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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Restorative Theology of Easter
distributed 3/29/02 - ©2002, 2007

The hour that I spent with a juvenile delinquent is helping me come to a richer understanding of Easter.

"Fred" is a high school student who got into trouble -- some drinking and some vandalism. Nothing too major, but big enough that it could have ruined his life. He was headed toward court, some jail time, and a police record.

But Fred was diverted into a restorative justice program, and that may prove to be his salvation.

Restorative justice is an idea that is beginning to catch on in communities across the US. Restorative justice takes a very different approach than the punitive justice system than is common throughout western civilization. (While this is a new concept in some parts of the world, in many cultures these principles are ancient wisdom.)

Punitive justice sees a problem with the criminal, the "offender". The solution to crime is to punish the person who broke the laws. There may be an attempt at rehabilitation, but punishment is the guiding principle.

Restorative justice recognizes that the criminal has caused a problem, and that something must be done. But it does not believe that the problem can be solved through punishment alone. Because the offender has not just broken a law. He or she has caused hurt to victims, and has injured the entire community. The goal of restorative justice is to bring healing to all involved -- the victim, the offender, and the community.

It was as a member of the community that I came to spend some time with Fred. By being diverted from the criminal justice process, he had been saved from a jail term, but he was not off the hook. He had healing to do -- for himself, and for others.

He had to get counseling and treatment for his drinking problem. He had to do community service, cleaning up his acts of vandalism. He had to make some financial restitution to the victims of his acts.

The restorative justice process also brought Fred face-to-face with some of the victims of his actions. He had to sit down with the people whose property he had damaged, and hear about the consequences of his actions. They had a chance to speak to him about how they were violated, about the anger and hurt and alienation that they felt. That chance to speak and be heard brought an element of healing to the victims that never would have happened in a punitive justice process.

One of the great insights of restorative justice is that the need for healing goes beyond the victims and the offender. The broader community was damaged by Fred's actions, too. The governing board of my church was asked to meet with Fred as a representative of the broader community. Just as Fred had to sit with his direct victims, he had to come to us and offer a confession. We spoke to Fred about our hopes and dreams for our community, about our hopes for his life as a functioning member of that community, and about how we were hurt collectively by his actions.

For Fred, the restorative justice process seems to be working. He is turning his life around. And there has been healing for the victims and the community, too.

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This Sunday, the sermons, anthems and hymns of Easter will proclaim the central good news of the Christian faith. It is a hopeful and joyous message about sin and guilt, judgement and grace, hurt and healing, life and death.

Most of Sunday's proclamations will be grounded in a worldview and a theology that fits comfortably with the punitive justice model. That theology sees the problem of sin almost exclusively in relation to the offender. It looks at punishment or grace for the sinner. It sees salvation largely in terms of individuals bound for heaven. It is all about punishment and forgiveness.

The hour that our board spent with Fred reminds me that there is more to justice than dealing with the offender, and there is more to salvation than forgiveness of personal sins. Healing involves the hard and grace-filled work of bringing together the victim, the offender and the community.

While that part of the proclamation may not be heard in many sermons this Easter, it is at the heart of the Christian faith. The New Testament books of Colossians, Romans and 2 Corinthians speak of the saving work of God in Christ as a work of restoration and reconciliation. It is not about punishment, but healing. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself."

Restorative justice recognizes that the whole community is damaged by sin and evil. It acknowledges that healing is not complete until the whole community is engaged. And the passages which speak most eloquently of the restorative justice of God are precisely the ones that speak most directly about how God's salvation extends beyond the human to bring healing to all of creation, to the entire community of the cosmos.

A theology of salvation that is grounded in punitive justice will see the non-human parts of God's creation as irrelevant. It will feel no drive to bring about healing for the wounds that humans have inflicted on the natural world. A restorative theology of salvation -- one that looks to healing for the victim, the offender and the community -- will be compelled to proclaim the joyous hope of Easter to all of creation.

My hour with Fred, my vivid introduction to the wisdom of restorative justice, has opened my eyes and my heart to a truth far greater than Fred's deliverance from a jail cell. That hour has allowed me to perceive fresh insights into the saving work of God in Christ, a work of restorative, reconciling justice, a work that brings healing to all of the creation. Such an Easter message is, indeed, a cause for celebration.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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