Restorative Justice & Church Conflicts

lorraine-s-amstutz(This article originally appeared in a 2002 edition of PATHWAYS TO JUSTPEACE – JustPeace’s e-newsletter.  It was written by Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, who now co-directs the Office on Crime and Justice for Mennonite Central Committee.)

A few years ago my colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) asked me when I would begin working with them on church conflict cases.  I remember looking at them as if they had three eyes on their face and responding “why would I want to do that”?  As the Director of MCC’s Office on Crime and Justice I was perfectly happy to work with victims and offenders of crime and bring them together to talk about the impact of what has happened in their lives and I certainly didn’t want to be involved in the messy business of church conflicts!

Over the past few years, however, as I’ve talked more about restorative justice, I recognize the greater connections with what we are teaching children in our homes, in our schools and what we are saying in our churches and I’m much more willing to jump into that arena than I had been previously.  I think we are continuing to develop tools for working at these issues in ways that challenge us and give us hope.

One of the greatest concerns with implementing processes of restorative justice within any organization or system is that “this will take time.”  Recently I was in a school where a teacher said “if I have to take time to sit down with students each time an incident occurs, then I won’t have time to teach”.  This is the same response we often get from those within the criminal justice system.  I believe that if we don’t take the time now to invest in our relationships and model the type of behavior in our children that we want them to exhibit as adults, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we have the kind of problems we do within our society as a whole. Whether we’re working at home, in our schools, in our churches and organizations or in the criminal justice system, committing ourselves to working at issues, at harms, at crime within the context of restorative justice will take time.

Restorative justice provides us with a philosophical framework for our lives.  It is the belief that “some things are just so” and they can’t be explained with a formula, as hard as we try to fit it into one.  It is about community, about relationship and sometimes those things aren’t tangible.  Howard Zehr has summarized the legal and restorative justice processes this way:

Legal Justice
Crime is a violation of the law, and the state is the victim.
The aim of justice is to identify obligations, to meet needs and to promote healing.
The process of justice involves victims, offenders and the community in an effort to identify obligations and solutions, maximizing the exchange of information (dialogue, mutual agreement) between them.

Restorative Justice
Crime is a violation or harm to people and relationships
The aim of justice is to identify obligations, to meet needs and to promote healing.
The process of justice involves victims, offenders and the community in an effort to identify obligations and solutions, maximizing the exchange of information (dialogue, mutual agreement) between them.

Stated simply: crime violates people and violations create obligations.  Justice needs to involve victims, offenders and community members in order to identify needs and obligations, and search for solutions in a safe and trusting process.  In order for restorative justice measures to work, community collaboration is essential.  We know that communities should be strengthened as a result of what is happening rather than weakened.  We believe that more punitive sentencing for offenders will result in safer communities and a greater degree of accountability but the reality is that the criminal justice system does little to hold offenders accountable to the person they have harmed. There is little in the legal system process that helps offenders understand what it means to a victim to have their house burglarized, to be attacked, or to have a loved one murdered.  Offenders are often discouraged from acknowledging their responsibility because they need to look out for themselves as they find themselves playing the adversarial game.

We also recognize that the system does not meet the needs of victims.  Being the victim of a crime is a devastating experience that affects all areas of a person’s life.  Victims need to have the opportunity to somehow incorporate this experience of crime into their narrative, their story.  That often happens by retelling the story…for some, over and over until through this process, victims learn how to face the pain without feeling that they are going crazy.  Victims live with the dangerous memories of their stories and it will remain a permanent part of their narrative.  How victims learn to integrate this into their lives varies.  How victims respond to their own victimization is also a personal journey.  There are no formulas…only guidelines along the way.  It is a critical reason for asking victims what they need rather than making assumptions and decisions for them. The recent issue of Oprah’s magazine featured an article about the Central Park jogger who was savagely beaten and left for dead 13 years ago.  She was asked what she wanted from the boys who did this.  Her response was that “I sincerely hope they’ve turned their lives around.  I think they were troubled boys.”  And, she adds, “I wanted a sincere apology.  It would have made me feel better to know they realized what they had done was wrong.  I wanted a personal apology”.  Many would think this woman was crazy because in our society that is not enough. We rarely give victims the opportunity to say what they need out of the justice process.

I believe that restorative justice holds promise in that it helps us think about harm from a wholistic perspective.  Along with that promise comes the challenge of knowing how to implement restorative practices in systems that have become entrenched in a vision of justice that is more about rules and laws than about relationships and needs.

I believe that restorative justice is prophetic.  The first principle of restorative justice is that“crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships”.  Victims and the community have been harmed and those harms need to be addressed.  Victims, offenders and the affected communities need to be included as stakeholders in defining justice“.

