“Restorative justice” is a phrase that sounds very nice.
It likely conjures up images of people smiling, of sunlight pouring through windows, of trees swaying in the wind—the stuff of daydreams. On the other hand, some might think of courtrooms, prisons, prisoners, lawyers and judges. Yet still others might think of “talking circles”, victim-offender conferences, truth-telling, and reconciliation.
It’s a concept that some Christians—including myself—advocate for. But, simultaneously, it’s also a concept that many Christians find vague, or confusing.
So what exactly is restorative justice?
In modern Western society, restorative justice is movement that began in the 1970s as a response to the North American criminal justice system.
In my experience, people hear the phrase and inherently know that it is a positive idea. Restorative justice is just that: justice with restoration in mind.
As Howard Zehr—one of the founders of the restorative justice movement and prolific professor at The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, Virginia—puts it so eloquently: “Restorative justice is an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible” (page 48, The Little Book of Restorative Justice).*
But this is only Zehr’s attempt to define a large and complex concept. One of my majors in university was English, and I know that a powerful way to reach others is through stories and metaphors. So, let me provide a helpful illustration.
When I think of restorative justice, I think of tapestries, spider-webs, and doilies.
Tapestries are thick pieces of woven fabric with pictures and designs woven into them through the use of colourful threads. Imagine with me that our entire world is a massive tapestry, and that each person is a thread that makes up the whole. We are connected to certain other threads, and a group of threads can make up a picture in the tapestry, each picture being a community.
In the same way, our relationships with one another are like spider-webs and doilies. If the whole world were a spider-web, each person would exist at an intersection of strands; if this earth of ours were a doily, each person would be interlaced with a group of other persons, and each crisscrossing of thread would be a community.
The key here being that we are all interconnected. As imagebearers of God, we are designed to interact with one another—we are the body of Christ, after all. God desires us to have fruitful relationships with one another, and part of this fruitfulness can start with the understanding and implementation of restorative justice.
I want to bring back the last part of Zehr’s quote: the goal of restorative justice, and of justice itself, is “to put things as right as possible.” This is exactly what is behind the Biblical principle of shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace.” We are to be putting things as right as possible with each other, specifically in our relationships.
Restorative justice and shalom go hand-in-hand.
A second part to this post, with more concrete examples of restorative justice, will be posted in the coming month.
*Quote taken from Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Good Books, 2002).