Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Convergence of Forgiveness and Justice: Lessons from El Salvador

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Convergence of Forgiveness and Justice: Lessons from El Salvador

Article excerpt

[Forgiveness and justice need not be understood as diametrically opposite moral responses to human evil. The murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador indicates ways in which truth-telling contributes to justice, and both of these to forgiveness and reconciliation. If the Church is to play a leadership role in reconciliation, it must encourage truth-telling and insist on justice rather than simply preach the easier message of "forgive and forget."]

DOES FORGIVENESS ABANDON or include claims of justice? How is the act of forgiveness related to justice in the case of politically motivated or state sponsored crimes, and especially heinous acts such as abduction, torture, rape, and summary execution? Does such forgiveness depend on the expression of remorse by the perpetrators and does remorse in turn have to be accompanied by a genuine effort to make amends?

This article argues that justice can be an important element, and even a necessary condition, of acts of genuine forgiveness. It addresses not simply forgiveness in the broad sense but what has come to be known in recent years as "political forgiveness" which is given by victims of politically motivated crimes to their perpetrators. (1) It intends to counter the widespread impression among Christians, both theologians and others, that either justice requires the abandonment of forgiveness or vice versa. It will proceed by examining a particular instance of forgiveness, the Salvadoran peace process, the theological-ethical arguments made in its defense, and the criticisms of those arguments. It then offers a normative proposal regarding the proper relation between forgiveness and justice that gives special emphasis to the value of truth-telling within the process of reconciliation.


The tiny country of El Salvador went through a bloody civil war that lasted from 1980 to 1991. Its history, and the struggle to come to terms with it, raises a host of critically important moral questions about justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and truth-telling that pertain to many other countries around the world. South Africa, of course, is the most famous society to have struggled in a public and controversial way with this array of issues, but the same is true of Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, Bosnia, and many others. Human rights workers have recently applauded official efforts to establish the truth in Peru, Chile, and Brazil. The United States itself might eventually be led into a serious public self-examination and debate regarding its historic treatment of indigenous people, African slaves and the descendents of both populations.

The war in El Salvador wrecked enormous havoc on the Salvadoran people, including 8,000 disappearances and 75,000 deaths, many through assassinations, kidnapping-torture-executions, and death squad massacres. The political left was guilty of some crimes, particularly assassinations, but independent sources attribute a much greater percentage of these murders to the Salvadoran security organizations, paramilitary forces, and death squads. (2)

The civil war came to an end on January 16, 1992 with the signing of the U.N. brokered peace accords at the Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico. The peace accords created a new Counsel for the Defense of Human Rights, replaced military security forces with a civilian police force, and took steps to make the judicial branch of government more independent. It also instituted an ad hoc commission on the armed forces that led to the removal over 100 officers from the Salvadoran military.

The peace accords also instituted a U. N. Truth Commission composed of three non-Salvadorans: former Colombian president Belisario Betancur; former Venezuelan foreign minister Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart; and Thomas Buergenthal, a George Washington University law professor. The Truth Commission was charged with investigating the "serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980 and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth. …

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