Restorative Justice – A truly non-violent alternative

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 20, Pentecost 2001

by Jim Consedine

With the advent of an almost totally secular society, the Church has good reason to look to its essential teachings and seek to understand why so many have little appeal at this time in history. I believe the answer partly lies in the ability of Christians to pull the teeth from the Risen Christ and his teachings and yet still claim to be disciples. Too many Christians seem to relate better either to a warrior God who wields a sword and punishes or to a marshmallow one who doesn’t stand for anything. Too few, it seems, relate to the biblical revelation of a non-violent liberating Christ who frees people from slavery and transforms their lives.

Some of those extracted teeth are to be found embedded in the referendum on harsher penalties presented to the New Zealand parliament in 1999 which was built on a formula of vengeance, fear and ignorance. It ran contrary to everything the gospel teaches. Did anyone hear Jesus take a harsh attitude to offenders in his time? No. He taught us to forgive and to show mercy. He repudiated the cornerstone teaching ‘an eye for an eye’ by stunning his followers with a call to love their enemies. He turned their whole concept of just punishment on its head with a reprieve for the adulterous woman and a warm welcome home for the prodigal son. What a crazy man! What a crazy God!

Furthermore, in the parable of the vineyard workers, he taught us to practise restorative justice. He presented a process where each got what they needed. Jesus wasn’t into violence or punishment. He was into restoration and transformation. And forgiveness, that toughest of all Christian virtues to practise.

Some people scoff about forgiveness. They think it’s a sign of weakness. Yet the exact opposite is the case. Desmond Tutu has a great message on the importance of forgiveness for today’s world. He had listened to hundreds of horrific testimonies of the victims of apartheid as co-president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He heard daily of bombings, of murder, rape, shootings, pillage and torture. And he saw, every day, people confronting those who had brutalised them. And forgiving them. With huge spiritual and practical insight he wrote a book on his TRC experiences and titled it, No Future Without Forgiveness. (Random/Rider, London, 1999)

There is therefore huge irony in the fact that the principal response by the New Zealand government to the referendum on violent offending is to increase prison sentences, while at the same time it seeks to outlaw the smacking of children. The irony is that prisons are themselves a form of structured violence which violate every major distinguishing mark that makes people fully human.

Locking adults in small cells for up to 23 hours a day is an act of violence. Leaving children minus an imprisoned parent does violence to a family. Prisons help create more crime by bonding similarly minded rejected members of society together. They up-skill their graduates in further anti-social techniques. They are the principal recruitment locations for gangs. They create thousands of future victims because they guarantee continued high rates of re-offending. They fail in practically every positive human indicator scale. Prisons are structures of violence.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

The myth behind the demand for longer, tougher sentences is that this type of violent structure can change people for the better, that violence can be redemptive. It is the philosophy that spawned floggings, canings, strappings and birchings by state officials in prisons and schools in past generations. This myth is the grandparent of much physical child abuse in our own time.

As the theologian Walter Wink points out, the myth of redemptive violence has been the choice of every major social grouping of the 20th century, be it socialist, Marxist, capitalist, communist, whatever. This myth of redemptive violence enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. Nations have made redemptive violence the acceptable way of resolving injustice. Internationally, if nations have had a grievance it has been resolved either by the threat or use of violence. Only violence would correct (redeem) the injustice.

The results of this redemptive violence have been horrendous. We have just emerged from the most bloodthirsty century in history, with hundreds of millions of innocent people killed in its name.

We have applied the same philosophy and approach to domestic conflict, especially crime. Beat them and beat them hard, has been the catch cry down through the ages. Lock ‘em up (an act of violence) and throw away the key. Let’s hope that this violence will somehow redeem the situation and produce justice. It rarely if ever does. And so more and more prisons have been built and, while flogging and execution have been outlawed for 40 years in this country, the culture of state violence has remained through an expanding network of prisons.

Such an approach is testimony to our inability to find creative non-violent solutions. We act less than humanly when we continue to resort at first instance to violent solutions to society’s problems. Yet we do it all the time. Both war and prisons are violent responses to conflict. Rightly do we condemn aggression internationally and on the domestic front. We even move to ban smacking. But then we continue to respond with increased violence ourselves through promoting longer prison sentences. It doesn’t make sense, especially when there are creative non-violent alternatives available.

People faced with crime often ask, ‘but what can be done?’ A small number certainly need to be incarcerated in humane containment to protect society. Otherwise, we can and should explore and promote constructive non-violent processes. Restorative justice is one such process. At its heart it is a movement of hope, for victims, offenders and the community. It contains the possibility of offering people traumatised by crime or caught up in offending, a positive hope-filled and respectful way forward. It helps people take responsibility for their actions, initiates a healing process and offers a way forward.

Restorative Justice and Non-violence

Restorative justice is a movement of non-violence. It provides a mature human response to complex situations of conflict and crime. It does not necessarily provide a solution to either. But it is a process that respects those involved and enhances the families and communities to which they belong. It recognises that violence is unacceptable and provides a non-violent but challenging and positive way of proceeding. In so doing it draws on the legacy in this country of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi of Parihaka, James K. Baxter, Jean Stewart and Alan Nixon, and internationally of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ruth Morris and Dorothy Day.

Restorative justice appeals to the enlightened better side of human nature and not the fearful vengeful dark side. It is a movement of hope, for victims, offenders and the community alike. In a majority of cases, it is simply a better way of achieving justice.

Restorative justice should be welcomed as a genuine breakthrough in the resolution of conflict and in the promotion of justice. It is justice that matters, justice that everyone wants. Restorative processes will deliver better justice.

Longer sentences in prison simply re-enforce all the violent negative traits of personality, further embitters the incarcerated and guarantees re-offending.

The Government is showing imagination and courage in promoting some official pilot restorative justice processes, though communities outside the piloted areas also need to engage in restorative processes. These pilots are breaking new ground and are up against huge vested interests who will want them to fail. There is a lot of power within and money to be made from maintaining the old failed system. Christians need to recognise the presence of evil within the culture that has spawned this general acceptance of imprisonment on such a wide basis. This power needs to be recognised and exposed if more just social structures are to be developed.

The success of the pilots is dependent on community ownership and acceptance and a passion for better forms of justice. Without these three things, they will not succeed. Passion is the most important, the X-factor, the essential ingredient that makes the difference. Without passion, social change quickly runs out of steam. Passion is the dimension which recognises the spiritual dimension to social change. Changing peoples’ hearts and minds is a spiritual matter, a matter of the soul. No amount of bureaucratic organising can produce this dimension.

Name any movement that genuinely changed the face of society, and you find an abiding passion for justice driving it. Change happens because people in the community with vision dream of a better way forward and commit themselves to it, regardless of the time, cost or energy involved. They succeed through educating the community and forcing vested interests to shift their focus.

What is now required to make restorative justice a reality is a respectful partnership between the Government, the judiciary, the Department of Courts and the community. Such a partnership involves mutual trust and recognition of the gifts that differing parties bring to the process. The move forwards cannot be left in the hands of one sector only. Each has something important to offer.

The Government must bring political will to bear and provide leadership. These pilots are government policy. The judiciary play a pivotal role and can help the process immensely. The Department of Courts can bring infrastructure and planning skills to the project, co-ordinating resources, encouraging participation, and funding the salaries, research, education and reviews required. But it is in the community that restorative justice will succeed or fail. Only the community can create the structures and conditions where hearts and minds are changed, victims healed, offenders accept responsibility, and better justice is produced. That surely is what people want.

That is what restorative justice attempts.

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