Does Forgiveness = Justice?

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Forgiveness (Photo credit: Celestine Chua)

The death and subsequent celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life has brought me to think deeply about his very being, his reasoning and his impact (globally).

Its probably fair to say that Nelson Mandela was a world statesman of outstanding stature and that he was much admired for his accommodation of his persecutors rather than unleashing country-wide revenge and blood-letting. His behavior immediately following his release from prison marks him out as a remarkable leader which it would be wonderful if others would emulate his example.


The context in this case as in any case is all important. Only those who have been persecuted and suffered hold the position where forgiveness can be proffered.  And forgiveness can only be given where the persecuted has the power to forgive, that they have political power over their former persecutors, or more fundamentally that they have survived the persecution, the attempt to harm. It is only in these circumstances that forgiveness can be given.

Nobody is entitled to give forgiveness for the harm done to others, regardless of their closeness. You cannot suffer and forgive for others. In short only the victim can forgive. There can theretofore be no forgiveness for the crimes of Hitler or Stalin or Mao or many others; to forgive them would be to deny their victims and attempt to change history.

Self-evident as this position may seem there is nonetheless a predication by western politicians to accommodate perceived evil, to as it were make room for the enemy within. Compromise and accommodation are seen as preferable for ‘peace’ rather than conflict. Our leaders somehow find a way of ‘blinding’ themselves to the obvious peril of allowing some people to continue to function and think the way they do. To remain an enemy.

It is a view that refuses to recognize the difference between truly evil regimes, the Apartheid regime being a perfect example, and those who though different have much in common with our own. It inevitably leads to appeasement of the unappeasable and the associated victory of evil over good.

Little surprise however in today’s climate where good and bad have become relative concepts, the difference blurred to a point where distinction between the two is all but impossible. Its so blurred to the point where those regimes seen as victim regimes but who from time to time practice bad behavior are tolerated and allowed to persist, ignored or even condoned. The ANC did kill those it saw as traitors by ‘necklacing’ – putting a tyre around a persons neck and burning them to death. Wholly unacceptable behavior by any regime at any time but nevertheless overlooked as it was done by those people where the victims of the odious Apartheid regime.

Its hard if not impossible to not see Nelson Mandela in the light of the forgiving statesman for this was his signature characteristic. The substitution of justice with ‘truth and reconciliation’ could well be the overriding reason that at the time of his release from prison and election as South African President there wasn’t a blood-bath, an orgy of revenge by the recently oppressed Black South Africans on their Afrikaner tormentors but the restraining influence of Nelson Mandela has now departed and what is in store for South Africa can only be speculation. But that speculation seems to be suggesting that there may well be a conflict, after all the lot of the black South African is not much changed in 20 years.

Society needs to express its collective abhorrence of evil actions so that justice is done and society is better for it, it is less likely to commit the same actions in the future.

This is why justice must be served, criminal trials are an absolute necessity to ensure any semblance of justice. Forgiveness may well be necessary for individuals to move on out of the darkness, but justice is necessary for society to function. The ability to forgive is a great virtue but it is not a replacement, not even a poor replacement for justice. The fundamental distinction between right and wrong, good and bad cannot be replaced, to do so is to allow confusion to be the moral guiding light, something I fear western governments are increasingly all to prone to doing.


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