Internationally, the third week of November has for a number of decades now been designated as Restorative Justice Week. The website for CSC (Correctional Service Canada), http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/restorative-justice/003005-2000-eng.shtml, implies that it supports this perspective, and informs us that this year’s theme is, Inspiring Innovation, and continues:
Restorative justice (RJ) is a philosophy and an approach that views crime and conflict as harm done to people and relationships. It is a non-adversarial, non-retributive approach to justice that emphasizes healing in victims, accountability of offenders, and the involvement of citizens in creating healthier, safer communities. The goal is to reach meaningful, satisfying, and fair outcomes through inclusion, open communication, and truth.
This perspective may seem radical applied to criminal justice, but it is not new, and it is really common sense and should hit a responsive chord, especially for Christians should it not? Returning evil for evil just does not sound biblical; not reflecting anything Christ would stand for. Yet a popular ancient notion of reciprocal retributive justice has persistently dominated: simply put, “wrongdoers get what they deserve: evil due for evil done.”
Retribution has come to mean the formal state-applied-pain to the wrongdoer proportional to the pain inflicted by the wrongdoer. (How does one measure pain and harm anyway?) In this scheme, victims have little directly to say in the process, and the psychic-spiritual-social harm done to people and relationships has little evidentiary value. Crime in this scheme is not essentially against the victim, but against the state. This perspective is not very inspiring, nor creative, nor does it bring essential healing and restoration; not even necessarily just. Restorative justice on the other hand has its creative innovative eye on the need for healing and for restored relations; shalom.
A creative hermeneutic is also required as we read the Bible in regards to the grounding for restorative justice. It’s all there of course, but over the centuries modern theories of justice based on rational choice, deterrence, and retribution, seem normal, and equated as God’s ways as delivered by the state. A closer look at scripture in the Old Testament, however, suggests John Hesselink, reveals a God that passionately desires to restore, not to destroy, his wayward image bearers. But we seem to have internalized a dualistic understanding of God’s righteousness as bifurcated from his mercy and love, while in reality God’s righteousness is his passion to restore. The God that meets us in the Bible is the God that saves, “….because he is righteous, not despite his righteousness.” (Hesselink, 1975, in, Grace Upon Grace, by James Cook, ed., Eerdmans).
Likewise Nicholas Wolterstorff (2011, Justice in Justice Love, Eerdmans) more recently, asserts that Christ in every way has annulled the ancient reciprocity code. This has radical implications on how we regard retribution. God does not demand that evil be redressed with evil, but rather with love, for the good of all; even the enemy of the state is our neighbour to whom we owe justice in love. Any “punishment” that is exerted in the intervention of injustice of wrongdoing must be for the good of the wrongdoer, not for evil; punishment as such must not do more harm.
The concept of punishment also needs creative, restorative, reframing from its narrow juridical sense of sanctioned pain application. Neither discipline, nor the concepts of admonishment and rebuke mean pain application. They rather mean setting limits, giving direction, wisdom, and teaching. They have the good in mind even though some pain may be involved in the force applied. Think for example, how the actions of a therapist are existentially perceived by the patient after a hip or knee replacement; the force of therapy can feel punishing, but is essential for healing and restoration. Similarly, State intervention in cases of harm, oppression, and abuse, will seem punitive as it mandates an accountability that is often more demanding than simply, passively, doing time in jail; but it actually results in more engagement and healing for all those harmed and impacted by the crime.
OT theologian John Hesselink implies that God’s avenging (vengeance; Heb. naqam; Gk. Ekdikesis, Rom. 12:19) must be seen as “salvific”, thus as restorative, not as pay-back-revenge to get even. God’s ways are not simply culturally approved ways, ancient, or modern. God’s wrath in Biblical narrative is not so much to be taken as the opposite of His love. The apathy of neglect and detachment is actually the opposite of love, an attitude of, “Couldn’t care less what happens to the scoundrel!” Rather, I propose, wrath is God’s passion, often agonistically portrayed in intervention for the good of his image bearers, oppressed and oppressors. God is one, God is love, and displays redemptive concern for the oppressors, that they turn (shub) from their evil ways. I suggest that God’s orge is born of His love and righteous desire that none should perish.
Our modern criminal justice system labours under a public opinion that desires the wrath of returning evil for evil and then some, with an added calculation of applied pain for good measure. However, I can testify, and there is much evidence, that long sentences do not deter and do very little good to restore the wrongdoer, or help the victims with their struggles of moving toward a return to normalcy or shalom. We need smarter, more creatively innovative sentences, not longer, harsher sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences are simply on the wrong track, dehumanizing and unjust. The overuse of administrative solitary confinement in Canadian prisons also simply must stop! Having listened to the Incarnate Eternal Creative Word, we respond to a call to a ministry of reconciliation, shalom, and to publically call our elected officials and public servants to change current practices that do more harm than good to society, disparaging the God given human worth of the most vulnerable and those designated least desirable in society today. We need restorative alternatives to the retributive prison. In Christ, our society’s moral maturity is measured by the wellbeing of the least, not by the prosperity and the unfettered self-interest of the greatest. What’s more our very own Canadian federal (CSC) institution for incarceration calls us to creative innovation. What more could we ask?
Shalom. Henk Smidstra.