I have been quite critical of my religious upbringing in other talks, and all of that is quite true. Of utmost significance to me was that, rather than having access to quality mental health and medical care, I had to rely on religious books and ideas to help me cope with and try to recover from the abuse I experienced as a child. So I want to be clear that I am not erasing any of those criticisms when I say that it is also true that I don’t know if I would have survived adolescence without the powerful vision of peace and justice that I found in the lives and teachings of Jesus and the prophets.
I was probably around 12 years old when I first began reading and studying the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures. I encountered plenty of confusing stuff, but there was also this persistent, insistent plea for us to make things right, to create a world where we could live without exploitation, injustice, or oppression. And it felt realistic to me; these values were often aspirations, a vision of how things could be. Only false prophets lied and said everything was okay when it wasn’t okay. I appreciated that honesty, because the world I grew up in was certainly not safe, just, or particularly kind – but I wanted it to be, and these readings helped me hold on to the vision that this was possible. One of these passages that happens to be the lectionary text for this Sunday, when Jesus goes to a synagogue in Nazareth and reads from a scroll from the prophet Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
In the story, Jesus is very purposeful, unrolling the scroll and finding these particular words. And, when he had finished reading those words, he rolled up the scroll and said to the captivated crowd: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:14-21, NRSV)
Lessons Along the Way
I learned a lot from these kinds of stories. First, there is a long history of those who responded to the suffering in the world with compassion and the resolve to make it better. The prophet had to say it or write it down, but that wasn’t enough. Others had to think it was important enough to remember and pass along. This memory itself was important, keeping the vision alive. It found me, and I took it to heart, because it meant that I wasn’t alone, even when the suffering and injustice in the world left me feeling alone.
Second, I learned that the living conditions for the marginalized and oppressed were the measure of a society. The prophets didn’t measure the health of a community by how the most privileged were doing. Instead, they forced the community to look at the painful places. The good news would be for the poor, the prisoners, the disabled, and the oppressed. But this was coupled with a third lesson, that not everyone would consider this good news. Reading the prophets, you got a clear image that a certain number of people benefitted from the mistreatment of others, and they were loath to give up their power, privilege, and wealth. And others were in a sort of middle place, sometimes hoping that they could climb that social ladder, and sometimes just desperately holding onto the ladder for dear life, unwilling for any change to disrupt their fragile position in the social order. Promising to put revolutionary ideas into practice is very often unsettling. Humans can quickly get caught in the “better the devil you know” trap, and Jesus’ very human listeners were sufficiently furious with him that a mob tried to throw him off a cliff.
Coming under the influence of these teachers and teachings, I rather quickly found myself in activism and community work that took its measure of society from the wellbeing of the most marginalized. It took many forms, including restorative and transformative justice programming. I began volunteering in our criminal justice system while I was in college, when I offered pastoral care in the county jail and participated in visitation programs at the state penitentiary. Since then, I’ve volunteered in local, state, and federal jails and prisons from Missouri to California to Cambodia. I’ve been involved in drama workshops, music programs, nonviolent communication courses, meditation classes, and book studies. I’ve been a pen pal and a correspondence course mentor. I’ve also served as a mediator and facilitator in diversion programming, such as victim-offender mediation and family group conferencing. I have tried to participate in ways that support everyone involved: inmates, guards, administrators, victims, and everyone’s families and communities.
I mention this because I also know that many people quickly dismiss a vision of a society without state-sponsored violence, punitive justice systems, and incarceration. I’m not an expert on transformative justice, and I happily defer to those who are. But, in my experience, most of us who advocate for this vision have been deeply involved in the work of engaging with violence and crime, helping heal the harm, and trying to create communities where we reduce violence as much as possible and have the tools and resources we need to transform it when it does occur. We are not a naïve crowd, and we understand that the questions we are asking and the actions we are proposing are complicated and have real life consequences.
A Basic Framework
With that in mind, I’d like to offer a basic framework for having conversations around a society’s justice system. Specifically, we can observe three large trends in how to approach crime and violence: retribution, restoration, and transformation. This is by nature oversimplified, but it is meant to help us begin to recognize how we handle conflict, crime, and violence, and then empower us to choose those ways that are most healthy, effective, compassionate, and just.
Howard Zehr, adapting exercises by Dave Dyck, created descriptions and accompanying reflective questions to help us get a better idea of what these different approaches look and feel like. (https://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2011/03/10/restorative-or-transformative-justice/ ) In general, you can notice a movement from rules to relationships to systems. In the retributive approach, the focus is on 1) determining what rule has been broken, 2) assigning guilt and blame, and 3) handing out punishment. It’s easy to recognize this as the dominant mode of US culture, from our courts to workplaces and schools to families to our own consciouses. Even if you are convinced that this approach is necessary (or sometimes necessary), you can also see the focus is first on guilt and punishment, rather than personal or community wellbeing.
In contrast, a restorative approach typically focuses on 1) understanding “who has been hurt” and their needs, 2) identifying who can and should “address these needs,” and 3) connecting with those who will be involved with healing and transformation. Zehr explains that “The incident is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right.” (ibid) Restorative practices have gained more widespread acceptance over the last few decades and are often associated with diversion programs within existing criminal justice systems. Here locally, for instance, restorative programs are offered in conjunction with local courts and other community organizations, including: victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, victim impact panels, and community mediation. This restoration can also include looking down the road to the changes that need to happen so that the harm is not repeated, and points to our third approach.
