Restorative justice works. Its principles are effective in facilitating individual change and impeding the cycle of crime whenever they are applied. However, it is helpful to understand what root issue restorative justice really helps to treat and why it’s a better response to harm in our society. But understanding these things becomes impossible without the aid of biblical truth.
Identifying the Root Cause
Certain Chicago schools are implementing a restorative justice approach as part of the city’s Embrace Restorative Justice in Schools Collaborative, and it’s working, even as those pushing the approach place it in a secular framework. In a recent Huffington Post article, author Nancy Michaels describes the benefits of a restorative justice response to an inner-city shooting involving teenagers, and she speculates on the reasons for teen violence.
“The ongoing violence among our youth leaves us to question why this happens,” she writes. “Do the reasons lie in law enforcement, education, economics, parenting, or elsewhere? Or does the structural violence built into deeply racist systems lead ’hurt people to hurt people?’”
While this list of potential reasons may identify proximate causes to individual acts of violence, or even deeper influencers several places removed, it does not identify the root problem.
The reasons Michaels lists are action-based; that is, they are things that groups of people do. Police officers enforce law; teachers educate; governments regulate the economy; men and women work or don’t work, dictating the economy of their homes; and dads and moms parent. If final blame for youth violence rests on one or all of these groups, that would mean someone isn’t doing something right. Theoretically then, we as a society could correct or improve the way we do these things to the point that we could end teen violence.
Assuming that some type of action is the primary cause of violence seems to make sense, but the Bible tells a different story: nothing we do as individuals or as a society can fix the problem of violence. When we understand restorative justice in a biblical context, we begin by acknowledging that the intrinsic reason for violence is sin.
At the very root, it’s not that “hurt people hurt people”—it’s that sinful people hurt people. It’s not because of something we do or don’t do correctly; it’s because of who we are. It’s not “deeply racists systems” or any other kind of system that’s to blame; it’s the inherently wicked human heart. Without looking to Christ to cleanse and redeem us, pride, selfishness, and jealousy breed in our hearts until “it gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown, gives birth to death”—our own or someone else’s (James 1:15).
Why Restorative Justice Works
Both Scripture and life experience show us that we can expect better outcomes in every situation where God’s principles are used to guide actions—His principles work for everyone, all the time, regardless of whether or He can be identified as the source.
The shooting described in Michaels’ article thankfully did not result in a fatality, but it did impact the boys who witnessed it. (Each of them was a friend or family member of the victim.) As a convener of Chicago’s Embrace Restorative Justice in Schools Collaborative, Michaels instituted a restorative justice approach. She brought the teens together in a “peace circle” rather than allowing them to work through the incident alone, which could have potentially resulted in a retaliatory action from one or all of them,
As outlined in her article, here’s a description of the restorative justice process she followed and a biblical explanation of why it works:
- Michaels begins by building trust among her and the participants so the group is able to open up and share on a deeper level.
Why it works: The Bible teaches that we are communal beings and that fellowship is beneficial to our emotional health. We know that God enjoys a perfect relationship within the three Persons of the Godhead, and after He created us in His image, he proclaimed that it was not good for man to be alone. (Genesis 2:18) He reaffirmed the necessity of fellowship when we instructed His followers not to “forsake the assembly”—the gathering of believers—in Hebrews 10:25.
- Led by Michaels, the teens recount what had taken place the day before.
Why it works: This is a practice in telling the truth and discerning error. The Bible instructs us to dwell on what is true (Philippians 4:8). Following a traumatic event, our minds and emotions, even demonic forces, can twist and confuse what we think to be true, wreaking havoc on our stability and sense of security. Confirming what did and did not happen helps relieve unnecessary psychological and emotional trauma.
- The boys share their emotions, fears, and insights with one another.
Why it works: The Bible commands Christians to bear one another’s burdens (difficulties, problems) as an act of service and love (Galatians 6:2). Difficult times are made easier when others are there to provide support. We all need help sometimes, whether we believe in God or not.
- The teens empathize with one another, leading to a powerful bond.
Why it works: Again, this is a biblical concept (Romans 12:15). Empathy means to listen, to understand, and to feel the emotion of another person. It shows love and brings healing.
God is in the business of restoring hearts, minds, and lives. While restorative justice cannot cure our sin natures, no matter how perfectly the process is implemented, biblical principles such as discernment, truthfulness, and empathy do help to restore those affected by crime and incarceration. And whether or not people know that the principles are rooted in God’s Word, implementing them into our schools, organizations, and our country’s justice system can create environments where transformation and healing are more likely to take place.
Curious about restorative justice? Justice Fellowship has a restorative justice framework for reforming our criminal justice system.