Restorative Justice


From the Web site of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, these statements about its restorative justice conferencing process:

Justice. Faster.

Transforming conflict into cooperation

Responding to destructive behavior in constructive ways

Positive relationships build safer schools

Using conflict to build community

After my earlier post about retributive justice, a friend suggested the desire for punishment is fed not only by having been wronged oneself but also by sympathy with the victim. She acknowledged also the common desire to see and feel that wrongs get repaid, that offenses fall back hard upon the offender. We chafe at the thought that offenders may get away with their crimes and so be able to laugh at their victims and take pride in remaining untouched by the harm they have done. Quite naturally, we want them touched and touched hard. We long for them to rue the day they hurt their victims. Crime is not supposed to pay.

The modern movement of restorative justice seeks to heal and restore, as much as possible, all affected by the offense: victim and offender both but also the others hurt including family and friends of both victim and offender. Whole neighborhoods and communities are harmed by, say, a rash of home invasions. People’s sense of security is shattered because their personal space has been violated or threatened. They no longer feel safe in their own homes or, for victims of rape or other abuse, in their own bodies. Their homes may feel dangerous to them or their bodies stolen. They have been robbed of control over what is supposed to be their own. They may even come to despise what they should be able to cherish – their homes or their bodies.

What could be worse than having your child hurt (or killed) criminally? There may be something worse: having your child be the one who did the harm. Crime brings grief upon both those who care for the victim and those who care for the offender. Restorative justice begins with the acknowledgment that crime breaks far more than the law.

The restorative justice movement is not a single entity but many. Howard Zehr likens it to the many streams that flow together to form a river (The Little Book of Restorative Justice, p. 61f). While cautious about either/or contrasts between the restorative and the retributive as practiced under the rule of law, Zehr says restorative justice asks questions that differ from those of retributive justice, and I find that the questions we ask about any important matter affect greatly the lenses we choose to examine that matter, the needs we recognize, the resolutions we seek, and the outcomes we will celebrate or lament. Zehr identifies the guiding questions of any restorative justice process as these (38):

1. Who has been hurt?
2. What are their needs?
3. Whose obligations are these?
4. Who has a stake in this situation?
5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right?

Retributive justice under the rule of law (rather than blood revenge or vigilantism) focuses upon crimes and other offenses as rule breaking. The offending behavior has violated some code, standard, or rule. Zehr’s very first guiding question leads the quest for justice in another, more personal direction: not, “What rule has been broken?” but, “Who has been hurt?” We need not follow that question very far before realizing that while the immediate and obvious victim is a person not a rule, the list of people hurt may include the perpetrator as well as the victim plus friends and family of each plus a community.

Consider a case of bullying in school. Who has been hurt? Obviously, the bullied child has. What about the victim’s family members? Friends and classmates of the victim? Perhaps a teacher whose teaching has been disrupted and class made fearful or (worse) gleeful over the bullying? The bully? The bully’s family and friends? Does the bully realize the harm the bullying has done to him or her? Does the behavior arise from harm previously done to the bully?

I view school “zero tolerance” policies as cop-outs, abdications of adult responsibility, and violations of the trust students and their families should be able to have in the adults responsible for fairness and safety. In a school system with which I was familiar for years, students who gained street cred from being suspended would taunt “good kids” into fights because the district had a policy that whenever there was a fight, both fighters would be suspended, even if the victim did not actually fight back. Did anyone really think justice was being done? In some cases, the policy produced real-life, painful versions of the old joke, “Mom, I didn’t start it; Billy hit me on the knuckles with his chin.” Who sees justice when the victim of taunting, spitting, and punching or hair pulling is suspended and kicked out of the honor society while the bully gets desired time off from school, enhanced street cred, and laughs shared with friends over the success of getting the “good kid” punished?

From a YouTube video presentation (“Better Justice”) offered by Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, I took the following notes on the center’s conferencing process and its order of events:

1. The offender goes first to tell what happened, as he or she recalls it.
2. All share how they have been affected by what happened. This process can and does become very emotional.
3. All involved work out together what they think needs to be done (a) to make this situation better and (b) to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

From whatever desire for payback is within us, skepticism almost surely arises. The more we see people as resistant to change (or even as types of greater or lesser value), standards as of primary importance, leniency as moral failure, and punishment as the right response to offenses, the stronger that skepticism is likely to be. But – the Community Conferencing Center reports that 98% of their conferences result in written agreements to which all involved in the conferencing have signed on, and there has been greater than 95% compliance with those agreements. Interestingly, conferencing also costs far less than court trials.

Can the process be played? In his short book cited above, Zehr suggests potential for misuse of restorative justice procedures, but what human system need not be vigilant about preventing abuse? I think that the more we believe or at least hope people can change, see healing as preferable to punishment and as the right goal for punishment, recognize that rules and laws exist for people and communities and not the other way around (Jesus, “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath”), and value reconciliation over payback, the more we become open to restorative justice.

A few resources on restorative justice:

The Community Conferencing Center Web site

Centre for Justice and Reconciliation

Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Ted Wachtel, Real Justice

Lauren Abramson’s YouTube videos

There are many more.

Next: Restorative justice is one higher form of justice biblically. There is, however, another high form not so often recognized as biblical: distributive justice. If the thought of restorative justice can offend the virtuous who “want to see some punishment” and maybe even eternal punishment, the very idea of distributive justice challenges the orders of power and privilege in human societies and so can infuriate the “haves” in society. For next time: “the Mosaic revolution” (as Walter Brueggemann calls it) known as distributive justice.

