Truth and Reconciliation: A Trinity alum leads in the Solomons

Trinity alumnus the Very Reverend Samuel Ata, a priest of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, has just been appointed to chair the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Solomon Islands. This is the latest of a number of such national tribunals which have brought the idea of "restorative justice" to bear on lingering pain and bitterness after long periods of violence and oppression within nations.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which functioned primarily between 1995 and 1998, brought to world attention not only the atrocities of the Apartheid era which it was constituted to address, but fundamental issues concerning the nature of justice and the conditions necessary for reconciliation. Although its origins and work were in some respects unique, the Commission’s activities embodied what has come to be called restorative justice, and has contributed to thinking in different settings about judicial processes and their effectiveness.

“Restorative justice” refers to a set of practices and principles now widely employed or tested in many parts of the world: in juvenile justice systems in numerous Western countries, in revived or renewed local systems for conflict resolution among indigenous peoples and in traditional cultures, and in public or national tribunals such as those concerned with the aftermath of Apartheid in South Africa, of civil unrest in Peru, and of the Rwandan genocide. The Canadian Government has created such a commission as part of the Indian Residential Schools Resolution process. This instance involves a potent and painful conjunction of racism and sexual and other forms of violence involving children, with particular reference to Church-run schools.

Common to most of these is a focus on the crime or injury as a breakdown of relationship within a social fabric, and consequent emphasis on the victim or victims and their needs and concerns. A characteristic element of that focus has been opportunities for those affected by crimes to speak publicly about their experience. The possibility of giving voice to the experience of suffering has proved significant in itself, as well as potentially an important step towards reconciliation or resolution. Offenders may also be given opportunities for action as participating subjects, rather than simply being made the object of either punitive or rehabilitative action. These processes have involved the telling and hearing of previously unknown stories of the crimes or injuries in question, as well as opportunities for making some form of restitution.

These may be contrasted, up to a point, with conventional or retributive criminal justice systems that view a crime as an offence against the law itself, and the state as the party with whom an accused person is engaged adversarially in a trial or tribunal, without necessary reference to victims. Where in the conventional case justice consists of determining and executing a sentence deemed appropriate to the offence, a “restorative” approach means that the needs and desires of the victim are inherently more significant than meting out a particular penalty on the offender, and that the damage to social relations is what must fundamentally be addressed and restored .

The contemporary movement for restorative justice has a variety of substantial, although by no means exclusive, connections with Christian tradition and theology. Principles comparable to those of restorative justice, emphasizing restitution and reconciliation, are identifiable across the canon of Scripture, from the Mosaic Law to the Gospels. Advocates and architects of restorative justice have included numerous Christians and Church-related bodies, including the Mennonite Central Committee and Prison Fellowship International. The roles taken by Church members and leaders in the South African tribunal are well-known, and its Chairman Desmond Tutu has referred in his memoir to the “heavily spiritual, and indeed Christian, emphasis of the Commission”.

Sam Ata's role is a further recognition of this important connection. We offer him our prayerful support

No comments: