Prior to one hearing of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, commission officials confronted Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His conduct of hearings, they claimed, had been too religious. The commission was supposed to be a judicial body. It had been enacted by the new South African constitution, enabled by parliamentary legislation that carefully set forth its legal basis, and carried critical legal consequences, especially for amnesty applicants. Should not Tutu separate his role as head of this legal body from his role as a Christian pastor?

Not only did he figuratively wear two hats, but he literally wore full episcopal regalia, including purple robes and a pectoral cross. His interlocutors could do little about his attire. They hoped, though, that he could put to rest the opening prayer, the frequent hymns, and the religious appeals. Tutu assented to begin daily hearings with a moment of silence rather than a prayer. However, as commission official Piet Meiring describes, his concession was reluctant and short lived:

When the clock struck nine the witnesses and their families were escorted into the crowded hall. Tutu followed with his colleagues. Chairperson shook hands with victims one by one. Then he proceeded to the platform where he took his seat. He asked for half a minute of silence. The first witness was brought to the table and sworn in. But Tutu could not get under way. He sat down. He moved his papers from side to side. Visibly uncomfortable, he looked at the victims, at the audience in the hall. "No, this won't work! We really cannot start like this," he said over the loudspeakers. "People, close your eyes so that we can pray!" A long, earnest prayer, followed—to Christ, who is the Truth, and to the Holy Spirit who had to lead us that day. After closing with "Amen," Tutu rubbed his hands together and informed the audience with a disarming smile, "There…now we are ready to proceed."

Opening prayers returned for good.

The Language of Faith

Tutu did not restrain his religion in other respects, either. At emotional points in the hearings, such as when a victim offered wrenching, teary, and often gruesome testimony, leaving the room speechless and other officials shifting and unsure how to proceed, he would lead everyone in a native hymn, conferring recognition and honor on the victim and respecting the sacred gravity of the moment. In speeches and interviews and in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu described the commission's work in terms of Christian theology. Prior to many of the commission's hearings, crowds of women would gather outside and sing hymns in anticipation of the spiritual ordeal of the testimonies to follow.

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The commission inaugurated its work with a religious ceremony at St. George's Cathedral at Cape Town. Meiring was also a clergyman and one of several religious leaders and theologians to serve as commissioners or staffers. Religious bodies provided logistical and psychological support for the hearings, recommended the commission's work to their members with religious rationales, and, most directly, participated in hearings where corporate entities testified about their role in apartheid. Many victims and perpetrators, especially ones who experienced an emotional transformation, described their experience in religious language. Cumulatively, the language of faith infused the public conversation surrounding the hearings.

Confronting Skepticism

In many other countries, too, religious people have contributed their distinctive language and activities to political proceedings that deal with the past. Religious language appears especially strong when these proceedings are sanctioned as acts of reconciliation.

That is the problem, some critics say. Several commentators on the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] have echoed the misgivings of Tutu's colleagues, reflecting even broader complaints that certain liberal philosophers have expressed in recent years about the political activities of the religious. These criticisms are of a piece with liberal skepticism of reconciliation's appropriateness and effectiveness. [The Historian Timothy] Garton Ash sympathetically quotes the complaint of Marius Schoon, whose wife and daughter were killed by the South African security forces, about the TRC's "imposition of a Christian morality of forgiveness." Liberal critics call for a far wider separation of religion and politics and many of them for an ethic demanding that religious concepts be translated into secular language before they enter public debate.

Religion's integral role in the ethic of political reconciliation demands that such skepticism be confronted. . . . [The f]irst [task of] religious traditions [is to] provide a ground for the ethic. It is in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that the concepts of justice, peace, mercy, and reconciliation that form the core of the ethic are expressed most fully and enduringly. Adapted to modern politics, these concepts yield a potent medicine for societies who are dealing with troubled pasts and pursuing stable, legitimate political orders. Fittingly, the Latin word root of religion is religare, meaning "to reconnect, to bind together."

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The second task is to provide a method for building a principled consensus on the ethic in religiously plural societies. It is with respect to this task that the role of religion evokes the strongest objections among liberal skeptics. Even were they to concede that religion contains potential for reconciliation, they charge that bringing religion into politics is disrespectful and divisive, not binding, reconnecting, or reconciling. ...