Healing Justice (Revised)


Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 NRSV)

The Bible enables us to sketch a progress of justice, starting in the fourth chapter of Genesis with the legendary figures of Cain and his brutal descendent Lamech. Having murdered his brother and been found out, Cain wails to God:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Genesis 4:13-15 NRSV)

As numbers are used in the Bible, sevenfold is not a literal six plus one but an indication of complete retaliation – a sort of, “You start it, and Cain’s people will finish it!” Most recently I have heard this kind of declaration of a personal revenge principle from president-elect Donald Trump who, like Lamech from whom we’ll hear next, prides himself in hitting back harder.

If Cain stands as the archetypal figure of retributive justice by blood vengeance, Lamech proudly pushes retaliation beyond all self-restraint. To his wives, Lamech boasts:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23,24 NRSV)

Here again, the number is not literal but represents, no longer merely complete revenge, but wholesale, unlimited brutality. People familiar with the Bible’s newer Testament will make the connection to Jesus’ counter command to his disciples, that they forgive the one who has offended them, not merely seven times (fully persistent forgiveness) but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven), representing an unfettered desire for healing and reconciliation. This relentless spirit of restoration is the opposite of Lamech’s.

One early meaning of a Hebrew word for “redeemer” refers to the avenger of blood, the kinsman who takes up the responsibility to kill the killer even if the slaying was accidental. To provide for accidental killers, the Israelites established six cities of refuge in which the avenger of blood could not kill them.

Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you . . . . (Numbers 35:10-13 NRSV)

The idea of a trial before the congregation represents the emergence of law and order. Another step against unrestrained vengeance with its perpetuation in cycles of revenge came with the lex talionis or “law of retribution” – the famous “eye for an eye.”

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
(Exodus 21:23-25 NRSV)

I believe there is general agreement among scholars that the law of retribution began as a legal restriction of revenge: only an eye for an eye, rather than the overkill of Lamech and his kind. By the time of Deuteronomy, however, the restriction had turned into a mandate, and so we find added a command against leniency, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21 NRSV) For his followers, Jesus overrides even regulated vengeance (see Matthew 5:38-41, the well-known “turn the other cheek” teaching).

I have sketched this progress of justice to bring us to the primary biblical concern for justice which is the healing of persons, relationships, and community. What is violated by crimes? Perhaps in our efforts to depersonalize and regulate retribution, we lost sight of the relational nature of human life and the harm crimes do to real, live people; perhaps we did the best we could to establish the rule of law as the alternative to chaos and barbarism. In biblical thought, all of life is relational. Even truth itself is a relational concept rather than a merely factual or philosophical one. The biblical concept of sin is not the violation of law but the denial and violation of relationship, first of all with God and then with other people and the human community. Sin is even extended further to include the denial and violation of our rightful relationship with the earth and our non-human fellow creatures. The goal, therefore, of God’s justice is not rewarding or punishing but healing. Even punishment has the goal of healing and restoring. Our thirst for retribution has miscast truth as the verdict of judgment so that justice seems to us fulfilled by the expiration of leniency and the distribution of rewards and punishments according to a standardized determination of what each person deserves. According to the great prophets and Jesus, God sees truth and justice differently – as healing and restoration rather than evaluation and punishment.

So it is that Jesus summarizes all God wants from us and for us in two relational commands: to love our God completely and to love our neighbor as (we love) ourselves. Justice is done, not by evaluating and then rewarding or punishing, but by healing and restoring those who have been harmed individually and collectively. Who are those harmed by crimes or other offenses? That question leads us to the modern restorative justice movements I’ll look at in my next post. How does restorative justice work and for whose healing? What does it seek to restore?

Next:  a look at modern restorative justice movements

Equality as an On-going Promise


What is the politics of humanity? Centrally, it is a politics of equal respect. Our nation is built on the idea that all citizens as citizens are of equal worth and dignity. Rejecting the feudalism and monarchism of their European experience, our forefathers rejected all titles, ranks, and hereditary honors. A person’s birth, wealth, and status had no bearing on his political opportunities and entitlements. The American Revolution was in that sense radical, rejecting all previous modes of social organization and opting for one entirely new, built on the idea that all persons have equal human dignity and equal natural rights. The key idea of the new political order came to be one of nondomination: the idea that what was centrally bad, in politics, was the systematic subordination of some citizens to others. Because all citizens are equal, domination, whether based on class or religion or some other principle, must be firmly rejected. [Martha Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law]

After the paragraph above, Nussbaum recognizes the exceptions at the time of our nation’s founding. “The Founders,” she notes, “were famously obtuse on some matters,” those matters being, of course, the persistent exceptions to the practice of equality made for women, Native Americans, slaves, and those who owned no property. After our nation’s founding, there was still much equality-making work to be done, and the task is not yet complete. Nussbaum reasons, “Our founding documents, then, are properly construed as more egalitarian in their general promise of human equality than in the particular understanding of that equality that was prevalent at the time of their composition.” That conclusion she draws is crucial to our future as a nation in this time when powerful voices are calling for the stifling of our progress in humanity as a people by insisting our Constitution must be limited in interpretation and application to what the nation’s founders could seem to have meant by its particulars at the time of its adoption. Thus these so-called originalists would strip the Constitution of its power and vitality, making it instead a frozen and restrictive document that would leave us mired in the Eighteenth Century.

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