[Daniel Philpott is the author of a new SSRC working paper on “Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice.” Commissioned in conjunction with the Council’s work on religion and international affairs, Philpott’s working paper assesses the current “state of the art” in scholarship on religion and reconciliation, identifying the achievements of an emerging literature, and pointing towards possibilities for future research.—ed.]

God is not retreating from public life: this has to be one of the most interesting claims to come out of Charles Taylor’s book and the conversation that it has begotten. For religion’s public resurgence is one of the most interesting global trends of our time. One of the most colorful and dramatic sites of this resurgence are the efforts of so many countries to address genocide, the atrocities of civil war, and the injustices of dictatorship—as a common phrase in Northern Ireland puts it, to “deal with their past.” Both the “third wave” of democratization and a spate of civil war settlements have provided the occasion for these efforts. Among scholars, activists and officials, they are known as “transitional justice.”

Not only involved and influential, the religious have even forged a distinct paradigm for dealing with the past: reconciliation. It is an approach that differs markedly from the approach of the human rights community and from what has been called the international “peacebuilding consensus”—the set of ideas shared by the U.N., other international organizations like the World Bank, and most western governments.

Christians form a majority of religious advocates of reconciliation, but Jews, Muslims, and native tribal traditions in North America and Australia have espoused the concept, too. Ancient and theological, reconciliation’s broad meaning is “restoration of right relationships.” Translated into modern politics, it involves acknowledgment (through truth commissions, memorials, and the like), reparations, apology, forgiveness, sometimes punishment, though according to a unique restorative logic, and scores of civil society initiatives to heal wounds and transform hatred.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Chair of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is probably the most famous exemplar. Equally dramatic was Juan Gerardi, a Guatemalan Catholic Archbishop who organized one of the most impressive truth commissions to date in order to confront the crimes of 30 years of civil war. He was assassinated for it. Scores of religious NGOs and local religious bodies have also worked dramatically for reconciliation in villages and cities around the world.

But religious advocacy of reconciliation is hardly uncontroversial. It brings religion into politics inappropriately. It is reckless in allowing governments to impose forgiveness on victims. It foregoes retribution and accountability. Forgiveness is problematic altogether. Critics have made all of these arguments, sometimes vociferously. It is also raises ethical quandaries that its advocates have only begun to answer: Can a leader apologize or forgive for his people? For the dead? Are amnesties ever justifiable?

Nor are the religious everywhere reconcilers. The Catholic Church in Rwanda, Uruguay, and Argentina, Protestant churches in Guatemala and Uganda, and the Orthodox Church in Romania and Bulgaria were as much complicit in injustices as they were instruments in overcoming them. With respect to practice, too, controversies and questions abound. What sort of actors are religious practitioners of transitional justice, and how do they contrast with other kinds of political and religious organizations and institutions? Are there existing sociological concepts that can describe them? What distinguishes different religious approaches to transitional justice? What defines effectiveness, and what characterizes those that are most effective? What ethical dilemmas does religious peacebuilding face?

In a working paper that I recently wrote under SSRC auspices, “Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field,” I review religious efforts to shape how countries deal with their past and the literature that surrounds them, asking: What has been accomplished? What questions and controversies sorely need further attention? It amounts to a report on the state of the field.