Retrospective Reconciliation: Looking Back to Right Past Wrongs – Part I

Heidi Burgess

January, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video examines the different ways that people and societies look backwards to account for wrongs that happened in the past.  Following John Paul Lederach's "Meeting Place" idea, that reconciliation is the meeting place of truth, justice, peace, and mercy, this video stresses that all four of those elements need to be balanced, and that one should not pursue just one, without considering the impact on and role of the others in attaining reconciliation.


Full Transcript:


Slide 1.   Hi! This is Heidi Burgess. This video will talk about what I call “retrospective reconciliation” which refers to the processes that are used to look back in time to past wrongs, trying to determine the truth about what happened, and provide justice for the victims and perpetrators of those wrongs.

Slide 2.   I want to start by going back to the question I asked in my first reconciliation video—what is reconciliation?  When you think of “reconciliation” as a process, rather than an outcome, most people, I think, think in terms of truth and reconciliation commissions.

Slide 3.   Many, probably think about South Africa’s TRC, since that is the one that is probably most commonly known. But there have been over 40 others.  But my key point here is, most people think in terms of retrospective reconciliation, much more than prospective reconciliation.

Slide 4. I  think I’ve talked about John Paul Lederach’s “Meeting Place” in each of the previous units, but here is where it is really comes into play, because three of his four components of reconciliation are front and center in retrospective reconciliation. TRCs are designed to elicit and publicize the truth of what happened in the past, dispense justice, and sometimes give mercy (or amnesty).  This, it is hoped, will lead to peace, although Lederach treats “peace” as an “input” to reconciliation, not an “output.”

The reason I like his formulation so much, and particularly the teaching exercise he developed based on it, is that it highlights all the contradictions between these four elements.   For example, if one focuses on truth and justice, the accused are not likely to be pleased.  They may continue fighting, rather than trying to reconcile. If one wants to stop violence, one may decide it is best to grant mercy without deeply investigating the truth, or dispensing justice.  As I said in an earlier video, it is a matter of balancing, of tradeoffs.  And it is also a matter of how you define, and then pursue, each of these components.

Slide 5.  Let’s look at justice first. TRC justice is usually seen to be more restorative than retributive, which means it focuses on restoring relationships between perpetrators and victims, and healing both, rather than focusing on punishment, which is generally the province of war crimes tribunals or traditional courts, though some TRCs have worked closely with the courts to refer people to the courts for prosecution. 

TRCs  can also be distributive (when reparations are given to make amends for post wrongs) and/or procedural, when the commission recommends changes in governmental or private procedures for treating the victims in the future. (An example would be affirmative action in the U.S. to try to compensate for centuries of discrimination against people of color.)

So, the relative balance between these four kinds of justice: retributive, restorative, distributive, and procedural, can make a lot of difference in terms of whether and when reconciliation is achieved, and if it is, what it looks like.

The definition of “justice,” I should also note, is very culturally influenced. Some religions and cultures focus on guilt and punishment, and there are others focus on redemption and change. So deciding what wrongs even are, and how they should be dealt with is by no means a universal, cross-cultural kind of thing.

Slide 6.  There's also a question about the limits and extent of individual responsibility. Should people be held responsible for doing something that their leader told them to do?  For espousing attitudes and behaviors that they learned from their parents, from the community, from their schools as “the right thing (or at least an acceptable thing) to do” when norms change and that behavior is no longer seen as “right” by the people now in power? 

How often is the source of “evil” more destructive conflict dynamics, than it is the character of the person?  For instance, when in-group/out-group hostilities grow ever stronger and stronger, due to the behavior of people on all sides, is someone who just follows the behavior of others around him or her “evil?”  Where do you assign guilt and impose punishment?

Guy and I argue that a lot of what is thought of as “evil” in the world is more the result of destructive conflict dynamics than it is “evil people.” If you can agree on that, then you all have a common enemy in limiting those dynamics. If, on the other hand, you focus just on “evil” people and hold them to all account, that  can raise a lot more difficulties—because those “evil people” are likely to see you as “evil” too.  So then you end up with a destructive power contest between people who hate and fear each other.  Isn’t working together to improve conflict dynamics more attractive?

 Now, I should be clear, I do think some people are truly evil.  People who care about no one or nothing except themselves, particularly when they are in positions of power that require them to care for and protect others.  People who are sadistic, who take pleasure in other peoples’ pain.  I agree, that’s evil.  And it is not going to work to try to work with such people to diminish destructive conflict dynamics, because they are probably trying to accelerate such dynamics, particularly if it allows them to gain power in the process.  So that’s not the people I’m talking about.  Rather I’m talking about the people who are their victims.  A lot of people who voted for Trump, I believe, didn’t do so because they were evil.  They did so because they were victims of his disinformation campaign.

Slide 7.  Now, while I am asserting that many people who voted for Trump were victims of his (and his allies’) disinformation campaigns, I do not agree, necessarily that they are victims of “big government” or “liberals” or “the dark state” or “the system,” as many of them assert that they were.  This book, Culture of Complaint, points out that it's psychologically much easier to think about your problems as being caused by somebody else and it's their fault, not your own shortcomings.

It’s also fun to complain about “the other.” How much time do we all spend sitting with friends, reading and posting on social media, about all the outrageous things that “the other side” has done, as we gloat about all the virtuous things we have done to counter them.  That reinforces the notion that if the other side would just go away (remember my reference to “into-the-sea” framing in an earlier video?) or agree to our worldview, then everything will be fine.  That’s a sure way to make sure nothing is fine! And we all do this!  A lot!

Slide 8.   Going back to the Meeting Place, truth has never before been so fraught as it is now—in the U.S., and indeed, all over the world.  It has been frequently observed that Trump supporters and progressives live in completely different information universes.  I found myself wondering how so many people—over half of Republican voters and and 147 Congresspeople and Senators really believe that Biden “stole” the election, when the evidence was so clearly contrary to that view. 

Then I realized, the answer to that question is clear.  Most Progressives read the Washington Post and the New York Times.  They listen to NPR, and watch MSNBC.  Those news sources all explained how all the states counted and certified the votes, over 70 courts heard cases challenging those declarations, and in all but one case, upheld the validity of the reported outcome, confirming that Biden had won. 

But, what I realized, was that most Republicans never saw or heard any of that.  They heard from Fox News, NewsMax, Rush Limbach and the President himself that he (Trump) won by a landslide.  If Trump, their esteemed leader, said that, and if their news outlets repeated it over and over again, that was true for them.  Why would they doubt that? Those same news sources told them the election was stolen by illegal ballots, compromised voting machines, intentional miscounting.  That’s all they heard, over and over again.  Their social media confirmed the same stories over and over again.  Why would they believe anything different?

So why does this matter? It matters, not only because it delegitimizes Biden’s presidency and our democratic system more broadly.  But in this context, it also matters  because it is a huge impediment to the successful creation or conclusion of a truth commission.  Why would the people who think Trump won the election, and that climate change and COVID are fake, believe the testimony given at a US truth commission?  Why would they support the notion of reparations?  If they don’t, even if a truth commission were formed and held, it’s products (transcripts, reports, and recommendations) likely wouldn’t have enough legitimacy to be implemented. The goal of most truth commissions is to create a shared narrative—one that people on all sides of the conflict understand and can agree to. So before we create such a Truth Commission, it seems to me, we need to figure out how to get all sides of the political spectrum to participate and to validate the results.

I’m not saying that it cannot be done—once again, Boulding’s First Law prevails.  It has been done at the local level, and so it can be done again, at least at the local level. But figuring out a process that is seen as legitimate and establishing a national narrative that everyone can agree to is going to be significant challenge.

Slide 9.   Mercy is another very difficult concept.  Many people, including many in South Africa, fault the South African TRC for granting far too much amnesty to the perpetrators of heinous crimes, thereby shortchanging justice, and letting the perpetrators “off the hook.”  Both Ebrahim Rasool, who I mentioned in an earlier video, and Dr. Fanie du Toit, who is the former Executive Director of the  Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa, stressed in their respective talks that amnesty was given quite rarely by the South African TRC.  Not all perpetrators were tried for their crimes—there were just far too many to do that.  But they weren’t officially forgiven, either.

However, if mercy or forgiveness isn’t offered for perpetrators, what is going to impel them to step forward and tell their story?  Some do so simply out of guilt or strength of character.  But many (maybe most) will not do that.  So what can you do if people won’t admit their guilt?