A Balm for Restoring Societies

Because of the nature of religion's claims, skeptics fear, it is likely to sow divisions and possibly violent strife among fellow citizens who do not share the same beliefs. If such a wind is allowed through the door of public life, it will destroy the whole house. The most rigorous representatives of this fear are a family of critics who propose a common solution: that religious believers should only support those political policies for which they can provide a "public justification"—that is, a justification that does not rely solely on a religious rationale…. When enactors of political reconciliation deploy religious language, they claim, as when they interfere in matters of the soul, they transgress boundaries that are necessary to liberal democracy….

If religion breeds disrespect and discord, then obviously it cannot act as a reconciling force, however appealing its distinctive concepts of justice, peace, and mercy may be. Are the arguments for public justification correct? Is religion unfit for reconciliation? My answer begins by taking issue with proposals that would forbid or restrict religion's role in the politics of dealing with the past. Not only are such strictures unjustified, but they suppress a balm for restoring societies that have suffered political wounds….

[A] first observation is that there is nothing inherent in religious rationales that prevents them from being the subject of meaningful and constructive conversations about fundamental matters of justice. Leaders from diverse religious or secular perspectives can seek to find an overlapping consensus on truth commissions, trials, and reparations, just as they might seek to find common ground on global warming, reducing their country's debt, or protecting the rights of women. They can reach consensus if they agree to hear and to be heard, to explain their view to others as best they can, to try to understand others' view as best they can, and to find agreement where possible. They need make no prior agreement, explicit or implicit, to express themselves only through reason, natural law, secular language, or any other lingua franca, though of course they may draw on any of these modes of reasoning and communication. What makes common ground possible are areas of overlap in the interlocutors' scriptures, traditions, and teachings and, of course, their goodwill and ability to communicate their ideas. The possibility of overlap, of course, depends a great deal on which religious, tribal, or philosophical traditions are involved in the conversation, which representatives of these traditions are involved, and what issue is being discussed. After all, virtually every tradition has an "internal pluralism" of diverse voices. It is impossible to say ... how much consensus on what issues can be attained, but there is no reason in principle why religious people cannot achieve such a consensus.

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A second observation runs in a different direction: The constructive potential of religion is also furthered when religious people (or members of any tradition for that matter) acknowledge a moral obligation to engage the arguments of members of other traditions and views. The value realized through dialogue is respect. In part, it is the coercive nature of law that demands the respect that dialogue promotes, as both public justification proponents and opponents such as [philosopher Christopher] Eberle aver. Through dialogue, interlocutors put reasons behind laws and their enforcement. Dialogue also promotes respect in a different sense. In deliberating, democratic citizens respect one another's dignity as beings capable of reasoning, communicating, arguing, reflecting, revising, and acting accordingly. Respect is undermined when a religious believer—or anyone of any point of view—proceeds simply by fiat, feeling, or otherwise failing to put reasons into play.

The moral values of respect implies an obligation to offer reasons to others who are of a different tradition or who may simply disagree. It does not imply an obligation either to agree or to succeed in persuasion. Sometimes democratic deliberation will increase the sphere of overlapping views, but sometimes it will not. It may bring one or both sides to rethink its views in small or in large part. Deliberators must always consider a proposed overlapping view from the perspective of their convictions, asking whether they can endorse it. When they decide that they cannot, they are free as ever to vote, lobby, urge, and bargain according to their beliefs. ...

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Rooted Reason

The approach that I have been articulating is, in elaborated form, what I [call] rooted reason. It is rooted because it invites religious believers (or any other believers) to present their full rationales—untruncated, unsanitized, and unfiltered. Yet it also asks them to enter a dialogue in which they pursue mutual understanding with those of different views. Among the fruits of deep dialogue, particularly important is overlapping consensus. The ethic depends crucially on (empirical) legitimacy: The wider the set of people who endorse it and the more deeply they hold the belief, the more likely it is to succeed. When proponents of an ethic of reconciliation not only offer their deepest reasons for the ethic but also communicate it and seek to win assent for it from people of different religious or philosophical persuasions, the overlapping consensus for it is expanded.

In any given country facing past injustices, the search for overlapping consensus will depend greatly on the religious and ideological profile of its population. Which religions are involved? What do these religions teach? What do its citizens believe? Its leaders? Some religions and some belief systems will be more favorable to the core ideas of political reconciliation than others. Perhaps it will produce agreement on some propositions but not others. ... Perhaps it will result in compromises by which certain of the practices will be realized only partially. Agreement will always be more or less, wider or narrower.

Daniel Philpott is associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. Reprinted from Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation by Daniel Philpott with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright (c) 2012 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation (Studies in Strategic Peacebuilding)
Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation (Studies in Strategic Peacebuilding)
Oxford University Press
352 pp., 38.95
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