PEACEMAKING: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, And Justice — A Christian Contribution to a More Peaceful Environment, by Miroslav Volf

From Christian Peace and Nonviolence, edited by Michael G. Long

In this essay I want to contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence, and to argue, instead, that it should be seen as a contributor to more peaceful social environments.  I will not argue that the Christian faith was not and is not often employed to foster violence.  Obviously, such an argument cannot be plausibly made; not only have Christians committed atrocities and other lesser forms of violence but they have also drawn on religious beliefs to justify them.  Neither will I argue that the Christian faith has been historically less associated with violence than other major religions; I am not at all sure that this is the case.  Rather, I will argue that at least when it comes to Christianity, the cure against religiously induced or legitimized violence is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion.  Put differently, the more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity or conceive of it as exclusively a private affair of individuals, the worse off we will be; and inversely, the more we nurture it as an ongoing tradition that by its intrinsic content shapes behavior and by the domain of its regulative reach touches the public sphere, the better off we will be.  “Thick” practice of the Christian faith will help reduce violence and shape a culture of peace.

Will to Embrace, Actual Embrace

So what is the relationship between reconciliation and justice that is inscribed in the very heart of the Christian faith?  Partly to keep things rhetorically simpler, I will substitute the more poetic “embrace” for “peace” as the terminal point of the reconciliation process as I explore this issue in the remainder of my text.  The Christian tradition can be plausibly construed to make four central claims about the relation between justice and embrace.

The Primacy of the Will to Embrace

The starting point is the primacy of the will to embrace the other, even the offender.  Since the God Christians worship is the God of unconditional and indiscriminate love the will to embrace the other is the most fundamental obligation of Christians.  The claim is radical, and precisely in its radicality, so socially significant.  The will to give ourselves to others and to welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.  The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any reading of their action with respect to justice.  This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”

The primacy of the will to embrace is sustained negatively by some important insights into the nature of the human predicament.  Since the Christian tradition sees all people as marred by evil and since it conceives of evil not just as act but as a power that transcends individual actors, it rejects the construction of the world around exclusive moral polarities – here, on our side, “the just, the pure, the innocent,” and there, on the other side, “the unjust, the defiled, the guilty.”  Such a world does not exist.  If our search for peace is predicated on its existence, in its factual absence we will be prone to make the mistake of refusing to read conflicts in moral terms and thus lazily fall back on either establishing symmetries in guilt or proclaiming all actors as irrational.  Instead of conceiving of our search for peace as a struggle on behalf of “the just, the pure, the innocent,” we should understand it as an endeavor to transform the world in which justice and injustice, innocence and guilt, crisscross and intersect, and we should do so guided by the recognition that the economy of undeserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral desert.

Attending to Justice as a Precondition of Actual Embrace

Notice that I have described the will to embrace as unconditional and indiscriminate, but not the embrace itself.  A genuine embrace, an embrace that neither play-acts acceptance nor crushes the other, cannot take place until justice is attended to.  Hence the will to embrace includes in itself the will to determine what is just and to name wrong as wrong.  The will to embrace includes the will to rectify the wrongs that have been done, and it includes the will to reshape the relationships to correspond to justice.  And yet, though an actual embrace requires attending to justice, it does not require establishment of strict justice.  Indeed, the pursuit of embrace is precisely an alternative to constructing social relations around strict justice.  It is a way of creating a genuine and deeply human community of harmonious peace in an imperfect world of inescapable injustice.  Without the grace of embrace, humane life in our world in which evil is inescapably committed but our deeds are irreversible would be impossible.

Will to Embrace as Framework for the Search for Justice

To emphasize the will to embrace means more than to advocate learning how to live with inescapable injustice while not giving up on the pursuit of justice.  For the will to embrace is also a precondition of (even tenuous) convergences and agreements on what is just in a world of strife.  Without the will to embrace, each party will insist on the justness of their own cause, and strife will continue.  For, given the nature of human beings and their interaction, there is too much injustice in an uncompromising struggle for justice.