The Bible provides us with a myriad of stories where people have harmed others beginning with the story of Cain and Abel.  One constant theme is that God gives offenders a second chance and an opportunity to play an important role in God’s plan.  God does not give up on those individuals and many of us have been involved in prison ministry because in Hebrews 13 God calls us to consider those in prison as though we were in prison with them.

The tension, as I have experienced it over the years, is when victim advocates perceive restorative justice as offender-focused rather than harm-focused.  We have clearly defined lines within our legal system as to definitions of victims and offenders and I have often felt the need to choose one side or the other.  It is not something I can do and perhaps it’s because of the prophetic principles of restorative justice that I believe calls us to respond to needs of those harmed (which includes both victims and offenders).  We need to listen to God’s call in Hebrews as well as through other stories.  Just as we visit those who are in prison, so we need to visit the victims of crime.  Victims whose lives are forever changed by crime often need to tell their story, over and over, in order to find meaning and learn ways to reconstruct their lives given the trauma of crime.  Are we as willing to provide visitors to crime victims just as we provide visitors to those who are incarcerated?  I believe restorative justice calls us to do both.

When I think of what the Bible says about doing justice one of the stories that stands out for me is that of the Samaritan.  A person on his way to Jericho was beaten, robbed and left bleeding on the side of the road.  The priest and Levite left the person on the road (each with their own reason of course) but a Samaritan, someone despised within this society, stopped and took care of this man.  He took him to an inn, saw that he was cared for and paid the bill.  The first thing the Bible shows us is that injustice exists in our world.  Bad things happen – crime has a devastating effect on us and on our communities.  I believe one of the reasons Jesus used this, and other stories, was to show us that we can, and should, respond to injustice within our world.  We would all prefer not to see it, we would prefer to believe we can always be safe and it is the exception when something bad happens.  We build elaborate systems of denial and avoidance so that we don’t have to deal with injustice.  If it does happen we have coping mechanisms to deal with it, whether that is by blaming the victim (so that we can continue to believe that it won’t happen to us) or by putting the person responsible far away from us so they their behavior doesn’t affect our community further in negative ways.

The principles of restorative justice are indeed prophetic ones as they provide a framework for doing the work that God has called us to do with both victims and offenders.

How is restorative justice pastoral?  A second principle of restorative justice is that “violations create obligations on the part of the offender to put things as right as possible.  The community also has an obligation to its members – to both victims and offenders and for the general welfare of its members”.

During the past two years I have worked with a project called the “listening project” which was specifically designed to listen to victims and advocates talk about restorative justice because they have often not been included in discussions of justice.  Trained team members traveled to 7 states in teams of 2 where we only asked questions and recorded the comments of the victims and advocates.  The perceptions and experiences then named are not ones for us to judge or say that it was wrong.  Here are just a few of their comments:

“Where offenders are provided help to change their lives, but victims are not provided help to deal with their trauma, victims are betrayed by restorative justice”.

“Victims must have the opportunity to give voice to their own needs and aspirations in restorative justice processes, and must not be sidestepped by surrogate voices (e.g. prosecutors).

“A key effort of restorative justice should be educational in nature, including education on victim trauma for offenders and the public at large, education on the impact of crime including the needs of victims, education about offenders and their situations for the victim community, and general educations and awareness about restorative justice for ‘system’ justice personnel”.

I believe that if restorative justice provides the opportunities to listen to the needs of both victims, offenders and the community, then it is, and will, pastoral.

How is restorative justice perpetuating?  A third principle is that restorative justice seeks to hear and put right the wrongs.

I served as consultant to a community as they talked about ways to implement the principles of restorative justice through the practice of Victim Offender Conferencing. One discussion focused on options for the two pilot areas for the project.  The areas chosen were predominantly white communities.  I asked why they had not chosen an area of the city they had talked about earlier as being a high crime area that was predominantly people of color.  The comment was that they did not want to be seen as highlighting that particular area, along with a white community, for fear that it would look like they were making comparisons.  I believe that in our well-documented racist criminal justice system it seemed that one of the promises of restorative justice was that we could address those issues by intentionally making those comparisons to show that juveniles of color are not being given the same opportunities as those within the white community when it came to matters of justice.  My hope is that we will work at healing within communities that include collaboration from within the community rather than the continued “imparting our knowledge”.

In order for restorative justice to truly be prophetic we must begin by naming those harms which we know exists within our communities.  Until then we continue to perpetuate the status quo rather than conflict with it.

If restorative justice does not take the opportunities presented at this point when people within the system are at least willing to listen, then we are indeed perpetuating the injustice that Jesus so often urges us to address.  It is my hope that we continue to listen to those stories and to act accordingly.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email