Restorative Justice

Justice: Week 1

Restorative Justice
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Almost all religion and cultures that I know of have believed in one way or another that sin and evil are to be punished and that retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world—and usually the next world, too. Such retributive justice is a dualistic system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys, and makes perfect sense to the ego. I call it the economy of merit or “meritocracy.” This system seems to be the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, and even most of the church (which should know better) appear equipped to do.

Jesus, many mystics, and other wisdom traditions—such as the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous—show that sin and failure are, in fact, an opportunity for the transformation and enlightenment of the offender. Mere counting and ledger-keeping is not the way of the Gospel. Our best self wants to restore relationships, and not just blame or punish. This is the “economy of grace.” (The trouble is that we defined God as “punisher in chief” instead of Healer, Forgiver, and Reconciler and so the retribution model was legitimized all the way down!)

What humanity really needs is an honest exposure of the truth and accountability for what has happened. Only then can human beings move ahead with dignity. Hurt needs to be spoken and heard. It does not just go away on its own. This can then lead to “restorative justice,” which is what the prophets invariably promise to the people of Israel (e.g., Ezekiel 16:53; Isaiah 57:17-19) and is exemplified in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and throughout his healing ministry. We lose that and we lose the Gospel itself.

The aim of restorative justice is to return the person to a useful position in the community. Thus, there can be healing on both sides. Such justice is a mystery that only makes sense to the soul. It is a direct corollary of our “economy of grace” and yet the term restorative justice only entered our vocabulary in the last few decades. How can we deny that there is an evolution of consciousness, even consciousness of where the Gospel is leading us?

As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge. What you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control from within, festering and destroying you and those around you. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus teaches, “If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you” (logion 70). [1]

Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity. Otherwise, we are controlled by the past, individually and corporately. We all need to apologize, and we all need to forgive or this human project will surely self-destruct. No wonder that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. Otherwise, history devolves into taking sides, bitterness, holding grudges, and the violence that inevitably follows. As others have said, “Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different past.” Reality is what it is, and such acceptance leads to great freedom, as long as there is also both accountability and healing forgiveness.

References:
[1] For various translations of the Gospel of Thomas and links to additional resources, see http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl_thomas.htm

Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016), 194; and
Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 38-39.

Image credit: Memorial Corridor at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (detail), Montgomery, Alabama (800 six-feet-tall hanging steel monuments, one for each county where a lynching took place, with the names of the victims engraved on them).
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice. —Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director, The Equal Justice Initiative

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