The will to embrace – love – sheds the light of knowledge by the fire it carries with it.  Our eyes need the light of this fire to perceive any justice in the causes and actions of our enemies.  Granted, our enemies may prove to be as unjust as they seem, and what they insist is just may in fact be a perversion of justice.  But if there is any justice in their causes and actions, only the will to embrace will make us capable of perceiving it, because it will let us see both them and ourselves with their eyes.  Similarly, the will to exclude – hatred – blinds by the fire it carries with it.  The fire of exclusion directs its light only on the injustice of others; any justness they may have is enveloped in darkness or branded as covert injustice – a merely contrived goodness that makes their evil all the more deadly.  Both the “clenched fist” and the “open arms” are epistemic stances; they are moral conditions of adequate moral perception.  The clenched fist hinders the perception of the possibly justness of our opponents and thereby reinforces injustice; the open arms help detect any justness that may hide behind what seems to be the manifest unjustness of our opponents and thereby reinforces justice.  To agree on justice in situations of conflict you must want more than justice; you must want embrace.

Embrace as the Horizon of the Struggle for Justice

As in many of our activities, in the struggle for justice much depends on the telos of the struggle.  Toward what is the struggle oriented?  Is it oriented simply toward ensuring that everyone gets what they deserve?  Or is it oriented toward the larger goal of healing relationships?  I think the latter is the case.  Hence the embrace should be the telos of the struggle for justice.  If not, reconciliation will not even be attempted until the “right” side has won.  And unless reconciliation is the horizon of the struggle from the outset, it is not clear why reconciliation should even been attempted after the victory of the “right” side has been achieved.

Pulling all four features of the relation between reconciliation and justice together we can say that reconciliation describes primarily a process whose goal is the creation of a community in which each recognizes and is recognized by all and in which all mutually give themselves to each other in love.  As such, the concept of reconciliation stands in opposition to any notion of self-enclosed totality predicated on various forms of exclusion.  And far from standing in contrast to justice, for such a notion of reconciliation justice is an integral element.  Though reconciliation may be seen from one angel to issue ultimately in a state “beyond justice,” it does so precisely by attending to justice rather than by circumventing it.

Forgiveness and the Primacy of Embrace

Forgiveness can be properly understood and practiced only in the context of the stance which gives primacy to reconciliation but does not give up the pursuit of justice.  So what is the relation between forgiveness and justice?

First, forgiveness does not stand outside of justice.  To the contrary, forgiveness is possible only against the backdrop of a tacit affirmation of justice.  Forgiveness always entails blame.  Anyone who has been forgiven for what she has not done will attest to that.  Forgiveness should therefore not be confused with acceptance of the other.  Acceptance is a purely positive concept; any notion of negation is foreign to it, except, obviously, that it implies negation of non-acceptance.  But negation is constitutive of forgiveness.  To offer forgiveness is at the same time to condemn the deed and accuse the doer; to receive forgiveness is at the same time to admit to the deed and accept the blame.

Second, forgiveness presupposes that justice – full justice in the strict sense of the term – has not been done.  If justice were fully done, forgiveness would not be necessary, except in the limited and inadequate sense of not being vindictive; justice itself would have fully repaid for the wrongdoing.  Forgiveness is necessary because strict justice is not done and strictly speaking, cannot be done.

Third, forgiveness entails not only the affirmation of the claims of justice but also their transcendence.  More precisely, by forgiving we affirm the claims of justice in the very act of not letting them count against the one whom we forgive.  By stating that the claims of justice need not be (fully) satisfied, the person who forgives indirectly underscores the fact that what the sense of justice claims to be a wrongdoing is indeed a wrongdoing.

