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Retribution or Forgiveness, Which Is the Greater Justice?

Updated on September 15, 2020

The concept of the rule of law is man’s attempt to carry out just retribution. Where all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to the law that is fairly applied and enforced by formal institutions that can adequately bring offenders to justice by dispensing punishment that is due. To some extent, it has worked as it has served as a check to society to predict the consequences of each other’s actions. Going by what is happening in the world today, can there be something better?


An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

— Mahatma Gandhi

Absolute Justice?

There was once a King of a prosperous land and he and the Supreme Deity of the land were in good standing. However, there was a famine in the land that had lasted three years and he could not bear it any longer. On enquiring of the Supreme Deity, the response was unexpected, “It is because of your predecessor and his bloodthirsty family because they killed the former inhabitants of this land whom your ancestors had a peace treaty with, the terms of which was slavery instead of death.

The king called the descendants of the land to make amends and asked what they wanted to be at peace. They said to him, “We neither nether want silver nor gold, give us seven men of the former king’s sons and we will hang them before the Supreme Deity on the mountain. And the king said I will give them. The sons were delivered and put to death; they were not buried until the rain fell on their bodies. If the first story is familiar to you, you’re right, it’s found in the Bible 2 Samuel 21:1 – 14.

Social Justice Evolution

And herein is retribution expressed, where equivalent punishment is inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act. And for a while, before the 19th century, it was the key reasoning for a justly deserved penalty for different crimes where pain, humiliation, and death were dispensed relative to the crime. The principle of “eye for an eye “is the foundation of retribution where for every wrong committed there is a compensating measure of justice and it has been popularized in modern-day culture through popular films, television, memes, and literature that a phrase such as “serves you right” has become commonplace. Many people, at some point, have felt the retributive urge for wrongs committed against us but the difference is, that we do not necessarily act on it, we believe for the most part that retribution is of a divine nature. Because the consequences of acting on this destructive urge have been responsible for family feuds, repeated conflicts, and genocides.

Last year, a suspected rhino poacher was trampled by an elephant then eaten by lions in Kruger National Park, South Africa. His accomplices told the victim’s family that he had been killed by an elephant then the relatives notified the park rangers who found part of his remains. From the stories, it would seem that just retribution was carried out. However, what happens to those who were not privy to the original crime such as your dependants who are left behind and are affected? Whose responsibility is it, to heal their emotional wounds? And as for the rule of law, where there are wrongful convictions, failed verdicts, or slack enforcement of the law, what course of action can the victims take? This is where society should explore an alternative solution, forgiveness.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

"True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Lessons from Rwanda

Forgiveness does not substitute punishment and it is not easy to do. However, its impact on the individual and society is immeasurable. Consider the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the seeds of which were sown before the nation’s independence in 1962. Where one community was seen to be empowered more economically and socially than the other. Post-independence, intermittent ethnically motivated revenge violence was a feature of Rwanda and no genuine effort was made by the elite to heal the perceived injustices of the past. A power-sharing agreement was signed by then-President Habyarimana in 1993, calling for a transition government that would include both parties. However, the Hutu hardliners were angered by it and in 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated and the extremists used this as a green light to exterminate their opponents.

In April 1994, Alice Mukarurinda’s village was attacked. Together with her husband and infant daughter, they sought refuge in a church that was ultimately burned with them inside. They somehow managed to escape and hid in a swamp. On April 29, 1994, a group of men attacked them with machetes, axes, and arrows. In the process, her right hand was chopped off and she was knocked unconscious with a blunt object, her child was cut in two and the husband was attacked resulting in less serious injuries. The perpetrators dumped her body in a pile of deceased remains where she was miraculously rescued by the rebel group which ended the genocide.

Image by David Peterson from Pixabay
Image by David Peterson from Pixabay

Communal Healing

Years after the genocide, Alice joined a group of genocide killers and survivors. It was here that she began working with Emmanuel Ndayisaba, the man who was responsible for chopping her right hand. Emmanuel felt convicted to ask forgiveness of Alice. She fainted when he approached her to do so and was hospitalized for she couldn’t believe it was him. After two weeks of discussions with her husband, they forgave him. Emmanuel had been jailed from 1997 to 2003 and was let out after the government mass-released many perpetrators and innocent Hutus jailed without trial. Their purpose following release was to help rebuild the nation and be tried in local courts called Gacaca.
The Gacaca courts were set up by the government to be community-based to try genocide-related crimes for killers and thieves but not those who organized massacres. During these trials, defendants were given shorter sentences in exchange for confessing and are encouraged to seek forgiveness from the victim’s family. As secretary to the local Gacaca court, Alice was in a position to have Emmanuel tried for his crimes. However, she pleaded with the members of the court on his behalf. The court had leniency and instead of prison, Emmanuel was ordered to do public works to rebuild society. Today, Alice and Emmanuel see each other socially. Their families are friends and their children play together. They have also planted trees on each other’s properties as a symbol of forgiveness.

Image by lynnx10 from Pixabay
Image by lynnx10 from Pixabay

Retribution by its nature is reactive punishment for the sake of justice and is seen as a means to correct the imbalances one’s actions have wrought and to satisfy the public demand for immediate justice. It is this premise that has been ineffective in rectifying the root causes that lead to wrongdoing and this is where forgiveness should be applied. Forgiveness is the ideal vehicle for closure. It involves all parties through mediation and provides a means by which the victims and the offenders have an opportunity to heal their wounds and restore their Including forgiveness in the justice process strengthens the society as a whole and will go a long way in preventing the ills of the past from recurring in future generations.

© 2020 Victor Orare


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