Slide 10.  Many people argue that one should forgive, even if the perpetrators does not admit guilt, because forgiveness “sets you (the victim) free.”

In 2005, one of our graduate students, Cate Malek interviewed Linda Biehl, who was the mother of Amy Biehl.  Amy was in South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship in 1993, helping to develop voter registration programs. She was driving several of her coworkers home when her car was stopped by a mob of angry youths. Despite the protests of her friends, the mob attacked Amy, beating her and finally stabbing her to death. As Cate wrote in her profile of Linda, “Amy's story could have ended there. Instead, Linda and her late husband, Peter, returned to South Africa. Slowly, South Africa became their full-time careers and an inextricable part of their lives. Today, Linda divides her time between the United States and South Africa, running the Amy Biehl Foundation (now called the Amy Foundation) that she and Peter started. Two of the men convicted for Amy's death are now her close friends. Although Linda's story is extraordinary, she also believes it was the only thing she could have done.”

Slide 11.  Cate’s profile begins with the following quote from Linda: “"Forgiveness is something for you," she says. "It releases things in you that set you free. It's not for other people as much as for yourself. Reconciliation is active. It takes work. Forgiveness is a release.“

 Generally, it is assumed that forgiveness should not be granted to people who do not admit guilt and who do not apologize.  That certainly was true in South Africa, although admission of guilt and apology often were not sufficient to earn amnesty.

So the questions that have to be examined are:  when is Mercy (amnesty) to be given?  What form should it take?  How should it be balanced with truth, justice, and apology?

Slide 12.  Linda is a remarkable woman, but she is not at all alone.  I googled “forgiveness can set you free” and found 100s of such quotes.  Many were from Christian sources, but others were not—for instance, here, on the right, is one from Buddha.  There are many people who understand that forgiveness is more for the person doing the forgiving than it is for the person being forgiven

Slide 13.   After looking at many such quotes, I found one article that seemed most useful in a Medium post by Tony Fahkry, who presents himself as a “self-empowerment author, speaker and coach.”  In his article he says “Forgiveness does not erase the past, but looks upon it with compassion. He adds:

  • To withhold forgiveness keeps alive emotions of hurt, anger and blame which discolour your perception of life.
  • To forgive, avoid ruminating on thoughts of being wronged. Rather, trust the power of forgiveness to heal the hurt and pain.
  • By holding on to pain and resentment, you suffer because the sorrow is intensified to keep it alive.
  • Despite people’s perceptions that forgiveness means to forget, its motive is preserved in self-forgiveness and the role you played in co-creating the circumstances.
  • This does not mean you consented to what transpired. Given your involvement, even as a victim, you forgive yourself regardless of your role.
  • Forgiveness means to let go of hatred, instead of allowing it to eat at you.

Slide 14.  The reason I’m elaborating on this so much is that it strikes me as part of the answer to the question one of my students (Dieudonne Nsom Kindog) asked me before the course even started.  In an email exchange before the course started, he asked “how can you reconcile with someone who doesn’t want to reconcile with you?”  As I thought about my answer to that question, I realized that was THE QUESTION I was asking myself, as I was advocating reconciliation in the U.S. political conflict. 

Slide 15.  Here, in the U.S., very few people are interested in reconciliation.  Even most of my conflict resolution friends assert that it is “too early.”  “First, we need justice," they say. 

Slide 16.  Or “first we need truth.”  I agree—we do need justice and we do need truth.  But we also need mercy and peace, because we need reconciliation most of all, to avoid that hurricane I talked about in the Prospective Reconciliation video. And while we will talk about the order in which these should be pursued in a little bit (that actually is part of the Meeting Place exercise)—I would assert that we need all four together simultaneously, or perhaps, even, if we are trying to reconcile with someone who doesn’t want to reconcile with us, we need to start with mercy. 

Slide 17.   Mercy is closely related to an idea that conflict scholar Lou Kriesberg presented in his BI essay on De-escalating Gestures.  (I usually call them disarming gestures, but since Lou was a scholar of the cold war and “disarming” meant drawing down nuclear weapons, he prefers the term “de-escalating.”)  It’s the same thing.  The notion is you do something that surprises the other side because it is more reasonable or more helpful or more conciliatory than they would expect you to be, as they see you as the “evil enemy.”  I remember talking about this in a recent video in reference to Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.