Fourth, since it consists in forgoing the affirmed claims of justice, forgiveness, like any instantiation of grace, involves self-denial and risk.  One has let go of something one had a right to, and one is not fully certain whether one’s magnanimity will bear fruit either in one’s inner peace or in a restored relationship.  Yet forgiveness is also laden with promise.  Forgiveness is the context in which wrongdoers can come to the recognition of their own injustice.  To accuse wrongdoers by simply insisting on strict justice is to drive them down the path of self-justification and denial before others and before themselves.  To accuse wrongdoers by offering forgiveness is to invite them to self-knowledge and release.  Such an invitation has a potential of leading the wrongdoer to admit guilt and to repent, and thereby healing not only wrongdoers but also those who have been wronged by them.

Fifth, the first step in the process of forgiveness is unconditional.  It is not predicated on repentance on the part of the wrongdoer or on her willingness to redress the wrong committed.  Yet, full-fledged and completed forgiveness is not unconditional.  It is true that repentance – the recognition that the deed committed was evil coupled with the willingness to men one’s ways – is not so much a prerequisite of forgiveness as, more profoundly, its possible result.  Yet repentance is the kind of result of forgiveness whose absence would amount to a refusal to see oneself as guilty and therefore a refusal to receive forgiveness as forgiveness.  Hence an unrepentant wrongdoer must in the end remain an unforgiven wrongdoer – the unconditionality of the first step in the process of forgiveness notwithstanding.

Finally, forgiveness is best received if in addition to repentance there takes place some form of restitution.  Indeed, one may ask whether the repentance is genuine if the wrongdoer refuses to restore something of what she has taken away by the wrongdoing – provided that she is capable of doing so.

In sum, forgiveness is an element in the process of reconciliation, a process in which the search for justice is an integral and yet subordinate element.


In the later part of this essay I sought to explicate the social significance of the foundational act of the Christian faith – the death of Christ.  This step from the narrative of what God has done for humanity on the cross of Christ to the account of what human beings ought to do in relation to one another was often left unmade in the history of Christianity.  The logic of God’s action, it was sometimes argued, was applicable to the inner world of human souls plagued by guilt and shame; the outer relationships in family, economy, and state ought to be governed by another logic, more worldly logic.  At least in Protestantism, this disjunction between the inner and the outer was one important reason why the Christian faith could be misused to legitimize violence.  Emptied of their social import, religious symbols nonetheless floated loosely in the social world and could be harnessed to purposes that are at odds with their proper content.  Significantly, this disjunction is never to be found in the New Testament; instead, the central religious narratives and rituals are intended to shape all domains of early Christians’ lives.  Arguably, the central Christian rituals, Baptism and Eucharist, enact the narrative of divine action precisely as the pattern for lives of believers.

It may well be the case, someone may respond, that the Christian faith at its heart fosters peace rather than violence.  But in what ways can it do so in concrete social and political settings?  First, the narrative of divine action can motivate and shape behavior of individual actors in conflict situations.  Depending on their position, such individual actors can be significant and even decisive for the future of conflicts.  Second, this narrative can shape broader cultural habits and expectations that make peaceful solutions possible.  It takes a particular cultural soil for the seed of peace to bear fruit.  Of course, the narratival portrayal of divine redemptive action cannot be simply mirrored in human interaction, be that on individual, communal, or political planes.  Instead, one has to aim at culturally and situationally appropriate practical analogies as near or distant echoes of the divine redemptive action that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Finally, the narrative of divine action as it applies to human interaction can help shape social institutions.  One way to think about how this may be the case is to recall the concluding words of Anthony Giddens’s book, Modernity and Self-Identity.  After noting the emergence in the high modernity of what he calls “life politics” (as distinct from “emancipatory politics”), which demands a remoralization of social life, he writes:

How can we remoralize social life without falling prey to prejudices?  The more we return to existential issues, the more we find moral disagreements; how can these be reconciled?  If there are no transhistorical moral principles, how can humanity cope with clashes of “true believers” without violence?  Responding to such problems will surely require a major reconstruction of emancipatory politics as well as the pursuit of the life-political endeavors.

The narrative of the God of unconditional love who reconciles humanity without condoning injustice along with its intended patterning in the lives of human beings and communities, contains, I suggest, at least some resources for such a reconstruction of politcs.

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