“Transitional justice” is not something you hear spoken about very much – if at all – in church circles on this island. Yesterday’s seminar on “Faith Communities and Transitional Justice” at the University of Ulster in Belfast sought to bring faith communities in Northern Ireland into conversation with academic studies in this field, exploring insights that could inform debate and practical action among Christians.
The event featured two academics with expertise on the role of the churches in transitional justice in Latin America, Prof Cath Collins from the University of Ulster and Prof David Tombs from TCD at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics).
After their presentations, Rev Lesley Carroll, the minister at Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian in North Belfast, and Fr Tim Bartlett, reflected on the relevance of transitional justice for churches in Northern Ireland.
Academic study in the field of transitional justice could, of course, inform current debates on this island about how we “deal with the past.”
Transitional justice is concerned with state-level, institutional reforms. It is also concerned with what all civil society actors, not just churches, can contribute to the process of moving from violence to peace.
Transitional justice refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses. These measures include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms.
But as Carroll acknowledged:
“Churches don’t generally think in terms of transitional justice at all, or even know what it is. … And [for people from my Christian tradition] transitional can sound unnecessarily compromising.”
Collins and Tombs offered overarching perspectives, providing examples from a variety of Latin American contexts of the contributions, and the limitations of the contributions, of the churches.
They focused on the role of the Catholic Church, given that this is by far the largest denomination in Latin America and has been most prominent in transitional justice processes there.
Tombs spoke of the Catholic Church balancing three tendencies in each Latin American context:
1. The tendency for power and privilege
2. The tendency for pastoral care and social responsibility
3. The tendency for prophetic witness and radical action
It is easy to see how the concern to cling to power and privilege could counteract the tendencies for care, responsibility, witness and radical action. Collins emphasised that where the churches and their representatives deliberately chose to spurn the power and privilege offered by the state, they were better able to contribute to transitional processes, especially around truth-telling.
Both Collins and Tombs highlighted three main areas in which the churches had contributed.
For Collins, these were:
1. Offering a discursive, moral challenge
2. Sheltering victims
3. Documenting human rights abuses
Tombs chose to emphasise:
1. Acting as a witness to suffering
2. Sheltering those in need
3. Advocating reconciliation
Tombs qualified his foregrounding of reconciliation, saying some churches had opted for a “shallow political reconciliation” at the expense of a “deeper social reconciliation.” At the same time others, like Oscar Romero, had chosen the difficult path of balancing liberation with a deep conception of reconciliation and had suffered (and died) for this.
Collins added that the term reconciliation had been rejected in many contexts as “a code word for those who wanted nothing done.” In other words, in such cases reconciliation was seen as a mechanism for drawing a line under the past, with justice subsumed in a flippant forgiveness or a cheap grace.
In her response, Carroll observed that “the churches haven’t fitted themselves into Northern Ireland’s transitional justice process.”
But she argued that “transitional justice can give us a framework for understanding the in-between time in which we live.” It can also provide a “methodology” to “complexify” and therefore better understand the difficult and ambiguous time in which we live.
Carroll shared how the churches have struggled to contribute to debates on criminal accountability, truth telling, institutional reform, memorialisation, and reparation (what she called the “five pillars” of transitional justice).
When speaking of institutional reform, she suggested that a more robust theology of conversion and change could enrich public debate. When speaking of reparation, she suggested that acts of acknowledgement and apology could be part of reparation, making me wonder if this is an area in which churches could take a lead?
Bartlett’s reflections centred around two themes. He said:
1. Transitional justice is inherently Christian – but the Christian message calls us to go beyond it
2. There are subtle and important differences in how Catholics and Protestants approach the concept of transitional justice
Bartlett said that Catholics generally seem more comfortable with theologies that emphasise processes, journeys and transitions – echoing Carroll’s earlier comment that “[for people from my Christian tradition] transitional can sound unnecessarily compromising.” For example, some Protestant traditions emphasise a decisive moment of conversion, while Catholicism presents conversion as an ongoing process.
Bartlett claimed that people may be more guided by these differing theological assumptions than they recognise or acknowledge – and that this has consequences in the way they frame public debate.
And while Bartlett appreciated the flexibility of his own tradition, he said Catholicism’s tendency to embrace the process was currently allowing some to rewrite history to say that “violence was okay.” He asked:
“Who is reminding us of the Catholic Church’s, and Catholic people’s, condemnation of violence? Nationalism is not standing up to say that.”
I was also struck by Bartlett’s exhortation that Christians should go beyond transitional justice. Seeking transitional justice in a secular, civic or political context is difficult enough. But, he said, the gospel demands more.
Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount, he said Jesus’ admonitions “go beyond what is rational and reasonable into the territory of love. … And love is what transforms the world.”
“Relationship and encounter are key to understanding what justice is and what it demands. It demands we restore community and heal broken relationships. It calls us to examine and transform our attitudes.”
During question and response sessions, many of the practitioners in the room seemed to search for concrete suggestions about what they could do to help the churches to which they belong contribute to reconciliation – or to use the language of the seminar, to contribute to transitional justice.
There were, of course, no pat answers, no recipes to follow. Carroll spoke of “living through the complexity with each other,” intentionally seeking to understand others’ perspectives and form relationships with them. Bartlett spoke of drawing on their Christian traditions to “leaven” public discourse.
It is ultimately up to Christians on this island to draw from the best of those examples the best they can – from seemingly small, but intentional, everyday acts of encounter to deliberately bringing more reconciliatory perspectives into public debate.