As we have already seen in this curriculum, justice is a key element to reconciliation. We have spent a great deal of time explaining why justice alone is not enough for reconciliation, but it is important to state clearly that without justice, no reconciliation is possible. Unfortunately, many people think that we must make a choice between justice and reconciliation because the two are not compatible, and we can have either justice or reconciliation. The purpose of this chapter is to challenge this perspective and demonstrate that justice is a part of reconciliation, and reconciliation is a part of justice. In other words, reconciliation is impossible without justice and justice is impossible without some form of reconciliation.

In order to accomplish this task, this chapter will begin by trying to define justice. This is a difficult task, and part of the problem with coming up with a universal definition of justice is that different people and different cultures have different definitions and expectations of justice. We will analyze this problem in some depth, and then move to a proposal which will present a working definition of justice that includes reconciliation. We will also try to look at different views of justice and reconciliation through examples from history.

What is Justice?

While most people would be willing to say that they know the difference between justice and injustice, few would be able to give an actual definition. This is because justice is multi- faceted and hard to define. Therefore, when attempting to answer the question “What is Justice,” this chapter will examine different types of justice rather than provide a definitive statement which says “justice is . . . ” In this way we will come to a definition of justice, but in a roundabout way, by touching on the different aspects and types of justice.

Retributive Justice: The basic idea behind retributive justice is the lex talionis, or “an eye for an eye” from the Hebrew Bible (such as Lev. 24:19–21), which states that any harm done to the victim should be punished by the same or similar harm done to the perpetrator or offender. If someone damages the eye of another, their eye should be damaged in return. “Retributive justice responds to a lawbreaker with action that is justly imposed, morally correct and fully deserved.” This is a very common view of justice, and is sometimes seen as particularly harsh, however, it is important to remember that originally, retributive justice contained an element of mercy as well. For while retributive justice calls for the punishment to match the crime, it also forbids the punishment from exceeding the crime.

Distributive Justice: Distributive justice specifically focuses on the distribution of resources, such as wealth, power, education etc. There are different theories of distributive justice, but the fundamental idea behind them all is that the resources available to any given society will be distributed in a way that is just, and does not unfairly advantage any segment of the population. There are three questions to ask when trying to discern if the requirements of distributive justice are being met: first, what are the resources being distributed (e.g., wealth, power, opportunities)? Second, to whom are the resources being distributed (e.g., individuals, communities, cities, countries)? Third, by what means are they being divided within society (e.g., equally, divided by merit, according to status or some other delineation.)?

Restorative Justice: The central idea behind the concept of restorative justice is that in order to achieve true and lasting justice, the relationship between the victim and the oppressor must be restored. This is done in a number of different ways, such as dialogue, confession and eventually forgiveness. Some are critical of restorative justice, claiming that it is not justice at all, as it does not fulfill the requirements of retributive justice. However, with a view toward the bigger picture, and the long term, restorative justice could actually lead to peace and reconciliation, whereas retributive justice would only lead to further anger, bitterness and even violence.

Social Justice: Social justice is related to distributive justice, but is not limited to the distribution of resources. Instead, social justice is concerned with the social, political and religious structures which grant people access to material resources and social advantages such as wealth, power, and education. “Sometimes justice is described as the right use of power and injustice as the abuse of power. Social justice wrestles with questions about power systems within society and how they affect people.” Social justice is the attempt to fight against injustice and bring about justice in a social or communal setting, as opposed to other, more individualistic aspects of justice.

Justice vs. Compassion

Charles Dickens once wrote, “Charity [compassion] begins at home and justice begins next door.” This illustrates the difference between compassion or charity and justice. Compassion means helping those in need, whether through donating money, food or clothes to those who are in need, working at a homeless shelter, or volunteering at an orphanage. These are important and much-needed things. If it were not for the compassionate effort made by people all over the world, the already high amount of suffering in the world would be much greater. But all of these great and honorable things are only scratching the surface of the suffering in the world, and are only “responding to the consequences of injustice rather than working to fix the source of the problem.” The key to justice is to start addressing the source of the problem rather than just responding to the consequences. This is done by asking questions. Why are there so many homeless people? Why are so many orphans abandoned? Why are so many sick people without medical care? For all the good it does, acts of compassion or charity are merely covering a large wound with a Band-Aid. “When we work to solve the roots of these problems, a Band-Aid is no longer being put over the wound. Instead, the emphasis is on getting rid of the disease that caused the wound in the first place. When the disease is eradicated, social justice is being lived out.” This principle is illustrated well by the following parable:

A man went to the river one day and noticed that someone was drowning in the middle of it. He quickly swam out to save the drowning person. He brought the person to safety and attempted to catch his breath. A short while later, the man noticed another person drowning in the river. He mustered up all of his strength and dove back into the river water to save the second drowning victim. The second person was brought safely to shore. By this time, the man was exhausted and had a hard time breathing. Several minutes later, as he looked up, to his dismay, he noticed a third person floating down the river, crying for help. Once again, feeling he didn’t have a choice, he dove into the water to save the third person. However, the man was so tired from having saved the first two victims that he wasn’t able to continue swimming and he drowned.

The man’s response to the drowning people was one of compassion. His efforts were based on his love for them and his desire for them not to suffer. And his efforts made a huge difference to the first two people! The rescuer was certainly a compassionate man. However, if the man had driven up the road along the bend in the river, he would have noticed someone at a factory who was throwing people into the river. The abusive man was the source of the problem. If the compassionate man had intervened at the factory, that would have been an act of justice.

In summary, our definition of justice for this chapter is one that incorporates all of these different elements of justice. It is a justice which is retributive, distributive, restorative and social. Furthermore, it is a justice which attempts to address the root causes of injustice, rather than the effects of injustice. This holistic approach is not without difficulty, but it is important to incorporate all of these elements into our understanding of justice if we are to reach reconciliation. It is also important to remember that every situation is unique. What would be considered ‘justice’ in one setting is not necessarily the ideal solution in a different situation. One situation may require more retributive justice, another more restorative justice, but in most situations these elements need to be present.

Three Views on Justice

Taking into account the different aspects of justice that we have already gone over, we are now able to take a step back and look at different views on justice, and the problematic elements of each. One of the fundamental problems with justice, especially in a conflict setting, is that different people have different ideas about what justice is. When cultures come into contact with each other, and clash, this problem rises to the surface, and we are left without a clear idea of what justice really is. For example, when European Christians encountered “barbarians” who were cannibals, they were appalled. Tzvetan Todorov explains that they punished the cannibals by burning them at the stake. “The Christians are disgusted by cases of cannibalism. The introduction of Christianity involves their suppression. But, in order to achieve this suppression, men are burned alive!” It is difficult to make a distinction between “being burned alive and eaten dead.”9 Which position is more ‘civilized?’ Which is more just?

It seems, therefore, that we are stuck without a clear understanding of justice, and “Without justice, meaning threatens to give way to absurdity, social order is endangered by disorder, and peace is menaced by violence. Is there a way out of the land of chaos in which justice struggles against justice and therefore injustice is perpetrated in the name of justice?” It seems we are caught with no way out of this syllogism of despair: “Premise one: conceptions of justice depend on particular cultures and traditions. Premise two: peace depends on justice between cultures and traditions. Conclusion: violence between cultures will never stop.”

Is this the only conclusion? Is there really no way out of this scenario where different ideas of justice clash with each other? In order to answer these questions, we will look at three different views on justice which will help us understand the problem from a better perspective. We will try to look at the positive and negative traits of each view. Then we will look at the relationship between justice and reconciliation, and attempt to bring them together in a cohesive understanding of justice, which can help resolve conflict rather than perpetuate it.

First, we have The One and the Only Justice. This understanding of justice is probably the most common. It sees that when “justice struggles against justice, at least one must be false,” for like truth, justice is one and universal, valid for all times and all places, or it is no justice at all.”12 This is the self-proclaimed ‘objective’ view, which discounts all other understandings of justice as biased or partisan. The thought is that justice is based on something which is independent of any one person or culture, and is universally applicable to all people in every situation. Originally, this conception of justice was based on the Judeo-Christian idea of God, since God is all-knowing and perfectly just, and since God is not a tribal deity but the God of all humanity, it makes sense that God’s justice is the justice for all people.

The problem with this view, however, is that not all people believe in God, or worship the same God, so there is no basis for universal justice. The philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to get around this problem by basing the universal conception of justice on “pure reason” which is not tied to any specific belief in God, but in a universal understanding of what reason is. But this still does not solve the problem, because as many critics have pointed out, Kant’s idea of pure reason was far from objective, and contained many historical, cultural, and racial assumptions which undermine his effort to be universal. This was not his fault, subjectivity is impossible to avoid. “Since we are inescapably particular our account of justice cannot be universal. Unable to transcend particularities, justice must continue to struggle against justice.”

