This excerpt, from a longer essay, "Forgiveness, Reconciliation, & Justice: A Christian Contribution to a More Peaceful Social Environment," which appears in the book, "Forgiveness and Reconciliation," edited by Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L. Petersen, is used with permission of the publisher Templeton Foundation Press.
One way of positively relating justice to reconciliation is to suggest that the process of reconciliation can begin only after injustice has been removed. This...seems to be the position of the Kairos Document [a document, written by theologians critical of the South African regime before the dismantling of apartheid, which used the concept "cheap grace" to describe the readiness to accept love from God without any sense of obligation toward others.], which so rightly denounces "cheap reconciliation." But is this "first justice, then reconciliation" stance plausible? There are major problems with it.
First and most fundamentally, "first justice, then reconciliation" is impossible to carry out. All accounts of what is "just" are to some extent relative to a particular person or group and are invariably contested by that person's or group's rivals. In any conflict with a prolonged history, each party sees itself as the victim and perceives its rival as the pepetrator and has good reasons for reading the situation that way.
Even more significantly, as Nietzsche rightly noted in "Human, All Too Human," given the nature of human interaction, every pursuit of justice not only rests on partial injustice but also creates new injustices. In an ongoing relationship, as the temporal and spatial contexts of an offense are broadened to give an adequate account of it, it becomes clear that any action we undertake now is inescapably ambiguous, at best partially just and therefore partially unjust. No peace is possible within the overarching framework of strict justice for the simple reason that no strict justice is possible. Hence the demand at the communal or political levels is often not for "justice" but for "as much justice as possible." But the trouble is that, within the overarching framework of strict justice, enough justice never gets done because more justice is always possible than in fact gets done.
Second, even if strict justice were possible, it is questionable whether it would be desirable. Most of us today feel that the legal provisions of the Hebrew Bible, which insist that the punishment be commensurate with the crime, are excessive. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" strikes us as too severe. Originally, of course, the provision was meant to restrict the excess of vengeance. And yet it is precisely the demand for more than equal retribution that is strictly just. If a person's tooth is broken in retribution for that person's breaking mine, we are not even for the simple reason that the situation of offense is manifestly not one of exchange. In a situation of exchange, both of us would have disposal over our teeth, and I would give mine under condition that I was given his in return.
But in a situation of offense, the consent to the exchange is lacking. By breaking my tooth he has violated me and therefore deserves greater punishment than just the breaking of his tooth. Most of us, however, don't thnk that a world in which corrective justice was pursued even with such strictness as the principle "tooth for a tooth" demands would be a desirable one; and so, even when we demand "justice," we are in fact after something much less than strict justice, which is to say that we are ready tacitly to "forgive" part of the offense. We are at least implicitly aware that the normal functioning of human life is impossible without grace.
Yet some form of communion--some form of positive relationship--needs to be established if the victim and perpetrator are to be fully healed. Consider the fact that personal and group identities are not defined simply from within an individual or a group, apart from relationships with their near and distant neighbors. We are who we are not simply as autonomous and self-constituting entities but essentially also as related and other determined. I, Miroslav Volf, am who I am not simply because I am distinct from all other individuals but in part also because over the past two years, for instance, I have been shaped by interaction with my son, Nathanael....
If we are in part who we are because we are embedded in a nexus of relations that make others part of ourselves, then we cannot be properly healed without our relationships being healed too. The pursuit of justice, even if per impossibile fully successful, would satisfy our sense of what is right but would not heal us. It would bring us peace only as the absence of war, but not as the harmonious ordering of differences.
The "first justice, then reconciliation" stance implies that forgiveness should be offered only after the demands of justice have been satisfied. Forgiveness here means no more than the refusal to allow an adequately redressed wrongdoing to continue to qualify negatively one's relationship with the wrongdoer.
Strange as it may seem, forgiveness after justice is not much different from forgiveness outside justice. Forgiveness outside justice means treating the offender as if he had not committed the offense. Forgiveness after justice means doing the same--only the demand that justice be satisfied before forgiveness can be given is meant to redress the situation so that one can rightly treat the wrongdoer as if he had not committed the deed.
Whereas in the first case forgiveness is the stance of a heroic individual who is "strong" and "noble" enough to be unconcerned with the offense, in the second case, forgiveness is the stance of a strictly moral individual who shows enough integrity so that after the injustice has been redressed he or she refuses to feel and act vindictively. To forgive outside justice is to make no moral demands; to forgive after justice is not to be vindictive. In both cases it is to treat the offender as if he had not committed the offense or as if it were not his.
The first and decisive argument that I brought against the "first justice then reconciliation" stance applies to this notion of forgiveness, too. If justice is impossible, as I have argued, then forgiveness could never take place. There is another important argument against this motion of forgiveness. If forgiveness were properly given only after strict justice had been established, then one would not be going beyond one's duty in offering forgiveness; one would indeed wrong the original wrongdoer if one did not offer forgiveness. "The wrong has been fully redressed," an offender could complain if forgiveness were not forthcoming, "and hence you owe me forgiveness." But this is not how we understand forgiveness. It is a gift that the wronged gives to the wrongdoer. If we forgive we are considered magnanimous; if we refuse to forgive, we may be insufficiently virtuous--for, as Robert Adams argues, "we ought in general be treated better than we deserve"--but we do not wrong the other.
We need to look for an alternative both to forgiveness and reconciliation outside of justice and to forgiveness and reconciliation after justice. I want to suggest that such an alternative notion of forgiveness and reconciliation is to be found at the heart of the Christian faith--in the narrative of the cross of Christ, which reveals the very character of God. On the cross, God is manifest as the God who, though in no way indifferent toward the distinction between good and evil, nonetheless lets the sun shine on both the good and the evil (cf. Matt. 5:45); as the God of indiscriminate love who died for the ungodly to bring them into the divine communion (cf. Rom.5:8); as the God who offers grace--not cheap grace, but grace nonetheless--to the vilest evildoer.