There are countless beautiful initiatives paving the path of peace all over the world that we never hear about. Even in the most wretchedly troubled places on the face of the earth, there are those who are courageously working towards the shalom, the salaam, the peace, the síochaín of their people.
As people of faith, we know that peace is not possible without justice, and the shalom of God encompasses every aspect of our lives together, including our relationship with the very earth itself.
Brimful of promise is the discipline of restorative justice – a practice with its roots in various tribal cultures. It is a form of justice which is embedded in community and focusses on harm that has been done and how relationships can be healed, rather than on blame and punishment.
“Restorative practices work even when there is not a clear perpetrator and victim”
It is startling to realise the extent to which those actually harmed by crime are sidelined within our retributive justice system. If I burgle your house, say, my crime isn’t against you, rather it is against the state. It is the state which will prosecute me. It is the state which will decide and administer my punishment. An unintended side-effect of this is that you – the harmed person – have no stake in proceedings.
My punishment, meanwhile, does nothing to repair the damage that has been done to you. In prison, I am effectively shielded from the consequences of my actions and denied the opportunity to take meaningful responsibility for what has happened. If anything, I myself may develop a victim mentality and minimise the impact of what I have done.
Restorative justice puts the harmed person firmly at the centre of the process. It is often assumed that the main concern for the victim of crime is for retribution. More often, however, the greatest felt need for a person is to get answers, to be heard. What happened and why? Do you realise what affect this has had on us? What needs to happen (even symbolically) to repair the harm?
A powerful side-effect of restorative justice is that by putting the needs of the harmed person first, the perpetrator is given the opportunity to understand the damage they have caused, sometimes for the first time in their lives. This can be truly transformative in a way that punishment is not.
Restorative justice will not work for every crime. There are some prerequisites: it needs to be entirely voluntary; the perpetrator needs to admit their crime. Forgiveness may or may not follow, and is not a measure of the success of the process.
The restorative model is applicable far beyond the criminal justice system. Restorative practices work even when there is not a clear perpetrator and victim, where both parties feel equally aggrieved. It can be used in schools, police, social services, neighbourhoods; anywhere where conflict occurs (which of course is everywhere) and where the intention is to find a better way forward together.
When I undertook some training in this here in the UK, one of the training videos featured a restorative process in a Tallaght school classroom facilitated by Dublin teacher, trainer and TEDx speaker Michelle Stowe. My heart swelled with pride to see my fellow-countrywoman pioneer this deeply respectful practice so skilfully and compassionately with her pupils.
The Church, like our justice system, tends to focus more on the offender than on the harmed person. There is an element of retributive justice in scripture but overall the overwhelming witness (in both Testaments) is to a God whose heart is to restore, redeem, renew. God is always on the side of the bullied person, the powerless one. Yet sometimes it seems that the Church offers forgiveness for the offender far more enthusiastically than justice for the offended. The balance is skewed. Seeking justice is not the same thing as seeking retribution.
We pray the Benedictus: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Blessed indeed are the peacemakers.