Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”
That was enough.
They would ask me to rehearse what I had done or left undone to earn this disappointment. And then that was that. Except not really: next came my inner turmoil. I was a sensitive kid who thought his parents could lasso the moon. The knowledge that I had disappointed them swirled around inside me, a maelstrom magnified by the echo of their opening words: “We love you.” A day or two after the Talk, my mother would say, “Look. You know what you did wrong. I’m confident you’re not going to do it again. Let it go.”
What I did not appreciate at the time has clarified for me since I became a parent myself: What I did not appreciate was this: their disappointment in me could not dent their love for me. I feel incredibly blessed to have parents whose love for me came as close to God’s own unconditional love as humanly possible. I know my mom will listen to this tomorrow on my website, so let me say this on Mother’s Day: “Thanks, Mom. I love you too.”
I didn’t know it when I was a teenager, but in their approach to discipline my parents were enacting one type of justice, called “restorative” justice. Their aim was to help me take ownership of what I had done and then to help me return to right relationship with them; to “restore” our relationship following my upsetting of it. Restorative justice has very much been the lesser employed type of justice throughout human history.
The more common type is called “retributive justice.” If my father had responded to my infractions by taking off his belt and smacking me across the back a dozen times, he would have been using “retributive” justice. That is, justice in the form of retribution. Theologian Richard Rohr says this:
“Almost all religion, and all cultures that I know of, have believed in one way or another that sin and evil are to be punished, and retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world – and usually the next too. It is a dualistic system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys… and it is the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, lawyers, and even most of the church, which should know better, can do.”*
In other words, retributive justice is built on the dictum, “An eye for an eye.” But remember what Ghandi purportedly said: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” Ghandi’s sense of justice was not retributive, but restorative. Jesus’ sense of justice was not retributive, but restorative: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, one of Jesus’ first faithful followers quotes his Lord’s sense of justice. While being stoned to death, the first martyr, Stephen, says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Why would Jesus and Ghandi and my parents champion restorative justice over retributive justice? Because their main goal was not punitive punishment, but a return to right relationship. That’s the key. And that is the main point of divergence between these two types of justice.
Back to Richard Rohr. He lays out four steps to each type, and here we can see both the stark difference and why so many great spiritual leaders advocate restoration over retribution.
Retributive Justice: “Sin > Punishment > Repentance > Transformation”
Restorative Justice: “Sin > Unconditional Love > Transformation > Repentance”*
The first one has too many holes. If you meet sin with punishment, the punishment is often another instance of sin. Just look at some of the horrible conditions in our prisons in the United States and tell me that sin hasn’t begotten sin.*** Furthermore, does punishment actually lead to repentance? True repentance cannot be coerced. If my parents had whipped me, I think I would have nursed vengeance, not embraced repentance.
But look at the other model and see how each element flows beautifully into the next. And feel the truth in your bones that this is the way God works. Sin is met, not with punishment, but with love. This love leads to transformation of both sinner and victim. And repentance is chosen authentically out of the transformed heart.
If this sounds like a theoretical pie in the sky notion, please know it’s not. Restorative justice is a tried and true method. Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought it to post-apartheid South Africa when he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All people, black and white, perpetrator and victim, oppressor and oppressed told their stories. The acts confessed were heinous. The truth told was unflinching. And at the end of the day, the newly powerful did not seek vengeance on their previous persecutors. And the country did not descend into civil war.
In our own country in recent years, a new initiative of the justice system has met with rousing success. They’re called Treatment Courts. Some exist specifically for those charged with nonviolent drug offenses. And others exist specifically for military veterans. These courts are not adversarial. Judges, lawyers, social workers, medical professionals, and offenders work together to bring offenders back from the brink, to save them from themselves, to reintegrate them into society in meaningful ways. That’s restorative justice. And you know what? Treatment courts are way more cost effective than prison.****
Again, it’s a matter of priority and a matter of how you view justice. If the goal of justice is punitive punishment, then retribution makes sense and my parents had the wrong idea about discipline. But if the goal of justice is a return to right relationship, then engaging in the hard work of love on the long road toward reconciliation is the only path worth pursuing. Jesus said as much: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
Indeed, this is what Stephen the first martyr miraculously accomplished during his stoning. In my mind’s eye, I see him at the point of death raise up his bloody face and see a young man looking on. The man has an air of authority about him and, while not taking aim himself, he surely condones the brutal execution. Stephen’s final desperate words float to him on the wind: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” They are not the words of a curse. They are not words of retribution. They are words of love. They are words of restoration. And these words are seeds which sink into the soil of the man’s soul, this young man named Saul.
Saul makes it his mission to persecute and punish the followers of Jesus until one day he is knocked to the ground and he hears a voice, Jesus’ voice: “Why do you persecute me?” And at that moment the the seeds of Stephen’s witness sprout in Saul’s soul. He realizes his sin. He feels the love of Christ. This love transforms him and he takes a new name, Paul. And he repents. He turns his life around and becomes the most fervent witness of the love of God in Christ Jesus.
That’s the power of restorative justice, a power that can change the world.