Years ago, I was part of a community which was given responsibility for the health, education, spiritual life and relationships of 500 students. We had 100 staff members working together to attempt to provide a sense of Christian love and care. Not everyone got this right and students felt the impact of the fallenness of their leaders and their peers.
That school is attempting to adjust its discipline system to one called restorative justice. Restorative justice, according to Howard Zehr and Henry Mika in their focus on principles, sees the primary issue is one of a violation of people and interpersonal relationships. As Christians, we would say that the main problem with the fall was not that Adam and Eve broke a rule but they made a choice which broke relationships. The purpose of restorative justice then is to move from punishment for a broken rule to restoration of a broken relationship. We see that God did all that was necessary through Christ to restore our relationship with Him.
We have a narrow view of rule breaking. The Apostle Paul and the Corinthian church wrestled with these realities in the area of church discipline. We don’t see that while there may be primary victims of a harmful action or offense there are also secondary victims – like family members, witnesses or others in the affected community. The ripples of the rock thrown in the pond of choice travel far broader than we imagine. All these relationships must be addressed in line with the harms resulting from the choice made.
Can this process work in a church as a way of thinking in line with the grace and compassion given to us by God through the gospel? Victims and offenders together provide input into the process so that restoration, healing, responsibility and prevention are all verbalized. Everyone involved is a part of the process so it doesn’t take much to see that there is a lot more investment by the community than one individual declaring the penance for the offender while the victim is left to find his own way toward healing and recovery.
The offender is responsible to make things right – as much as possible. Victims have a big say in what this looks like. The harm to individuals and to the community needs to be understood and processed. Ideally, the offender and victims participate voluntarily. The purpose of everything is to try and make the relationships right. While the process may be painful and humbling it is not designed to be vengeful. Restitution would be a primary goal in many instances.
Community support for victims of offenses, as a way to meet their needs, is accepted by all participants. The community carries the weight of care for members to provide a safe, welcoming and healing environment for all. Reintegrating offenders back into fellowship is a clear goal as is encouraging and reconciling the victim.
Restorative justice seeks to foster healing and reconciliation. The process may bring out “information, validation, vindication, restitution, testimony, safety and support” as starting points. Safety for the offended party is a priority and their input is maximized. Offenders must be involved in the repair of harm as much as possible. Some personal exchange of offender and offended may be anticipated but the offended sets the boundaries of how any verbal exchange may happen. Remorse, forgiveness and reconciliation is a desired outcome.
Offenders also may need to have their own needs for healing and integration into community addressed. The desire is for “personal change over compliant behaviour.” The resources of the community are crucial to this process so that the community is encouraged and strengthened. One goal of the process is to build enough awareness and sensitivity into the community that such actions are limited from happening again.
There is no cookie cutter solution to human relationship problems. Each may find its own unique solution and pathway for community integration and wholeness.
As we share the grace and compassion of the gospel with each other in our community it is good to remember that we are loved more than we can imagine.