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Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics

Volume 22, Fall 2002

William O'Neill
Pages 183-199

Imagining Otherwise: The Ethics of Social Reconciliation

In the wake of uncivil strife—of genocide, "ethnic cleansing," apartheid— the prospect of forgiveness seems as elusive as the notion itself. In this paper, I seek to assess the complex factors that render forgiveness or social reconciliation such vexed concepts. For Desmond Tutu's pleas for "confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the lives of nations" meet with his fellow Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka's objection that justice is ill "served by discharging the guilty without evidence of mitigation—or remorse." One may, of course, speak of unspeakable suffering; yet tragedy is never given simply. How we remember the Rwandan genocide, the legacy of apartheid, or the Shoah—whether as morally tragic or merely an unimportant political failure—depends upon how we "see" or imagine evil. To remember such suffering, we must first evoke what is effaced, bring to word the transgressed command. Only then can we speak of social reconciliation, forgiveness, or the fitting measures of retribution and reparation. Imagining, remembering, redressing evil—these, I will argue, comprise distinct, yet finally inseparable elements of social reconciliation, each admitting of no less distinct orders of legal-political, ethical, and religious interpretation.

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