Transformative justice shifts attention to social systems, focusing on 1) analyzing the social conditions that “promoted the harmful behavior”, 2) comparing “structural similarities” to understand patterns of incidents and harm, and 3) transforming social systems “in ways that help to prevent the occurrence and re-occurrence of harmful incidents.” (ibid) These tend to be long term programs that address a cluster of social issues that are the roots of violence and crime, rather than solely focusing on criminal acts. The goal is to create cultures and communities that are 1) less likely to have members who rely on violence, coercion, and crime and 2) more likely to have resources, practices, and support to honestly address and heal the violence when it does occur. The transformation, then, is not just for individuals, but for systems. We try to imagine a society where people can thrive, where we can assume wellbeing, and where we don’t have to rely on punishment and threat.
An Excess of Retribution
Unsurprisingly, the retributive approach has been very successful at arresting and imprisoning people. Using information from World Population Review, we see that the United States “has the highest prison population [of] any country, comprising 25% of the world’s prisoners. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are forced to live in inhumane conditions, even those who are innocent and awaiting trial.” And the recidivism rate is off the charts:
“The United States has some of the highest recidivism rates in the world. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44% of criminals released return before the first year out of prison. In 2005, about 68% of 405,000 released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years, and 77% were arrested within five years.” (https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/recidivism-rates-by-state )
We could add to this list an awareness of similar issues, such as the school-to-prison pipeline; the criminalization of poverty, race, disability, mental health, and other marginalizations; or the problems and injustices of a court system driven by plea deals. Mia Mingus makes the further point that transformative practices are most associated with these communities who have been most harmed by the current system:
“State responses to violence reproduce violence and often traumatize those who are exposed to them, especially oppressed communities who are already targeted by the state. It is important to remember that while many people choose not to call the police, many communities can’t call the police because of reasons such as fear of deportation, harassment, state sanctioned violence, sexual violence, previous convictions or inaccessibility. / [Transformative Justice] was created by and for many of these communities (e.g. indigenous communities, black communities, immigrant communities of color, poor and low-income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, sex workers, queer and trans communities). It is important to remember that many of these people and communities have been practicing TJ in big and small ways for generations–trying to create safety and reduce harm within the dangerous conditions they were and are forced to live in.” (https://transformharm.org/transformative-justice-a-brief-description/ )
Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western, described this “Era of Punitive Excess”:
“Today’s landscape of punishment also includes the extensive criminalization of social problems such as homelessness and mental illness, intrusive policing policies such as stop and frisk, the imposition of fines and fees that exacerbate poverty, the legislatively defined collateral sanctions that close off opportunities for a full life to millions with criminal records, and the new technologies that place the entire public under a form of state surveillance. … In its multiple manifestations, damaging impact, political durability, and unbridled reach into all aspects of American life, the modern expression of society’s need to marginalize the poor and people of color through criminalization and punishment has become a stubborn social fact.” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/era-punitive-excess )
Despite these issues, most people I encounter cannot imagine any other way of dealing with violence and crime, especially in the short term. When things are going well for privileged communities, there is not a strong motivation to address systemic concerns. But when the circumstances get bad enough that even the privileged want something done, the long-term solutions that transformative approaches depend on move at too slow a pace to get widespread support. The uncomfortable reality is that our collective unwillingness to create a just, equitable, compassionate society signals our willingness to tolerate and even promote unhealthy communities. Crime and violence are both symptoms of an unhealthy society and perpetuate those unhealthy systems.
“Now I want justice”
Changing all this is hard work, and it is slow work. And despite research showing the promise of restorative and transformative approaches (e.g., https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/jsp-sjp/rr00_16/p3.html ), there are also plenty of ways for things to go wrong. It’s important to listen to and learn from these painful stories, too. (e.g., https://stillmyrevolution.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/tj-zine-final-with-cover.pdf and https://transformharm.org/i-hope-we-choose-love-notes-on-the-application-of-justice/ ) These limitations and failures can be discouraging, but they are also corrective. We can’t get things right if we aren’t open to learning about how and why things go wrong.
But we also remember when something beautiful and new becomes possible. So I’ll close with a memorable interaction from my time in Cambodia. A team of peacebuilders were offering training in conflict transformation to inmates. At first, it was common to hear the guards teasing the inmates about the training, especially when they were practicing active listening and expressing empathy. But the teasing slowed and stopped, and the guards started paying attention instead. Eventually, they requested to receive the training themselves and Peace Bridges began a program for 15 guards, focused on listening to prisoners with respect and responding to them without violence. I visited the training near the end of one of the courses and was amazed at the type of interactions between inmates, guards, and each other. What were typically very antagonistic interactions full of threats and swagger were now characterized by respect. A prison guard shared this story with us:
“There are often conflicts among prisoners and it’s my job to keep things under control. Recently there was a conflict between the senior prisoner in his cell and a guy who was always causing problems. This was just after I finished the training (a PEACE BRIDGES graduate) and I decided to address the problem differently than I always had before. I met with each of two guys separately to understand his side of the story and then brought them together to talk about how to avoid such conflicts in the future. / I was amazed that they were honestly able to solve their conflict in this peaceful way. Up until that point, I was the one to take the decision and offer the punishment. You ask me what I would have done in a situation like this before the Peace Bridges training. The answer is simple: I would have simply sided with the one I liked best. Always. And now I realize that this is not fair and it’s not right so I won’t do this anymore. Now I want justice and I wasn’t so interested in this before- I just wanted order.” (https://pbstories.blogspot.com/2009/04/siding-with-one-i-liked-best.html )
We definitely have a long way to go; our current justice system is often more unjust than not, and our restorative and transformative practices are still taking shape. But I do feel confidence that we are slowly growing into this vision that the best among us have preserved and handed down for centuries, across generations and cultures. I keep returning to that lesson I learned as a child, that the living conditions for the marginalized and oppressed are the measure of a society. This prophetic vision of proclaiming release to captives and letting the oppressed go free gives us an opportunity to reflect more deeply and look more intentionally at the world we have and ask what kind of world we want to create. I hope we’ll all keep dreaming and working to make it possible.