Restorative Justice, the hope for something else (a faith-based perspective)

Restorative Justice: A Hope for Something else


God’s True Cloak

(A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke)

We must not portray you in King’s Robes

You drifting mist that brought the morning

Once again from old paintboxes we take the same gold for sceptre and crown

That has disguised you through the ages

Piously we produce images of you

Till they stand around you like a thousand walls

And when our hearts would simply open

Our fervent hands hide you


In what ways have we hidden the God revealed in Christ.

I believe that one of the ways we fail to get God’s character as revealed in Jesus is in our notions of justice.

In God’s order, justice does not come through punishment and violence, but through restoration. (Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still)

Rohr says that most of Jesus’ teaching on non-violence, simplicity, downward mobility, forgiveness of enemies and inclusivity has had no great effect on Christian History.

Our justice system (at the level of litigation) is based on competition.

So you can win, but you were wrong.

Or you can lose, but you were right.

And the win is based on who has the best lawyer.

And that is often based on who can afford the best lawyer.

And that is the system that decides who wins and who loses.


Our notions of justice have us believe that if you are wrong you must be punished. And if you are right, you must be rewarded.


And that’s how we’ve understood the bible: the good guys win and the bad guys lose.


It makes absolute sense-


You are losing

Or suffering

Or sinning

Or judged wrong in a flawed system


Then you hope for something different.


Rohr says that it is to this hope which Jesus came and to which he spoke.


So God’s power, revealed in Christ is a power for justice. Making things right again. It is a power to restore broken and hurting people; to use their mistakes to liberate them, to soften them, to enlighten them and to transform them.


Even in the Old Testament, concepts of Justice are about restoring relationship rather than vengeance:

Rightly related families form rightly related communities which form rightly related nations which contributes to the Shalom in this world. Nothing missing nothing broken. Wholeness and peace.


The Hebrew concept of T’shuvah speaks of returning to the original design. That no matter what we have done we all bear the indelible make of the Creator and we treat ourselves and each other as such.

Grace is God’s big jailbreak for us.

In the book, Healing the Gospel, we are reminded that we have assumed through the ages that the word “justice” means punishment.

But if we take a fresh look at scripture, we find that salvation on Jesus is a justice of restoration. Making things right again.


Traditional Justice asks:

Who did wrong?

What did they do?

How shall we punish them?


Restorative Justice asks:

What harm was done?

How do we make things right again?


We think that not punishing means ignoring harmful behaviour.

But often the punishment perpetuates the cycles of violence.

Studies show that “tough on crime” strategies have spawned more crime.

And “zero tolerance in schools” has lead to worse behaviour.

Restorative Justice is the hard work of finding non-adversarial ways of getting to truth, accountability and behavioural change.

Some first nation societies believe that people offend for one of two reasons:

Lack or knowledge or sickness of the soul.

One needs teaching, the other needs healing.

But does Restorative Justice work in Practice?

Let’s take a look at the crime of rape:

Some statistics I’ve seen suggest that 1 in 100 charges of rape result in a conviction and that around 1 in 9 incidents of rape are actually reported. This is largely because of what victims of rape are subjected to through a criminal justice process where they are witnesses for the state and often the brutality and indignity or cross-examination by the defence is just too traumatic and devastating to bear and largely results in the vindication of their accused attacker.

Our artificial system of evidence means that often “facts” become the enemy of the truth. An accused in a rape case bears a much lighter burden in that he or she merely has to raise or introduce the presence of a reasonable doubt. The adversarial/accusatorial system supports denialism which often means no-accountability.

But doesn’t a Restorative Justice process allow rapists to get off scott-free?

No, we have a high rate of getting to truth and setting up sanctions that hold the rapist accountable and keep the victim safe.

On the statistics I’ve mentioned 99 out of 100 accused of rape are vindicated, rendering them far more dangerous to society.

In a properly constituted RJ process we can get to truth and accountability around 9 times out of 10.


We treat both victim and offender with dignity, in a non-adversarial environment where we are free to explore all available options of achieving accountability for the offender and a safe future for the victim. By the way, they never have to face each other if the victim does not want to.


It’s a much better platform for truth seeking. And unless we get to the actual truth, we never even get off the starting blocks of accountability and behavioural change.


So on the one hand we have a punitive justice system rooted in the laws of reward and punishment, blessings and curses which the apostle Paul’s audience embraced. Paul contrasts this with the righteousness of God which is often translated as justice.

Righteousness-making right

Justice-to make right again; to restore

God the rebuilder, the restorer.

Paul criticises his audience who are calling out for justice in the form of retribution and punishment. He proposes that justice really comes through God’s action in Christ to restore all humanity in love.

His audience had adopted what Walter Wink refers to as the myth of redemptive violence.

We have killed people to teach that it is wrong to kill

We bomb nations to bring “peace”

We smack children to teach them not to hurt others

Paul was arguing against the notion that if God was not wrathful, he was unjust.


He declared that this way would lead to death and condemnation.

Instead he proclaimed a superior way of restorative justice in Christ.

Some equate restorative justice with simple acquittal, declaration of innocence.

No. It’s the hard work of transformation. It’s a process of dismantling evil without destroying the evil doer. It is part of God’s dream for humanity-reconciling all things. Transforming sinners to saints.

It is the work of disruption and displacement.

So for darkness, light

Weakness to strength

Hate to love

Disillusion to hope

Mourning into dancing

Ashes to beauty

The hurt healed

Hurters made whole

Oppressors and the oppressed both set free

By Sheena Jonker (public interest matters) (private dispute resolution, mediation and training)