This ARC supported project aims to address the central problem of how we can respond to the legacy of oppression and political violence in ways that are ethical and not self-destructive or destructive of the rights of others. What kind of atonement or forms of atonement can contribute to restoring an ethical political community after political violence or oppression? The roundtable explores the problems of atonement and considers how atonement can be offered and experienced through symbolic and practical means, in the contexts of the legacies of violence in Australia, East Timor, Bougainville, Indonesia, and elsewhere.


RSVP by 25 November 2016 to Dr Terrilyn Sweep (

Dr Magdalena Zolkos is a political theorist at the Institute for Social Justice at the Australian Catholic University (Sydney). Her specialized fields are memory politics; historical justice and reconciliation; cultural and psychoanalytic trauma theory; emotions and affect; contemporary democratic theory; and feminist theory. The title of Magdalena's talk is “Politico-Theological Genealogy of Restitution and Philosophy of Atonement in the Jewish Teshuvah Tradition”.

Dr Annie Pohlman is a lecturer at the School of Languages and Cultures at UQ. Her research interests include Indonesian history and politics, comparative genocide studies, torture, gendered experiences of violence, and testimony studies. Annie has recently been awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award, the title of which is ‘How does torture become normal? Indonesia’s New Order regime 1965-1998’. For the roundtable Annie will be talking about “The price of doing nothing: Not dealing with the past in Indonesia”.

Dr Daniel Brennan is a Senior Teaching Fellow at Bond University. He lectures in ethics and critical thinking at Bond University, his research areas are social and political philosophy, and his publications include The Political Thought of Vaclav Havel, (Brill, 2016). He is developing a phenomenology of resistance in order to critique the notion of sacrifice in resistance. Daniel will be speaking on concepts of sacrifice and the title of his talk is “Thomas Keneally and the Burdened Virtue of Resistance”.

Ms Elese Dowden is a PhD researcher on the ARC ‘Ethical restoration’ project. Her research concerns ‘Reconciling the Impossible: Forgiveness and Grief in Rwanda, New Zealand and Australia’ and she has presented this research at national and international conferences. Her roundtable talk is on “Atonement in Aotearoa: Decolonising New Zealand in the 21st Century”.

Associate Professor Marguerite La Caze is the Chief Investigator (CI) for this project and researcher at UQ. Her research interests include European philosophy, feminist philosophy, moral psychology, and aesthetics. Her publications include Wonder and Generosity: Their Role in Ethics and Politics, (SUNY, 2013) The Analytic Imaginary (Cornell, 2002), Integrity and the Fragile Self, with Damian Cox and Michael Levine (Ashgate, 2003). The title of Marguerite’s talk is “Communal reconciliation and atonement” with a focus on Australia.

This event is supported by the Australian Research Council, the European Philosophy Research Group, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Summary of Roundtable

An understanding of the role of apologies and other forms of atonement and reparations, both political and cultural, is central to ethical restoration after oppressive violence. Atonement involves ideas of healing, compensation, and moral transformation through making up for wrongs that have been done in some way and is understood as crucial to reconciliation in these contexts. It is sometimes referred to in the literature as ‘making amends’. Atonement is linked to a number of difficulties, in that many of the victims are no longer alive, and so cannot receive the atonement, commonly survivors do not wish to receive it, atonement cannot ever fully make up for what happened in the past, and often the perpetrators have no concern to atone. What kind of atonement or forms of atonement can contribute to restoring an ethical political community after political violence or oppression? This multidisciplinary roundtable addressed forms of atonement in contexts of political violence and mass atrocities in Australia, New Zealand, East Timor, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

Dr. Magdalena Zolkos, Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University, ‘Politico-Theological Genealogy of Restitution and Philosophy of Atonement in the Jewish Teshuvah Tradition.’ Magdalena talked about the process of atonement in the Jewish Teshuvah tradition which centres on the return and restoration of former relationships. In relation to the discourse of restitution this tradition is an under-explored feature and is rich in insights. This mystical tradition has the potential to help us conceptualise the aporetic feature of restitution, in that the wrongs of the past are irreparable. Restitution has two meanings, one concerning property and the other concerning injury. The Teshuvah tradition runs counter to the lex talionis, or the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ in Israelite jurisprudence. The idea of Shuvah concerns the motion of turning, a process that is not necessarily accomplished. The re-interpretation of teshuvah in modern Judaism is a more complex rewriting and overcoming of the past. Magdalena primarily discussed the work of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, a Lithuanian thinker who studied in Berlin and migrated to the US in the 1930s and founded a Yeshuvah school in New York. His conception of restitution is one that treats both the past and the future as alive and distinguishes between repentance by love, which is to rectify evil, and repentance by fear, which is to block out evil. Repentance by love has a higher status, whereby the act of repentance transforms the state of misdeed into a positive value.

