The small West African nation of Liberia has been in the news quite often lately.  This is in no small part due to the recent media circus surrounding supermodel Naomi Campbell’s testimony in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.  Although Taylor is actually on trial for allegedly funding and fueling the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, the question of criminal trials for war crimes in Liberia has been hotly debated since the release of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report in 2009.  The TRC report recommends an investigation into the prosecution of over 90 individuals implicated in the worst atrocities of the war, reparations for victims, and national and local reconciliation using traditional Liberian mediation practices (palava hut discussions). 

The question of what it means for a country to reconcile in the aftermath of war is complicated.  Some believe reconciliation cannot happen in Liberia without a war crimes tribunal.  As Mulbah K. Morlu, director of Forum for the Establishment of War Crimes Court for Liberia told BBC reporter Audrey Brown, “there is a threat of more wars should you not adjudicate justice.” 

For others, on the other hand, reconciliation entails letting go of the past, forgiving those who have done wrong, and moving forward with life—without an official war crimes tribunal.  While some argue this case by asserting that such a process would cost the Liberian people and government a great deal of time and money, others question the connection between reconciliation and a war crimes tribunal on religious grounds.

A recent CNN Inside Africa report, “Religion and Reconciliation“, chronicles the “turn to religion” among some Liberians who are seeking reconciliation—and, significantly, political office—after the country’s fourteen-year civil war.  The report follows Prince Johnson, head of one of the warring factions (the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia), who oversaw the execution of then-President Samuel Doe in 1990.  Johnson, who is now a Liberian senator, was named by the TRC as one of the individuals who committed gross human rights violations.  Although the TRC recommended that he be held publicly accountable for crimes committed during the war, Johnson both disputes the charges of human rights violations and emphasizes that they are now irrelevant because he is a new person—a “man changed by faith.”  His pastor agrees, stating, “Prince Johnson is ‘born-again’ and he comes to church regularly and his lifestyle has dramatically changed since he became entrenched in the gospel.”    

Johnson will be  running for President in the 2011 elections. 

This profile of Johnson is but one of a series of documentaries and reports that are drawing attention to the (re)turn to religion by former Liberian warlords and generals.  A documentary set to be released soon, The Redemption of General Butt Naked, follows Joshua Blahyi (known during the war as General Butt Naked) who has now become an evangelical minister who works to rehabilitate former child soldiers.  Clips of the film from the production company’s website show Blahyi preparing to testify in front of the TRC: “Everybody knows I have killed.  Everybody knows I have killed a lot of people.  The only thing they do not know, the depth, the amount…I really want to give Liberians the opportunity to decide whether they can forgive me or they just cannot forgive me.”

Prominent figures turning to religion to seek public forgiveness for past wrongdoing is nothing new in politics.  In some ways, redemption stories like Blahyi’s are not all that novel.  However, these “turns to religion” do bring up interesting and important questions for those of us invested in work on religion, violence and peacebuilding, particularly in post-conflict countries.  

For my part, I wonder how public appeals for forgiveness are received by those who felt the effects of the offenders’ violent actions?  What effect does a “turn to religion” have on the ways that reconciliation and justice are imagined in a post-conflict society?  How do religious understandings of forgiveness and justice intersect and (perhaps in some cases) conflict with the ways we think about prosecution and criminal justice?  And finally, how do public calls for (Christian) forgiveness and reconciliation resonate with individuals who are trying to survive, heal and get on with life once the official conflict has ended?