, to be “creatively maladjusted.”


No less is demanded of the TRC, for “even though South Africa has been largely successful at attaining some sort of reconciliation at the national level,” writes author Bryan Mark Urbsaitis, “this should not be confused with individual’s personal ongoing reconciliation needs. Furthermore, as South Africans become even more temporally distant from 1994 — the year most referenced as the beginning of liberation — reconciliation fatigue may be causing them to forget their reconciliation responsibilities toward victims of apartheid prematurely.”


Without proper reparation and/or restitution being made two parties cannot be reconciled. Therefore, justice is necessary in the process of reconciliation. Regrettably, the TRC discounts this fact. It substitutes truth-telling or confession for justice and restitution. Not only does this approach to bringing about racial reconciliation rob the victims of apartheid (yet again) of justice, but it is also quite unsuccessful in bringing about long-term healing.


If, as Howard Thurman writes, “Man’s relation to man and man’s relation to God are one relation,” then the character of Christianity hinges upon the interpersonal manifestation of justice as much as it does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


The heart of reconciliation is oneness. The problem of sin in mankind’s relation to God is resolved in Christ on the cross, but reconciliation among people requires an orientation toward God and an understanding of sin that has been missing from dominant conceptions of Christianity in modern history for some time. As Douglas John Hall writes, in its original, biblical sense, sin is rebellion against God. “This rejection of God,” he contends, “is never isolated from the other counterparts of humanity’s threefold relatedness. What is from one perspective a rejection of God is, from another, the rejection of other people and, from another, the rejection of the natural environment.”


A conception of sin that delimits it to individual acts of immorality fails to recognize the fact that those ideas, institutions, and laws, which separate us from nature and each other (i.e., apartheid), also separate us from God.


Ultimately, sin is suicide in the form of alienation. It is therefore mankind’s rejection of life itself that is atoned for in Christ on the cross. His example demonstrates that only a revolutionary love ethic, which brings justice to the conflict between the trauma of human experience in history and the persevering hope for total reconciliation in God, can overcome death. If we wish to change the conditions of human experience, we must first change the predominant image of what it means to be human: We must change ourselves by changing the way we relate to God, to each other, and to the environment. Love and justice must characterize all three relations. Indeed, “Our human relationships are the very conditions in which the ideal life of God should be exhibited,” wrote Chambers.


Atonement and reconciliation

Apart from Christ’s act of substitution and atonement, the reconciliation of God and mankind would not be possible (2 Corinthians 5:18). From a theological point of view, Christ is the ethical dimension of justice that satisfies God’s demand for righteousness. In short, he makes reconciliation real. For not only did Jesus speak truth to power in love, but he also offered himself as justification for sin on behalf of humanity.


True reconciliation, then, requires more than truth telling or confession. It requires atonement and justification. Archbishop Tutu acknowledges this fact in stating, “The healing of those who came to us does hinge on their receiving more substantial reparations and I would be very deeply distressed if our country were to let down those who had the magnanimity and generosity of spirit to reveal their pain in public.” The public disclosure of black suffering that was so integral to the TRC process only becomes a cathartic resource for healing once the articulation of victimization is met with just action. Without the latter, the unveiling of one’s wounds dissolves into a spectacle that becomes part of the violent trauma and legacy of apartheid.


If relations of power and representation as well as the human dignity of individuals and communities in South Africa are to be restored fully, the place of justice and reparation must be first in the process of reconciliation. As many have said, the TRC is a beginning not an end. Its example is incomplete without the greater portion that is the restoration of human dignity, the restitution of economic wealth and stability, and, above all, the realization of justice for those victimized by the systemic violence of the apartheid state at the hands of those whose interests it served.


Contrary to those who would point to the improbability of successfully convicting people guilty of apartheid crimes against humanity, it is the postponement of atonement for such crimes that poses the greatest threat to the functional stability of democracy in South Africa.


Archbishop Tutu may indeed have cause for distress, for as Urbsaitis’ research reveals, “While the TRC laid a foundation for personal reconciliation through, among other measures, conceptualizing a framework for individual reparation payouts to victims and survivors of apartheid-era abuses to honor their suffering, victims and survivors often felt that these measures were only ineffectively and halfheartedly implemented when those who received them, in the end, were given only a fraction of what the TRC recommended.”


In the rush to create something akin to the beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned, South Africa must not lose sight of his often quoted but seldom embraced words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


Justice is what lies at the ethical core of Dr. King’s dream. His love for humanity was animated by his insistence on the human dignity and just relation of all people. When we allow one person to oppress another, we allow all to be oppressed. Likewise, when we allow justice to go unrealized, we allow our humanity to be diminished.


In the absence of justice, reconciliation serves only the interests of power by placating the righteous indignation of the dispossessed. Reconciliation without justice inspires only bitterness and resentment. The moral outrage of those victimized by their former oppressors only grows more and more intense in the absence of just recompense.


If we truly desire a post-racial society that embraces cultural differences, then we must first create the conditions for its possibility. Put differently, we will never live in a post-racial world until we live in a post-racist one. To achieve this, we must make right the relationship between those who benefit from racial inequality and those who suffer its consequences. Those of us whom call ourselves Christians, in particular, have a responsibility to promote just reconciliation; for just as Christ was in the world reconciling humans to God, so we have within us the ministry of reconciliation.


The 2009 film Invictus exemplifies the extent to which South Africa’s progress toward racial rapprochement and democracy has become a test case, a model, and a symbol of hope throughout the world. As the nation prepares to host the 2010 World Cup, there will be an overwhelming measure of emphasis placed upon the question of reconciliation. In celebrating what progress has been made, however, we must not do so uncritically. Indeed, the historic presidencies of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, both of whom have been awarded Nobel Peace Prizes, does not absolve us of the universal responsibility we share in fighting for racial justice.


Racial reconciliation is a process not a conclusion. It cannot make progress in the absence of reparation, equality, and, most importantly, justice. What justice looks like may vary across different historical and social contexts, but it is always, ultimately, about atonement.

Cameron Van PattersonCameron Van Patterson is a doctoral candidate in the African and African American Studies Department at Harvard University where he studies contemporary art, visual culture, and history. His research focuses on the relationship between visual art and social difference throughout the African diaspora. Van Patterson has taught at the high school and college levels, and currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This is the John Perkins Center video Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.