Second, we have the idea of Many Justices. The universal view of justice has, in recent decades, been attacked by postmodern thinkers who have caused us to be suspicious of all universal claims. The postmodern view, which advocates many justices, claims not that all universal claims to justice are particular (this point is assumed to be true), but that all universal claims to justice are inherently oppressive and unjust. This is because, “In order to have a single justice you must understand justice as a law that applies to all cases. Justice is blind; differences between people are irrelevant to its demands.” This blind justice, however, “inevitably, structurally, falls short of individuals.” In this view, there can be no room for the individual, therefore, John Caputo writes, “the worst injustice, the most bloody and unjustifiable transgressions of justice, are . . . committed daily in the name of justice, under the protection of the name ‘justice.’” In the face of the oppressive universal claims to justice, the postmodern alternative is to claim that “Deconstruction is justice.”16 This means that “Justice worthy of its name listens to the voice of the individual who protests against the law saying: ‘But this case is different!’ No disinterested impartiality here. No cultivation of systematic blindness.” In other words, justice is not just one thing, but goes by many names. The benefit of this approach is the “maximization of difference . . . letting many flowers bloom.”18 In other words, everyone is allowed to define justice as they see fit and no one is allowed to impose their definition of justice on someone else.

The problem with this approach is that in letting many things bloom, weeds are allowed to grow alongside the flowers. In this case, everything is allowed, and there is no basis for fighting against injustice. Caputo argues that weeds should not be allowed because they are killers and minimize difference instead of maximizing it, but this takes us back to the problem of the universal approach, for who is to say that to maximize is preferable than to minimize? The problem remains; we cannot fight against injustice unless we are willing to root out the weeds, but what we call weeds may be called flowers in a different culture.

Finally, we have the idea of Justice Within Tradition. This view of justice is different from both the universal and postmodern views. It simply states, as we have seen, that everyone is approaching justice from within a specific tradition, i.e. cultural, religious etc. But rather than trying to force our version of justice on everyone (the universal approach), or claiming that all versions of justice are equal and no one version is any better than another (the postmodern approach), this approach says that we should embrace the tradition we are coming from. In other words, we should accept that our understanding of justice is the result of the tradition from which we are coming, just as all other understandings of justice are tradition-based. We should be able to realize this (thus tempering our instinct to proclaim our version of justice the universal version of justice) without having to renounce what justice means to us.

This would seemingly leave us open to the problem that we started with: tradition versus tradition. Justice versus justice. But this time it is different. Now we are more humble, and less eager to claim that our understanding of justice is universal, which means that we are more open to dialogue. In a way, our acceptance of tradition is beneficial to dialogue, for “Genuine intellectual encounter cannot take place in some generalized way between people who stand nowhere, as the Enlightenment thinkers assumed and much of modern culture takes for granted. For rational discussion to replace the sterile exchange of assertions and counter-assertions people must inhabit traditions.”19 Two traditions in discussion, even traditions which are in total disagreement with each other, will be able to come closer to an understanding with each other than two competing traditions which both claim to be the absolute, universal truth. Still, even though this does seem to be a good direction to move in, it is limited. Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “The most that one can hope for is to render our disagreements more constructive.”                

Justice and Reconciliation

In order to arrive at an understanding of justice which includes reconciliation, Christian theologian Miroslav Volf offers two propositions: first, “Nobody stands nowhere,” and second, “Most of us stand in more than one place.”21 The first proposition means that, as we have seen, all of us perceive justice through the prism of our tradition, and none of us can objectively say what justice is. Our “social location profoundly shapes our beliefs and practices.”22 The second proposition means that while all of us come from a tradition, none of us come from a pure, coherent tradition. All traditions have mixed with and influenced each other, so that we are all in hybrid traditions. “Cultures and traditions are not integrated wholes and cannot be made to be such in contemporary societies . . . we cannot avoid living in overlapping and rapidly changing social spaces.”

