Summer 2020

Religion & Transitional Justice

Colleen Murphy

Transitional justice refers to the process of dealing with human rights abuses committed during the course of ongoing conflict or repression, where such processes are established as a society aims to move toward a better state, and where a constitutive element of that better state includes democracy. A philosophical theory of transitional justice articulates what the moral criteria or standards are that processes of transitional justice must satisfy to qualify as just responses to past wrongdoing. This essay focuses on the roles of religion in transitional justice. I first consider the multiple and conflicting roles of religion during periods of conflict and repression. I then argue against conceptualizing transitional justice in a theologically grounded manner that emphasizes the importance of forgiveness. Finally, I discuss the prominent role that religious actors often play in processes of transitional justice. I close with the theoretical questions about authority and standing in transitional contexts that warrant further examination, questions that the roles of religious actors highlight. Thinking through the relationship between religion and democracy from the perspective of transitional justice is theoretically fruitful because it sheds more light on additional dimensions to the issue of authority than those scholars of liberal democracy have traditionally taken up.

Colleen Murphy is Professor in the College of Law with courtesy appointments in the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is also Director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program. She is the author of The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice (2017), A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation (2010), as well as more than fifty articles and book chapters. She is an Associate Editor of Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Journal of Moral Philosophy, and Science and Engineering Ethics, and a Member of the Editorial Board of Law and Philosophy.

This essay considers the relationship between religion and democracy through the lens of transitional justice, drawing on the case of South Africa. Transitional justice broadly refers to the formal and informal processes of dealing with past wrongs committed during the course of ongoing conflict and repression. Such processes are established in the context of an attempted transition away from protracted periods of conflict and/or repression and toward democracy. There are many forms such transitional justice processes take, from criminal trials, truth commissions, amnesty, and memorials, to reparations and programs of lustration whereby individuals are barred from serving in specific public roles. Transitional justice processes are defended as important for their own sake and, in particular, insofar as they satisfy the rights of victims and moral demands on perpetrators. They are also valued for instrumental reasons, especially their contributions to democratization.

There is no neat or simple relationship that exists between religion and transitional justice, as the mixed roles of religion in conflict and repression in South Africa make clear. But how should we understand the “justice” of transitional justice? That is, on the basis of what moral criteria or standards should processes of transitional justice be evaluated? As my discussion makes clear, one of the central tasks of transitional justice processes is to help establish the authority of the state, when state institutions are discredited. The prominent participation of religious actors in processes of transitional justice generate novel questions about authority and point toward questions that warrant further theoretical investigation.

. . .

To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now