Dr. Annie Pohlman (UQ) ‘The price of doing nothing: Not dealing with the past in Indonesia.’ Annie spoke about the struggle to have past atrocities and genocides acknowledged in Indonesia. The best known are the 1965-66 genocide against communist and suspected communists, and the massacres, cruelty and neglect in East Timor during its occupation between 1975-1999. Yet Annie pointed out that there have been further massacres and disappearances in Indonesia periodically during those decades. Her argument is that Indonesia has chosen not to deal with its past, and in that sense there is no atonement or making amends. For instance, there have been very few convictions of the crimes in East Timor, and these have been overturned on appeal and a Truth and reconciliation bill concerning the 1965-66 genocide has stalled. What concerns her is that this lack of acknowledgement sows the seeds for renewal of violence and the continuation of a cycle of oppression. As a country, it pays a high price for this lack of atonement, and at present the country appears to be heading back towards authoritarianism after a period of democratisation since 1998, as there are predictors and warning signs of future violence. One of these predictors is past atrocity and another is the failure to deal with that violent past and impunity for the crimes committed, which undermines the rule of law. Annie argued that one of the primary reasons that this state of affairs continues in Indonesia is that other countries dare not interfere.

Dr. Daniel Brennan (Bond University) ‘Thomas Keneally and the Burdened Virtue of Resistance.’ Daniel talked about ‘turning away from suffering’ to something else ‘worthy of turning to’ as a possible way of combating oppression, and used Thomas Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) to illustrate his point. Keneally’s book deals with failed dissent, and Daniel interpreted it in relation to Lisa Tessman’s account of how virtues can be morally troubled and people can be morally damaged. This means that under oppression we can be coerced to be vicious and the demands of justice can conflict. Oppression can comprise a kind of constitutive luck of who you are and the burdens can lead to regret over the self you have become even though you have done the best you can. The problem is that in certain circumstances you cannot right wrongs alone. In Bring Larks and Heroes, Corporal Halloran has both bad constitutive and circumstantial moral luck. He is a soldier in a penal colony in the South Pacific and is a witness to many abuses, and hates taking orders from his immoral superiors. The specific conflict for him arises when he has to take part in an ambush of Irish resisters whose cause he sympathises with. There is a massacre, and while Halloran does not murder any of the resisters, neither does he do anything to help them. Daniel argues that this position can be morally appropriate in cases of extreme violence. Later Halloran and his partner, Ann Rush, are persuaded to take part in a conspiracy, and they are both sentenced to hang, a fate that does not allow for any possibility of atonement. How Daniel understands this choice is as a pointless dissident sacrifice that betrays his own values of friendship, love and solidarity that we need to embrace to live a good life even under oppression.

Ms. Elese Dowden (UQ) ‘Atonement in Aotearoa: Decolonising New Zealand in the 21st Century.’ In her paper, Elese pointed out that from an outsider’s perspective, Aotearoa (or New Zealand), seems to be a peaceful nation in the South Pacific with an excellent standard of race relations and that indeed, many Pākeha (or non-Māori) New Zealanders may view their country in the same way. However, Elese contended that while the country is relatively peaceful, and while some amends have been made, not all citizens have access to equal opportunities and there is greater need for atonement, as a result of the country’s colonial history. Elese briefly described the colonial history of Aotearoa, including the impact of British settlement on Māori, the New Zealand wars, leading right up to the effects in the contemporary context and the existence of a nationalistic lobby group known as ‘Hobson’s pledge’. That history has left a legacy of racism where many Māori suffer from depression and reduced life expectancy, lower housing, education and employment rates. Elese also considered the history of direct formal apologies to different Māori tribes, or iwi, most of which have come as a part of specific Treaty settlements. There have also been some cultural redress whereby land has been invested back for Māori and places have been renamed with Māori names. Elese argued that there is a need for reinterpretation and greater fulfilment of the Treaty of Waitangi and for a general apology to Māori in New Zealand.

Marguerite La Caze (CI, UQ) ‘Atonement and reconciliation.’ Marguerite’s paper considers the work of Linda Radzik in order to present a view of atonement that recognises its distinctive significance in restoration and reparations after large-scale oppression and violence. Radzik’s book, Making Amends: A reconciliation theory of atonement (2009) is one of the few to develop a secular theory of atonement. I examine this reconciliation view of atonement to see what it can offer us in attempting to theorise a response to political violence and historical injustice, the difficulties of which are articulated by Vladimir Jankélévitch, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida and others. While conceding that there are important philosophical contributions in Radzik’s account, including the idea that atonement can and sometimes must be collective, Marguerite argued that we need to retain the distinctiveness of the concept of atonement without reducing it to other related concepts such as reconciliation, that ethical transformation must be an aspect of atonement, and that atonement should be primarily concerned with harm to the victims and survivors rather than relationships. Atonement also brings to bear on the possibility of redemption for the perpetrator as well as whether the victim has a duty to forgive. On account of such distinctions, atonement and reconciliation can be thought of as separate paths to the address of past wrongs. Finally Marguerite considered how atonement can be conceived and how it is enacted in the Australian context, discussing some of the compensation schemes for the Stolen generations and the lack of memorialisation of Indigenous experience.

Dr Terrilyn Sweep
Ms Elese Dowden
Associate Professor Marguerite La Caze

This roundtable was possible because of the ARC discovery grant, as well as the generous contributions of the European Philosophical Research Group and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.


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