Peace for Life: No Peace Without Justice

International Conference on Peace for Life in North East Asia
Korea Christian Faculty Fellowship
15. – 19. May 2005 at Roman Catholic Retreat Center, Uiwang, Korea

No Peace Without Justice. No Justice Without Reconciliation
Ada María Isasi-Díaz

It is an honor for me to be here today and I thank Professor Kim Yon-Bock and Professor Lee Kyung Sook for inviting me.

I am originally from Cuba and I have spent most of my life in exile, living away from my home country, from the land where I was born and grew up. I also come from a divided people, from a people that has at least two million of us living apart from the rest of our 11 million compatriots. I am one of those Cubans in exile that longs every day for my country. I have never gotten used to living anywhere else and I find myself always waiting for the day I will be able to go back to Cuba to live there.

More than 30 years ago I heard Pope Paul VI say, “If you want peace, work for justice.”1 This message became an intrinsic element of my worldview, of my programmatic worldview, of the perspectives, understandings, and values that guide my work, my life, my relationships. There is no peace without justice and there is no justice unless it leads to peace. Peace, of course, not as the absence of war, but peace as fullness of being, as fullness of life for all. Peace as a way of being as a world community where all have what they need to develop their capabilities. Peace and justice; justice and peace: the lion and the lamb pasturing side by side, without being a threat to each other, without one having peace at the expense of the other. Of course this is what many want; the question is how do we get there.

I have found it useful to think of justice that leads to peace as a process, a process of caring for others with tenderness. Thinking of justice as a process allows me to always be reassessing the way I am going, the goals I am pursuing and the methods I am using to achieve those goals. Thinking of justice as a process keeps me humble, making me aware that I have to introduce correctives along the way because no matter how long and hard I try, I simply cannot elaborate the best possible system nor think of the best possible way to reach that best system. Be it at the level of personal relationships, at the level of societal structures, at the level of economic and global structures – the perfect end is always beyond what we can elaborate, beyond what we can imagine. And the means to achieve such end always have to be adapted to the circumstances, to the limitedness of our humanity.

I would like to suggest that a first step in the process of justice has to be reconciliation. Not only are the Korean and the Cuban people divided. Our whole world is inhabited by groups divided and pitted against each other, by groups that think that they cannot survive unless they eliminate some other group. Whites against blacks and brown and yellow people, this ethnic group against that one, this tribe against this other one, men against women, the workers against the managers and owners, the poor against the rich – all of these divided peoples who need to be reconciled in order to be able to move ahead in the justice process, to attain fullness of being, to attain shalom: peace.

As a Christian I believe that “reconciliation is an essential mission of the Church, that is, that one cannot be a true Christian if one is not motivated permanently by a preoccupation for reconciliation.”2 Just like I cannot conceptualize peace without justice, I cannot think of the process of justice without an on-going practice of reconciliation.

In the short time I have this morning I want to present three ideas about reconciliation for your consideration. First I want to discuss how we must re-conceptualize differences and stress similarities that create bonds among us. Second I want to talk about the Biblical understanding of reconciliation. Third I want to briefly highlight that reconciliation is a moral choice as well as a religious, social, and civic virtue.

Re-conceptualizing Differences

I believe it is precisely our present understanding of differences what separates, excludes and places people in opposition to each other.3 The understanding we have of differences leads to having those with power decide what is normative (themselves) and what is deviant (others). Those who are different from those who have the power are seen as the outsiders, the ones who do not fit, the ones who have to change. As long as this is the prevalent understanding of differences there is no possibility of having just personal relationships and it will be impossible to create just societal structures that are inclusive instead of exclusive.

Identifying similarity and difference is part of the way people make sense of our “perceptions, experiences, identities, and human obligations.”4 However, this does not necessarily have to lead to assigning consequences to difference and to positioning ourselves in relation to them. In other words, most of the time the way in which differences are understood and dealt with includes making moral judgments about them, “automatically” deciding that because some are different they are better or worse, never just different. Society has insisted on capitalizing on “categories of difference that manifest social prejudice and misunderstanding,”5 and has ignored ongoing relationships among people that are based on similarities. Society understands boundaries as what keeps people away from each other instead of highlighting that “the whole concept of a boundary depends on relationships: relationships between the two sides drawn by the boundary, and relationships among the people who recognize and affirm the boundary.”6 This means that because boundaries do not exist outside connections among people, to bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding of difference we need to emphasize how differences are related to relationships rather than to distinctions.

How can this be done and, more importantly, why should this be done? The fact is that unless one recognizes differences and deals with them in a way contrary to the present mode there is no possibility of real solidarity among people, of solidarity that insists on genuine mutuality that can be reached only by recognizing the common interests that bind humanity. Unless we embrace differences and diversity as what makes relationships possible instead of as what separates and opposes, we will not be able to heal the rifts that separate, we will not be able to be reconciling persons. In other words, the work of reconciliation is intrinsic to changing the paradigms that have governed the understanding of differences and without changing our present way of thinking about differences we will not be able to work effectively for reconciliation.

Biblical Basis of Reconciliation

The way reconciliation has been understood is very much influenced by the process and elements the church has historically considered necessary in what until recently was called “the sacrament of penance” or “confession,” now called, “the sacrament of reconciliation.” It requires interior repentance, which includes rejection of wrong freely done in the past while at the same time accepting responsibility for it. Interior repentance also points to the need for a firm purpose of amendment: in other words, a staunch resolution not to act again in the erroneous ways of the past. The sacrament of reconciliation also requires confessing one’s sins to God or to God’s minister as well as offering satisfaction or reparation for the wrong done. Only once these requirements are fulfilled is forgiveness granted. The one who forgives has power over the one who is forgiven.

But this is far from the understanding of reconciliation that one finds in the Bible. Think of the parable of The Prodigal Son. The father does not let the son apologize. The starting place for the reconciliation is not the son’s repentance, which had as motivation not the highest ideal, but the father’s love. The early church’s understanding of reconciliation is best reflected in the epistles to the Colossians, in II Corinthians and in I John. The followers of Jesus understood God’s love and reconciliation to be something freely given, something that invited one to respond but was not conditioned by or depended upon an expected response. The author of I John says it succinctly: “We are to love because God loved us first.” (I John 4: 19) God loves first and unconditionally and one should respond by loving others in the same manner and not setting conditions to one’s love. In Colossians the author talks about Christ’s reconciling act which does not depend on whoever is being reconciled nor does it demand reparations but indeed calls the other to respond. Reconciliation is presented as a one-sided process on God’s part. God knows the reality of broken-ness because the rift between God and those created to share in the divine “affects” God if in no other way than by disrupting God’s plans.

In II Corinthians two ideas about reconciliation are all the more clear. First, “It is all God’s work” (II Cor. 5: 18). Second, reconciliation happens because God does not hold the faults of humanity against us (v. 19). Nowhere does it say in this text that reconciliation happens on the condition that humanity change. The other way around: humanity changes because of the reconciliation that God freely bestows.

For the early church reconciliation was an intrinsic part of its mission, and mission was part of its very being; reconciliation was an ontological reality. The church was to appeal to all to be reconciled to God but this reconciliation was a second step because the first step had already been given by God: God already has carried out the work of reconciliation. God’s love comes first. The church knew that it could not preach what it did not live so it had to be a reconciling church, offering reconciliation freely, putting no conditions on it. The church knew that God appealed to all through the church’s preaching and, particularly, through its behavior. This appeal was precisely an appeal to reconciliation (II Corinthians 5: 20). Again, the church understood reconciliation to be an intrinsic part of its mission, and it is an intrinsic element of the church’s mission today, then, for us Christians, reconciliation has to be an on-going, ever present, active preoccupation.

Reconciliation as a Moral Choice and a Religious, Social, and Civic Virtue

The work of reconciliation is a humble process, a road to be traveled together, one step at a time, by those seeking to be reconciled. Reconciliation is not a matter of making known pre-conceived answers to a given situation. Instead, the work of reconciliation projects itself into the future, opening up and concentrating on possibilities. It is not a matter of repeating or of limiting oneself to the past.

Reconciliation understands that there is a plurality of truths and that this plurality is precisely what is at the heart of possibilities, that it is what makes choices possible, what roots human freedom. It cannot be understood apart from responsibility to others. The richness of possibilities that demands choice is precisely what makes reconciliation a moral virtue, a way of being and acting that requires responsible choice. Responsible choice is not a matter of controlling situations. It is not a matter of being absolutely certain that what one chooses is the most effective possible choice or one that guarantees success. Responsible choice recognizes that this is but one way to proceed, that it is the best possible way to proceed, given the present situation and the understanding one has. 

Reconciliation makes it all the more obvious that moral responsibility has to focus on responding to others and establishing and maintaining mutuality and that this in turn re-defines the concepts of autonomy, self-reliance, and self-definition. The work of reconciliation focuses on responsibility as “participation in a communal work, laying the groundwork for the creative response of people in the present and the future. Responsible action means changing what can be altered in the present even though a problem is not completely resolved. Responsible action focuses on and respects partial resolutions and the inspiration and conditions for further partial resolutions …[by ourselves] and by others.”7 The work of reconciliation has to recognize that those who have been apart and opposed to each other need to move together, one step at a time, willing to accept that risk, ambiguity and uncertainty are part of the process. The work of reconciliation asks above all for a commitment to mutuality, to opening possibilities together even if one might never see them become a reality -- this over and above a desire for tangible changes. Reconciliation has to be guided by a sense that the results of much work and commitment might be only a list of shared desires and possibilities but that such outcome is the result of mature ethical commitment and work precisely because it will allow and oblige one to sustain a reconciling attitude and reconciling behavior.

Reconciliation is a moral choice because it makes one remember that in all persons have been, at some point in their lives, oppressors and exploiters. This makes one understand that good intentions are not enough and that moral action requires the risk of taking steps together, of being accountable to each other, of participating in a process that concentrates on the future precisely by working to alter the present. Reconciliation as moral action makes it clear that healing the rifts that divide people cannot be incidental to one’s life for the work of justice; that it is essential to being a human being, a responsible person, a person fully alive. Reconciliation for any community that is divided is the only just way to proceed. Such is our vocation as a religious people who, while acknowledging our potential for self-deception,8 believe in eternal possibilities because we believe in a divine presence that we invoke under different names.

From the ethical perspective reconciliation is a virtue. As such, reconciliation is not only a value but also a praxis: one has to work at it in order to become a good practitioner of reconciliation. Virtues are not themes to elaborate in eloquent speeches but rather a way of living. To be good at the virtue of reconciliation one has not only to understand what it is but also to practice it. Virtues involve disposition to and actual competence to accomplish moral good: the virtue of reconciliation leads to actual reconciling behavior. From an ethical perspective to practice the virtue of reconciliation one has to work in a practical way to build bridges over the rifts created by prejudices. Sometimes divisions occur simply because people have had very different experiences and have lived in different contexts. The virtue of reconciliation, like any other virtue, requires working in such a way that it becomes a habit, the regular way of relating to others. In turn, because reconciliation becomes a regular way of relating, it also becomes a stable disposition of the person. This means that one cannot say one is in favor of reconciliation and at the same time work mainly at developing formulas for reconciliation so complex that they are not doable or think, for whatever reason, of whole groups of people that are to be excluded from the process. One has to find effective ways of working at reconciliation even if the results are only limited, even if it involves only a few people, even if all it does is strengthen one’s resolve and gives one new perspective regarding the work of reconciliation. It is obvious, then, that reconciliation does not exist unless one is in the process of reconciling oneself to others, unless one is working for the reconciliation of our communities.

Reconciliation is a religious virtue because its motive for Christians is precisely the Gospel message. It is a religious virtue because Christians believe that this is the kind of behavior that Jesus wants his followers to have. The biblical passages presented above make clear that reconciliation is an important element in the way that the God of Jesus “behaves,” a behavior self-communicated by God in such a way that makes it possible for human beings to embrace it. As a religious virtue, then, reconciliation is a specific form of love, of grace. This means that reconciliation is one of the ways in which God enables human beings not only to relate to the God-self, but to participate in the divine nature itself.9 Finally, from a religious perspective, reconciliation as a virtue, as mentioned above, is not only a matter of personal behavior but is a matter of the mission and very nature of the church.10
Reconciliation is also a social virtue. Human beings are social beings called to be in relationship and called to live as members of various communities – family, work-place, neighborhood – that come together to form various societies. Unfortunately, if it is true that human beings are social beings, it is also true that human beings fail repeatedly in relationships, that mistakes are made, that enmities are created. In this sense human beings live in tension between depending on others and owing themselves to others and wanting to be self-sufficient to the point of becoming selfish and turning against others. Reconciliation as a social virtue has to do with the duty to overcome what separates human beings, what turns one against another, in order to be able to live the sociability that is an intrinsic characteristic of humanity. Not to do so, not to work at overcoming what creates rifts among human beings, is a betrayal of what is a fundamental human characteristic. To create or maintain divisions among persons and peoples is detrimental to all of humanity. This is precisely why reconciliation is a needed social virtue.

Finally, at the beginning of the 21st century, when there is so much strife and division in our world, reconciliation is a civic virtue – it is a patriotic duty no matter to which flag or country you pledge allegiance. It is a disposition and a practice that committed and faithful citizens of all countries must practice or we will annihilate each other, destroy what we have created for generations in our lands. Reconciliation is a civic virtue because without it countries will continue to exploit other countries perhaps without knowing they are planting the seeds of their own destruction. Without reconciliation as a civic virtue we will continue to find excuses to fight wars.

Exorcising the Roots of Conflict and War

At the root of all conflicts, whether at the personal, communal or national level, at the root of all wars is an ideology, a programmatic worldview that is based on the belief that some of us have been made and are superior to others simply because some are men while some are considered inferior because we are women. A worldview is not only a way of thinking but also a way of acting, a way of organizing our human enterprise, our societal structures and customs. I doubt very much that anyone here can say that they live in a situation, at the personal, communal, and societal level, that does not consider and program itself according to the erroneous understanding that men are superior to women.

What is at the heart of capitalism and militarism, of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism, are ways of understanding, organizing society, and proceeding in our relations that are deeply rooted in patriarchy. The characteristics we find in capitalism, militarism, imperialism are planted and nourished by patriarchy and we are doomed to fail in our attempts to build peace for life if we do not take to heart the call to conversion, the call to total and complete metanoia, when it comes to patriarchy.
Allow me to mention three specifics of patriarchy and you be the judge on whether these are not precisely key characteristics of capitalism, militarism, imperialism.

First of all, as a programmatic worldview patriarchy is based on power as domination and control. In patriarchy power means almost exclusively power over and that is precisely the mindset that fuels capitalism, militarism, imperialism. There has been little or no understanding of power as enablement, no understanding of power as truth, no understanding of power as vulnerability – as one of my students at Ewha University here is Seoul recently defined power.

Second, power as domination and control is precisely what seeds and nourishes competition, which supposedly is absolutely necessary for success. Competition is about showing who has more power, who can control and dominate better than the rest. War is often the result of competition among nations for natural resources, for influence, for privileges, for wealth. Unless we stop thinking that competition can be healthy, that competition can be a motive for betterment, we will continue to fuel the small fires that lead inevitably to conflict and war. And competition is an intrinsic element of patriarchy that little boys learn from a very tender age, and women who want to move ahead in patriarchal structures work furiously to master.11

Third, competition needs for differences to be seen as inimical, to be seen as contradictory and unable to exist side by side. I do not have time today to develop this thought but it is my contention that unless we re-conceptualize differences, that unless we stop automatically making moral judgments about differences, always thinking that what is different has to be better or worse, never just different, we will not be able to embrace diversity, to appreciate and promote the pluralism that is needed if we are to live together at peace.

To build peace for life we need to look at values and virtues that we have ignored in the social arena because we relate them to women, and women are relevant only in the private world. These values and virtues are caring, tenderness, and sincerity/humility. Why these values and virtues? Because without them solidarity, the true face of love in the 21st century, cannot exist, will not exist. Without caring, like mothers care for their children, for their families, we will see others as outsiders who threaten more than contribute to who we are, to what we need, to what we want, and we will fight them in order to succeed. Without extending motherly caring to all those we meet, to all those on whom we depend and who depend on us, we will never become the family of God, we will never be kin to God and to each other. Without tenderness there is no solidarity for only tenderness will make us turn to protect and provide for the most vulnerable, and to do so in a way that they are not diminished but can flourish as full human beings. Finally, without sincerity which is nothing else but true humility, we cannot see how we need each other, how we must rely precisely in needing each other rather than in political maneuvers that rely on disguised lies if peace is to flourish.

Patriarchy subjugates over 51% of the human race. Yes, we women are at least 51% of the human race. How can justice flourish under such conditions? How can peace for life become a reality unless we vigorously denounce patriarchy and do all in our power to change structures that demean and oppress women? In denouncing capitalism, militarism, imperialism, in announcing peace for life, let us be very clear that we contradict ourselves unless we also denounce patriarchy. The strength of our message of peace for life depends on our praxis of reconciliation, of justice, and there is no way at the beginning of the 21st century for our praxis of reconciliation, of justice, of peace for life not to include a clear and precise denunciation of patriarchy.
May God help us.

Ada María Isasi-Díaz: (1993) Ass. Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University Theological School, Madison, New Jersey


1 This echoes the well-known quote of Martin Luther King, "Without justice, there can be no peace.” See, Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Towards Freedom. This also echoes the thinking of Pope Paul VI. See, Pope Paul VI, “Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI for the Celebration of the ‘World Day of Peace,’ January 1st, 1972: ‘If You Want Peace, Work for Justice.’”.
2 René David Roset, “Para Una Teología y Pastoral de Reconciliación desde Cuba” [unpublished article], November 1981 revised in 1982, p. 3.
3 Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1990), p. 169.
4 Ibid, p. 7.
5 Ibid, p. 9.
6 Ibid, p. 10.
7 Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethics of Risk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 68.
8 Stanley Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1977), pp. 82-98.
9 Though the language I use here is the traditional Roman Catholic theological language, this understanding is also embraced by the Protestant tradition though it would be expressed somewhat differently. See, Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, “Grace,” in Dictionary of Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1990), pp. 196-200.
10 This point is clear in II Corinthians 5: 18-20. This is also one of the points René David makes so clear in his 1981 article.
11 The fascination with competitiveness is no where more obvious than in sports. Men’s fascination with sports and the violence that competitive sports nourishes in its fans has been well researched and documented.