This article is about the idea of restorative justice and punishment in Scripture and in society today.

Source: The Monthly Record, 2006. 3 pages.

Restorative Justice Christian or Non-Christian?

Restorative Justice is an approach to justice that aims to restore broken human relationships, putting the persons involved, perpetrators and victims, at the centre of the process. Restorative Justice moves the focus from a cold application of rules to a human interaction that deals with human hurt and aims at restoration in human society, whether family, school, prison or any other community of human beings, through bringing together real people who have become involved in a hurtful relationship. It is a tool that has been used in many countries in a wide range of situations and is promoted by Christians and non-Christians. Chuck Colson in his book, “Justice that Restores”, reports on prison situations where dramatic improvement and transformation of broken lives has resulted from this approach. It is claimed that it significantly reduces the incidence of re-offending.

With rising concern over behaviour problems in schools it is not surprising that many are ready to try new approaches to keeping order in our schools. Currently Restorative Justice is being piloted in most Education Authorities in Scotland with enthusiasts reporting success in resolving problems in the classroom and the playground, whether conflicts between pupils or between pupils and staff. Those who have tried it claim the initial additional work pays rich dividends in reducing repeated efforts at resolving ongoing conflicts.

It is worth noting that Biblical commandments focus on personal interaction. Almost all societies have a rule that says, “You shall not tell lies” but in the Hebrew tradition it was expressed in more directly personal terms, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” Jesus, quoting from the law of Moses, summed up the ten commandments in two simple rules that focussed on personal relationships: “You shall love God…” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” For this reason it is not surprising that we would warm to an approach to justice that takes seriously the persons involved and the real human suffering when things go wrong.

Before continuing to focus on Restorative Justice it is worth noting that Justice, however it is administered, builds on core beliefs.

  • Agreed norms of behaviour within the community, usually enshrined in a code of conduct, school rules, laws etc. For the theist it is recognised that God ordained, objective standards of behaviour, coming with an authority above the merely human, exist to guide individual and corporate human activities. Without objective standards issues of right and wrong are subject to an ever changing kaleidoscope of opinion where the most strident voice tends to win out.

  • In any human society there is a legitimate authority which is clouded but not negated by its abuse. For the Christian this authority, as it is expressed at different levels within a society, comes from God. “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). Authority is understood as the right and responsibility of certain individuals to take actions that affect others — e.g. intervening to resolve a dispute between two other parties.

  • Human Beings are capable of doing what is right or what is wrong and are responsible for their actions. To the Christian the most essential characteristic of human beings is their spiritual and moral nature. They are made in the image of God.

  • People who do wrong may, and often do, admit guilt. Conscience restrains and sometimes leads to a search for restitution and reformation. In a Christian context we would further note the possibility of radical transformation of sinful lives by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Restorative justice clearly resonates with Biblical teaching and is promoted by Christian Organisations that are having considerable success in many parts of the world. However, any new trend is likely to be given different twists by different people, often coming to the issue with a complex agenda. In schools in Scotland Restorative Justice is often made synonymous with a “non-punitive” and “non-judgemental” approach to conflict. It is promoted as being essentially opposed to the very concept of punishment, with sanctions being applied only where Restorative Justice has failed. Punishment is seen as a necessary evil when all else fails. Guilt is seen as unimportant or even a false and damaging response to a conflict situation.

This is where the alarm bells start ringing. A belief that guilt is a reality when moral agents do what is wrong and that punishment is a right response to wrongdoing is more than just a tradition handed down from more primitive days. We recognise that these concepts are at the heart of the gospel. Jesus died to pay the price for our sin. God is “just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Is then Restorative Justice a denial of important truths, mixed in with identifiable Christian teaching, or is it a fundamentally good idea given a dangerous twist? Let us take a closer look at the subject to avoid either rejecting a good idea because it is promoted by those with an agenda we cannot accept or swallowing uncritically additions to the basic idea that are wrongly presented as essential to it.

Restorative Justice is usually described as being “non-punitive” and “non-judgemental”. The latter is essentially self-contradictory as it means one has to judge an approach to be “judgemental” (and therefore to be rejected) or “non-judgemental” (and so acceptable). However, in the loose way language is used today the word, “judgemental”, is synonymous with a proud, self-righteous approach to those who do not share our views; what Jesus described as seeking to remove a speck from someone’s eye while ignoring the plank in one’s own eye. As Christians we go along with this but must insist on being honest in admitting that judging between opposing ideas is right and necessary. However much the Post-modernist might insist we simply cannot live with believing opposites. Post-modernists prove this when they reject objective truth. We must insist also on raising the question of how we judge between right and wrong. We oppose the moral relativism of our age, the privatisation of ethics, and insist on God’s Word as the only authoritative teaching that can and must demand the acceptance of all. All of us and all our actions (even words and thoughts) are to be judged by the Word of God. A humble use of Scripture is not only acceptable but essential in dealing justly with individual people in the complexity of their relations with others. To those who cannot agree with this we must respectfully ask them to put forward an alternative standard that can claim acceptance by all. I believe they cannot.

The “non-punitive” emphasis directly strikes at the heart of Christian belief. For traditional Christian thinking “punishment” means appropriate sanctions merited by wrong actions. However, it should be noted that justice, as presented in the Bible, is person orientated. It recognises that to be truly human is to be morally responsible, that sin causes a rupture in personal relationships, most importantly that between man and God, and that justice should focus on restoring broken relationships. God is the righteous Judge and also the redeemer of sinners. He is the One who offers forgiveness on terms that do not violate Justice. He is the One who transforms lives twisted by sin. Thus the Christian concept of justice involves the concept of punishment as sanctions that morally responsible creatures merit when we do wrong.

It has to be recognised that human justice, because of human frailty, is often very unjust. Punishment gets mixed up with personal vengeance, petty spite, harsh sanctions etc. — this, at all levels of society, from the family through schools to national systems of criminal justice. It also must be recognised that those who emphasise the “non-punitive” do admit that where Restorative Practices break down sanctions become a necessary evil. I also detect an unwillingness to extend the “non-punitive” approach to all offences. Is the paedophile not guilty? Did Hitler not merit punishment? Some are considered beyond the pale. But there is obviously something questionable in a philosophy of justice that breaks down under more extreme pressure, which cannot allow for the whole sweep of human wrongdoing.

The current push for restorative practices in schools must be welcomed with caution. We must not oppose, we must indeed welcome what is essentially Biblical, even if promoted by those who do not recognise the undergirding principles of Restorative Justice, but rather identify it with another more sinister agenda. Neither can we afford to ignore the Trojan horse of post-modern morality that is being smuggled in with it. Fifty years ago in “The Abolition of Man” C S Lewis warned about the undermining, in the educational scene, of the foundations on which morality is built, even by those who wished their pupils to form good moral character. “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” To avoid making this same mistake today will require careful thinking and will expose us to the ridicule of those who are in tune with the mythology of the age. Unthinking and uncritical use of emotive words such as “negative”, “punitive”, “retributive” and the application of pejorative labels (the current favourite is “dinosaur”) to those who don’t go along with the whole package being presented creates an unfriendly atmosphere for the Christian. But that is the reality of a Christian witness in a fallen world. We are called to be sensitive to the cries of a fallen world, humble and careful interpreters of the revealed word and bold in defence of the truth.

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