Restorative Justice

In my experience, the practice of restorative justice is one of the best ways to tangibly embody God’s honor and overcome shame. Unfortunately, people in Western culture rarely practice (or value) restorative justice.

One afternoon we got a phone call from the local Department of Family Services (DFS). They wanted to notify us that they interviewed our 3rd-grader as a witness, but declined to answer any questions about what happened.

It turned out, one teacher grabbed a school kid by the wrist. The parent threatened to sue the school if the teacher was not fired by Monday morning. So, the principle notified DFS to limit future liability. DFS intervened according to the established legal protocol: children were interviewed separately, the teacher was dismissed, and everybody moved on.

Though the situation “followed the book,” something here seemed totally amiss—there was absolutely zero restoration of relationships. The various parties were never brought together, but were in fact separated out so as to avoid interaction. The focus was on ensuring rights and following the law, not proactively repairing the broken social bonds. This incident exposes significant shortcomings in Western notions of justice and responses to wrongdoing.

Retributive Justice vs. Restorative Justice

The common approach to problems in the Western legal system is defined as “criminal justice,” or “retributive justice.” In such a system, crime and wrongdoing is viewed as a breaking of the law and an offense against the state. These violations create guilt that must be punished. The focus is making sure offenders get what they deserve. Then, “justice is served.”

“Restorative” justice, on the other hand, views transgressions as harming people and relationships. Damaged relationships are both a cause and effect of wrongdoing. Doing wrong creates a sense of obligation to the victim, so justice is served when the situation is put back to right. This approach situates the wrong in the context of the broader community, and examines the obligations all parties have to make amends. Instead of focusing on what people deserve, restorative justice addresses what people need in order to repair the communal wound. Justice is viewed as a restored relationship.

       Click here to learn more: “Traditional Approach vs. Restorative Approach

How does “restorative justice” relate to honor and shame?

Though retributive views of justice may address the problem of guilt (because it defines the problem primarily in terms of legal culpability/guilt), it ignores the problem of shame. In fact, some point out that retributive justice actually compounds and increases shame. Shame is often a cause in violent crime, but then punitive approaches exacerbate such shame. By placing secondary representatives (i.e., judges, lawyers, and state officials) in charge of justice process, the system separates the involved parties. In the name of “serving justice,” the consequences of wrongdoing dis-integrate people from relationships and community, and such alienation is a core source of shame. Furthermore, legal punishment often makes an example out of violators to deter others, without regarding the shaming consequences of such legally sanctioned “justice.” Various occasions certainly do necessitate retribution, but let’s remain aware of how a one-sided view of justice may compound brokenness, shame, and alienation.

Recall, shame is the painful emotion of unworthiness resulting from isolation and rejection. Isolation causes shame; making amends banishes shame. Punishment does not erase shame, but welcoming and acceptance can. An offender or sinner must be reintegrated into relationships to overcome shame. Only when community is restored can shame be effaced.

The practice of “restorative justice” is a tangible way to untangle people from shame. This applies not just to the criminal system, but to every day conflicts and slights. Westerners respond to issues with a retributive sense of justice, then wonder why others feel shamed and abandon the relationship.

Are you facing a particular conflict that can would be better resolved by a restorative approach to justice?


The next post discusses 3 ways to apply restorative justice.

To learn more about restorative justice, Howard Zehr’s booklet The Little Book of Restorative Justice is a wonderful introduction to its practical elements. For an extensive biblical theology, see Christopher Marshall’s Beyond Retribution: A NT Vision of Justice, Crime, and Punishment  

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