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forgiveness, truth and reconciliation


The role of forgiveness has been much discussed in the literature on transitional justice, but a basic point has been muddled: most acts of forgiveness are inherently personal and cannot be achieved by state actors alone. What I call personal forgiveness is extended by a single human victim who has been harmed by a wrongdoer. Personal forgiveness is distinguishable from three other forms of forgiveness: group forgiveness, legal forgiveness (a form of group forgiveness), and political forgiveness. In the context of transitional justice, I argue that: (1) personal forgiveness is a necessary condition for political forgiveness; (2) group forgiveness (including legal forgiveness), while not without a normative function, cannot effectuate either personal or political forgiveness, and (3) personal forgiveness requires a shared narrative framework to lead to political forgiveness. These assertions lead to two further observations. First, because the state has a normative role in its (limited) capacity to forgive on its own behalf and a practical role in its ability to spread and to transmit a shared narrative framework, the state has an important place in political forgiveness. Second, because the primary historical example of political forgiveness in transitional justice is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that unfolded within an explicitly Christian theological framework, it may be that the shared narrative framework need be religious or even Christian in nature.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Forgiveness, Truth commissions