Working Through or Running from the Past? The Limits of Forgiveness and Restorative Justice

Patrick Ahern, PhD

University of Dayton

A theoretical reflection upon human rights and transitional justice compels the question of how to reckon with the devastation for communities left in the wake of a tragic past. Of course, one must be sensitive to the uniqueness and historical specificity of each community, but this does not preclude critical reflection upon the predominant theoretical, sociopolitical, and institutional approaches to restorative justice. One can understand the reticence to address a past that includes the horrors of division and social trauma, but the problem lies in the fact that history, unlike what much of Western and capitalist ideology would have us believe, does not operate in linear and discreet moments that propels communities into a liberated future. As Theodor Adorno, reflecting upon the German experience after the horrors of Nazi rule writes, “One wants to break free of the past: Rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”[1] The persistence of past struggles upon the present demands that the atrocities that have their roots in colonialism, slavery, and even nationalism, must be confronted if there is ever to be the possibility of emancipated communities.[2] In human rights theory, the most prevalent language deployed when referencing this process of healing, most famously from the South African experience, is the notion of forgiveness.

The first task of any social theory is to be responsive to those suffering, and the demands of responding to social trauma will of course differ in every social and historical context. The theoretical reflection presented here is not intended to supplant the arduous and open-ended social labor and practices required to respond to social wounds. When the discussion of transitional justice is framed in terms of forgiveness, it cannot be limited to institutional, procedural, or even strictly political elements of society. Rather, while the development of a just society entails the development of a system of justice that deals with the perpetrators of violence, our eyes should always be directed towards the healing of a community. The wisdom of ubuntu and Afro-communitarianism highlights the restorative impacts of a justice system that allows for redefining social relationships and the identity of the community. This would entail an approach that incorporates more than simply top-down approaches that address these issues in juridico-political terms, but will also require the tireless and open-ended work of NGO’s and community members in order to foster the conditions for healing. In this reflection, I will offer an examination of what is most commonly addressed in terms of forgiveness for transitional justice. I will analyze and critique the concept of forgiveness, consider models for reckoning with a tragic history, and address the necessary models of justice in order to provide for the re-imagined communal identities that break from histories and traditions of oppression. This reflection will look to the traditional philosophical notion of forgiveness offered by Bishop Joseph Butler, and reflect upon the appropriateness of applying the conception of forgiveness when applied in the sociopolitical context of transitional justice. To this end, I will look to three critiques of forgiveness when applied to the social and political context offered by Jacques Derrida, Charles Griswold, and Baruch Spinoza. I will also look to the way in which transitional justice must reckon with the past through the insights of the early Frankfurt School writers, notably Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and the notions of reckoning with the past that have emerged out of the African philosophies of Ubuntu and afro-communitarianism.  The central claim of this essay, while reflecting upon the urgency of developing democratic institutions and practices that are resistant to the persistent cycles of vengeance, will be to insist upon critically reflecting upon the concepts that guide the push for transitional justice. This critical reflection on central concepts, mainly forgiveness but also reconciliation and restoration, will highlight the challenges to developing a language to express the inexpressible in the service of interrupting mythical relations to history and social identities. In other words, how do we find the language to express the process of fractured communities in need of re-identification in the wake of a tragic past? How, in the name of transitional justice, can communities develop counter-narratives, counter-histories, and the necessary re-identification necessary to confront the debilitating force that mythical histories and identities have in preventing emancipation from past atrocities. That is, how can community’s struggling with a troubled past redefine their histories and identities to foster emancipation from the weight of their history?

[1] Theodor Adorno, Critical Models, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” 89.

[2] I include nationalism because I believe that more often than not, and certainly in the American context, it serves to reproduce rather than heal divisions. “All Nation-States are born and found themselves in violence.” Derrida, p. 57. This brings to the fore the matter of African nationalist movements, yet they are founded in response to the carving up of Africa and decolonizing the nation-states that have their territorial roots in the nationalistic domination of African land by European nation states. “Pan-African” movements strive to challenge the danger of resorting to the model of nationalism imported by colonizers.

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