Restorative Justice

Part of the AmeriCorps experience is that we have bi-monthly trainings on topics that are relevant either to our service sites this year, or to potential future careers in Education and Social Services. For the past few meetings, my teammates and I have taken turns presenting the trainings or bringing in speakers and workshop leaders to do a few 1-2 hour sessions on the second and fourth Fridays of the month. Sometimes the trainings are fun – How to Play Chess, How to Lead Music with Kids- and sometimes they are practical – How to Recruit Volunteers, How to Manage Conflicts, How to Actively Listen- and sometimes, like today, the trainings are more academic.

In addition to two presentations covering coalition building, cooperative games with children, and a three-person panel that came to answer questions about working in the service sector, we had a presenter today who came and talked about Restorative Justice. Now, I’m not one who really gives a ton of thought to our legal system. Sometimes I like to think that if I close my eyes really tight I can pretend that people never hurt each other, and that there’s never any need for legal intervention. I know it’s idealistic, and I don’t actually believe that, but it’s a nice thought to hold when the world’s crumminess is weighing down upon me. I’d heard about this idea of restorative justice once before, earlier this year when one of our teammates was talking about her involvement with a local group of volunteers who assist a Restorative Justice worker here in Western Washington. This woman came and presented to us today, and though some of her comments on how broken our current system are sounded too liberal for my liking, I agree with the premise and the process.

From the main Restorative Justice website comes the definition, “Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime. When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.” To the best of my understanding, it’s the idea that we all function in relationships with one another and when a wrong is done, the wrongness of it emerges through broken relationships and emotionally broken people. Restorative justice seeks to bring together involved parties to restore peace through discussions that hopefully reach an understanding where the victim has some say in the consequence given to the offender. Our trainer clarified that this is not in place of jail time or community service, but that it may be used to bring understanding and healing in a way that is more powerful than even years of intense therapy.

This is an intriguing proposition and reminds me of the conclusion that I keep hearing — lasting change comes through positive relationships. It takes a lot of intense effort to work through these relationships, and to develop them in the first place. I’m trying to figure out the implications for this methodology in my own life, even as I try to figure out where I’m headed next. For all of the discussion, though, I couldn’t help but think of my faith, with both its similarities and differences to the discussion we were having in the room. I’m the most morally conservative and most devoutly Christian member of our team, and while the people around me rant about the oppressive nature of our hierarchical system, the control of privileged white folks over minorities, and the foolishness of believing in such a thing as a non-culturally relevant standard for what is “right” and “wrong”, I just think about the oldest story of Restorative Justice that I know. Got it yet?

It’s the story of Christ, dying on the cross in order to provide a way for man to return to a right relationship with him, regardless of the wrong that’s been committed.  That restoration can cover all wrongs and bring healing without therapy, without this intense experience, and without a court condemning anyone to punishment. The debt is paid and the scales are even. Wrongs are made right, though it is not by our own effort. I’ve got to research this concept that we heard today, to figure out if there is a Biblical basis in what was presented from a very secular perspective.