Very recently, NYTimes Columnist Thomas Friedman talked about the same event in his column on January 19, in which he discusses how we can move forward together after Trump. (The title of his column is kind of inflammatory, so I didn’t put it on the slide.  But the ideas in the column are excellent.)

Slide 18.   In it, he wrote: “To me, the most striking feature of Trump’s presidency was that year after year he kept surprising us on the downside. Year after year he plumbed new depths of norm-busting, lying and soiling the reputations of everyone who entered his orbit. But he never once — not once — surprised us on the upside with an act of kindness, self-criticism or reaching out to opponents.

His character was his destiny, and it became ours, too. Well, I’ve got good news. We can recover, provided that we all — politicians, media, activists — focus on doing what Trump never could: surprising each other on the upside.”

Slide 19.  He continued by saying “Upside surprises are a hugely underrated force in politics and diplomacy. They are what break bonds of pessimism and push out the boundaries of what we think possible. They remind us that the future is not our fate, but a choice — to let the past bury the future or the future bury the past.”  and then he goes on to talk about Anwar Sadat.

Slide 20.   So going back to the question ““How can you reconcile with someone who doesn’t want to reconcile with you,” the answer I would start with is that you “surprise them on the upside.” You do something friendly or helpful that they do not expect you to do.

Now if neither party wants to reconcile, as we see in the United States at the moment, I fear, the challenge is even greater.  But usually there are some people who understand the benefits of reconciliation, of forgiveness.  Biden maybe does…or maybe he’s just playing politics with nice words.  I don’t know yet.  But I would argue that those of us who understand the benefits and power of forgiveness and reconciliation need to try to “sell the idea” to the skeptics with stories of hope.  Stories of how it has worked for ourselves and stories of how it has worked for others.

Slide 21.  What I taught face-to-face at the University of Colorado, I always showed my students the documentary “A Long Nights’ Journey into Day.”  It’s a story of the South African TRC, featuring, among other participants, Linda and Peter Biehl, along with one of the young men who killed Amy.  It is immensely powerful, and I found out you can rent it for 48 hours for $3.00.  Go to  I highly recommend it!

Slide 22.   The last component of the meeting place is, of course, peace.  Peace is not so much retrospective, as prospective.  In this sense, the meeting place is not just a retrospective exercise, but a prospective one too.

Slide 23.   like the way John Paul describes the relationship between all the elements:

"Reconciliation can be seen as dealing with three specific paradoxes. First, reconciliation promotes an encounter between the open expression of the painful past, on the one hand, and the search for the articulation of a long-term, interdependent future, on the other hand. Second, reconciliation provides a place for truth and mercy to meet, where concerns for exposing what has happened and for letting go in favor of renewed relationship are validated and embraced. Third, reconciliation recognizes the need to give time and place to both justice and peace, where redressing the wrong is held together with the envisioning of a common, connected future." (Lederach, Building Peace, p. 31)

Slide 24.   Chip Hauss, who wrote the essay on Reconciliation for BI, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying “reconciliation isn’t cozy.” Chip went on to say (in his words, not Tutu’s) ”It doesn’t come quickly or easily. Indeed, achieving anything like reconciliation normally takes years or even decades. And, in a country like the United States, whose racism is etched into its entire history, the first signs of reconciliation will also have to constantly reinforced and nurtured if we want the chance to survive the challenges and setbacks we will inevitably encounter along the way.

I’m going to stop here, because this video is already quite long, and I’ll continue this discussion in Retrospective Reconciliation – Part II.


Slides 10 and 11: Cate Malek. "Linda Biehl" Peacebuilder Profile on Beyond Intractability: Dec. 2005.

Slide 13:  Tony Fahkry "How the Power of Forgiveness Will Set You Free.

Slides 17, 18, and 19: Louis Kriesberg. "De-Escalating Gestures." Beyond Intractability. and Thomas L. Friedman. “President Donald J. Trump: The End: This terrible experiment is over” New York Times. January 19. 2021.


Photo Credits

Slide 2: Lukewilcox10, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.  Canada TRC: Public Domain.

Slide 3:

Slide 6: TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 8: Top universe picture:  Open Source.  Bottom universe picture: public domain

Slide 10:

Slides 14-16 and 20: Author: ArtsyBee /

Slide 21:

Slide 24: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons