Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation

December 13, 2012

This is a wonderful book that has all the strengths and weaknesses of the US scholarship on which it is based. In such a cultural space, religion is perceived as an asset, a positive resource, featuring in the post-Cold War triumphalism of the end-of-history debates, in which the US sees itself as the last superpower standing and as representing the universalisation of good governance. Religion is enthusiastically endorsed for its positive role in diplomacy, peace-building and transitional justice, among other things.

Daniel Philpott, a political scientist, has been chief among these scholars and this is his finest statement on religious peace-building to date. The US is particularly suited for this kind of work. It has a plurality of religions, thanks to its racial and ethnic mix, but has never witnessed holy war and thus has no historical memory of religious hatred and sectarian violence of the kind that affected most of Europe. Its separation of Church and State has ensured that no one religion has become the established faith, thereby gaining privileged political status and power. It is also a society where religious practice remains high, which encourages people to take religion seriously. Philpott is based at the University of Notre Dame and works in the famous Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which reinforces the book’s biographical imprint.

It represents a serious and profound challenge to the approach of liberal rationalist political theory to justice and peace, by using the Abrahamic faiths to flesh out both the meaning of the ethic of political reconciliation and its constitutive practices - which Philpott sees as forgiveness, apology, punishment, reparations, acknowledgement and the establishment of socially just political institutions internal to the state and just relations between states. What distinguishes his work from that which emanated from the religious peace-building research programme of the United States Institute of Peace is that it is not about peace among the religions through interfaith dialogue, the institute’s primary religious peace-building strategy, but the use of religious traditions as a resource in the construction of justice and peace. The thrust of this radicalism is softened only slightly by drawing also on John Braithwaite’s notion of restorative justice - but interestingly not on Braithwaite’s own application of the idea to peacemaking in a form I have elsewhere called “restorative peacemaking”, for Philpott’s central concern is to show the restorative justice ethos of the Abrahamic faiths, making compatible the secular and sacred tenets of the ethic and practice of political reconciliation.

In a sense, though, Philpott is not radical enough. He restricts the concept to the political realm and to relations between states, leaving untouched the more difficult intellectual and practical task of understanding reconciliation between people in society. This requires the analytical skills of sociologists and the work they have done without recourse to religious eschatology on religious peace-building, in fleshing out notions of forgiveness, consideration of apology, hope, memory, compromise and the like; such insights, however, are missing from the book. Philpott also excludes post-conflict societies where religion is part of the problem and is not perceived to be part of the solution. Where religion is above the fray and has authority as a neutral mediator it is easier to countenance its positive contribution; much harder where it is itself the problem. My biographical imprint, in studying religious peace-building in places such as Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, makes me much less confident, but the boundlessness and limitlessness of US optimism towards religion can be very refreshing.

Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation

By Daniel Philpott

Oxford University Press

368pp, £18.99

ISBN 97801998565

Published 11 October 2012

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