It can be troubling to live in overlapping traditions, and consequently, conflicts can arise. However, the prospect of eliminating all fragmentation would be even worse. For, “To escape fragmentations, what needs to change is not simply the way we as individuals think, but also the way we as societies live. Nothing short of an anti-modern and anti-pluralistic social revolution will do.” In fact, because of our hybridity and our overlapping traditions, we are able to embrace difference, which helps us get closer to the truth than we would if only one tradition was dominant. “Moral judgment,” Hannah Arendt writes, “cannot functions in strict isolation or solitude; it needs the presence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think, whose perspective it must take into consideration.” In this way, we are able to form a tradition of justice which is open to all. We can, enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives. Nothing can guarantee in advance that the perspectives will ultimately merge and agreement be reached. We may find that we must reject the perspective of the other. Yet we should seek to see things from their perspective in the hope that competing justices may become converging justices and eventually issue in agreement.

Volf describes this enlarged thinking as part of reconciliation, which he calls embrace. The embrace of the other is a crucial part of achieving true justice, for only if we are willing to embrace our “enemies,” can we insist on justice without causing further injustice. This often happens, as we can see from examples in history. After the Allied victory in World War I, the Axis powers, specifically Germany, paid dearly, not because they had behaved with any more barbarity in the war than anyone else, but because they were on the losing side. In 1919, through the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies were intent on punishing Germany in the name of “justice,” and Germany faced a number of harsh consequences. For example, they had to pay reparations, were not allowed to build up their armed forces, and were forced to accept full responsibility for starting the war. The already difficult conditions in Germany were made much worse and the collective German pride and psyche was severely damaged. It was this misunderstood, alienated, and defeated Germany which later responded to Hitler’s charisma and the Nazi ideology which decried the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles and offered Germans pride and hope for the future.

The pain, suffering and injustices caused by the Nazi regime are well known. In the Holocaust, millions of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered. After the war was won by the Allies, the Nuremberg Trials were set up to punish those who were responsible for the injustice. Although only specific Germans who were important in the Nazi political and military structure were tried, all Germans felt guilty, and the whole world blamed them for the atrocities. In many ways, Germany was to blame, they were the aggressors and their army did commit terrible atrocities. But they were also victims of the war. The fire-bombing of the city of Dresden saw an enormous loss of civilian life, and the conquest of Germany by the Red Army was particularly brutal.

As these examples show, the clumsy, human implementation of justice will always cause further injustice, no matter how righteous our cause may be. This is because once we have been wronged, we feel that anything we do can be justified. In these examples we see the imposition of a certain understanding of justice, but when justice is imposed on others, by the use of force, it cannot be called true justice. Instead we must be able to recognize each other and each other’s understanding of justice. We must have a willingness to reconcile with each other. This can only be achieved through embrace.

In South Africa we see another example of justice with the end of apartheid and the beginning of democracy. In South Africa, however, the understanding of justice was very different than in Nuremburg. Instead of making the perpetrators pay, and seeking to punish them, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to foster reconciliation between all South Africans, the perpetrators and the victims. The idea behind the commission was that anyone who came forward and told the truth about the injustice they perpetrated would not be prosecuted. In this way, the truth would be told and the victims would eventually be able to have healing.

Many were critical of this process, saying that it favored reconciliation over justice. This view of the commission is rather shortsighted and misses the point. For even though the commission did prevent retributive justice from taking place, it did not get rid of justice altogether, since the perpetrators had to confess their crimes and live with the shame of their guilt. The commission was also established with the understanding that significant changes would take place in the socio-economic sphere, leading to social justice. But most importantly, the founders of the commission understood that reconciliation and justice were not mutually exclusive, and that true justice, especially in the context of community (all South Africans were going to have to live together in the future), had to include reconciliation. Even though the situation in South Africa is still far from perfect, there has been progress. Reconciliation is a slow process, and what could have been a bloody civil war was instead a very painful but meaningful process, and a transition to a tolerant, pluralistic and democratic society.

This is the meaning of true justice. A justice which includes reconciliation can only be achieved through embrace. “The clenched fist hinders perception of the justice of others and thereby reinforces injustice; the open arms help detect justice behind the rough front of seeming injustice and thereby reinforce justice. To agree on justice in conflict situations you must want more than justice; you must want embrace. There can be no justice without the will to embrace. It is, however, equally true that there can be no genuine and lasting embrace without justice.”


Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking, 1968.

Buttry, Daniel. A Bible Study Manual on Conflict Transformation. Unpublished.

Cannon, Mae Elise. Social Justice Handbook, Small Steps for a Better World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Caputo, John. Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority.” In Cordoza Law Review 11 (1990): 950-55.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1990.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, translated by Richard Howard. New York: HaperCollins, 1984.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.