Truth commissions are not a new idea. They have already been used in Latin America as a way of dealing with gross human rights violations after a civil conflict has ended. Such bodies are empowered to grant an amnesty to criminals who confess fully to their actions and can prove that they were politically motivated. Mercy and reconciliation being at the forefront of their philosophy, truth commissions have proved attractive to many church leaders; Archbishop Desmond Tutu chairs the South African commission.
But justice is a gospel imperative too. What happens when the two seem to clash? By allowing murderers and torturers to walk free, truth commissions raise fundamental questions about what is meant by justice. This has become of more than academic interest in Britain over the past two decades, when the word "justice" was increasingly narrowed to mean punishment of the criminal. The populist response to the James Bulger and Myra Hindley cases can give the impression that the severity of punishment should not be the prerogative of an independent criminal justice system but a direct reflection of the popular will. At its worst such populism is catching and results in a desire for "justice" becoming synonymous with a desire for vengeance.
But truth commissions are not institutions of a criminal justice system. Nor are they expressions of the popular will. Indeed the amnesty granted by truth commissions to the perpetrators of serious crimes can be deeply hurtful to victims or victims' families. This is clearly the case in South Africa where this week, despite opposition from the dead man's family, an amnesty was granted to three members of a former South African police hit-squad, led by Dirk Coetzee, who confessed to the murder of the anti-apartheid lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in 1981.
Yet the families of victims are not asked to forego all individual satisfaction in the interests of a broader public good of social reconciliation. Some satisfaction is intended to come from the proceedings. The full disclosure of the truth about what happened to loved ones makes it possible to draw a line under the past; disclosure is needed for a closure of mourning and grief. In the same way as the individual is restored to well-being, it is hoped that society is returned to health. People can begin to make their own histories again instead of being shackled by the past.
The idea of restorative justice is an ancient and biblical one. An "eye for an eye" was not a vengeful prescription but a formula for avoiding two eyes for one, a continuing spiral of violence. Moreover the Jubilee theme of Leviticus holds up the ideal of freeing slaves, forgiving debts and redistributing land, as a cyclical restoration of God's just order.
From a Christian perspective, therefore, apartheid as a crime against humanity cannot simply be dealt with at the level of individual plaintiffs who have suffered crimes against the person. Land was stolen. Millions of forced removals took place into abject housing. Workers were exploited cruelly. Education was grossly discriminatory. What chance genuine reconciliation if such wrongs are not righted? The risk is that what is created is an ersatz form of reconciliation - and that church leaders merely give legitimacy to a process which falls far short of the Christian ideal.
Yet the radical nature of the Christian idea of reconciliation always confronts the realities of political and economic power. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is achieving probably the best that can be achieved in the present South African political context without provoking a violent backlash from the white Right. Britain should learn from South Africa's experience. It will have its own demons to exorcise when, and if, peace comes to the north of Ireland.