We Are Him — (Part 1)
In the next few posts I’m going to try to tie the last three chapters together. These are the “so what?” posts. So what if I accept that sin is not petty and arbitrary but dehumanizing and deadly? So what if God wasn’t punishing Jesus, but instead changing a covenant? So what if Jesus had to die to show us that death was nothing to fear? What difference is any of that supposed to make? I hope to start describing that below. Here we go!
“Justice involves claiming a shared, mutual humanity. It is about interrelationships.”
“We must provide space — institutional space, political space, social space and conceptual space — for the emergence of new relationships and a new way of being that exists beyond isolation and separation.”
– john powell, Racing to Justice
The woman stood at her kitchen window watching them walk down the sidewalk. They were strange to her because they were strangers. She had not seen the two young boys in the neighborhood before. While she watched, and they were unaware that she was watching, they stopped at the end of a neighbor’s driveway. Now they were watching.
As far as they could tell the neighborhood was empty and no one could see them. One of them made his way up the neighbor’s driveway and into the garage. He grabbed a bike and started riding away. “That’s not his bike!” she thought as she ran out of the doorway and into the street. “Stop!” she yelled, “That’s not your bike!” The boys sped away as she ran after them.
A neighbor down the street recognized the scene. She came from the other direction and joined in the chase. Feeling cornered, the boys dropped the bike and ran away. The two women met at the intersection and tried to decide what to do. As they caught their breath, they decided to call the police.
While they waited together they tried to describe what they saw. The white woman who stood at her kitchen window was sad to admit that she could only remember their black skin. The black neighbor who ran to assist her had a much more comprehensive picture of the two boys; their size, their dress, their faces. In the end, none of it mattered. The bike remained in good working condition and the boys were never found.
But, what if they were? What would have been the right thing to do? How could there have been justice for the boys who tried to steal and for the family whose property was threatened? There are different ways of answering that question. They can be summarized with three different versions of justice: punitive, distributive, and restorative.
Punitive justice uses punishment to make things right. There are consequences for bad behavior and poor choices. There are penalties that must be paid when something wrong is done. This is the kind of justice that comes to mind when we think about crime. Punitive justice does something to people. This version of justice would say that these two boys should be held accountable for their actions and the law would decide how to punish them.
Distributive justice finds ways to distribute resources fairly in order to make things right. There are basic rights that people deserve to have met. If food and shelter and opportunity are distributed fairly and adequately, then people will make better decisions. This is the kind of justice that comes to mind when we think about poverty and inequality. Distributive justice does something for people. This version of justice might recognize that these two boys come from under-resourced families and should be given an opportunity to have their own bikes.
These first two forms of justice tend to be top down. Someone in a powerful and influential position knows what the problem is and how to fix it. In these cases, a decision would be made on behalf of the boys without their input, to them or for them. This decision would probably be made without input from the victims or the witnesses as well. Both punitive and distributive justice are forms of social control. They both have strengths and they both have weaknesses.
Restorative justice is different in that it is about engagement rather than control. Restorative justice wants to make sure that every voice has been heard and that every need has been considered. This version of justice seeks to do the right thing with everyone involved. Only as the community engages the harm and engages it together can the right thing be discovered. Punishment might be part of the plan and resources may need to be distributed more fairly, but that will all be determined as the community engages with one another.
According to The Little Book of Restorative Justice, there are three pillars that support this way of thinking. First, restorative justice is focused on harm done to individuals and communities (loc 327). The goal of restorative justice, then, is healing. Second, wrongs or harms result in obligations (loc 339). Offenders must come to understand the harm and take responsibility for it. Third, restorative justice promotes engagement and participation (loc 345). It is not an event (like a judge’s verdict or a gift), but a process.
If punitive and distributive justice focus on what people deserve, then restorative justice focuses on what each person needs. If punitive and distributive justice focus on individuals and their decisions, then restorative justice focuses on the whole community and its relationships. Restorative justice would ask the victims, witnesses, offenders, and other impacted people to engage in a conversation in the hopes of restoring a sense of safety and belonging in the community for everyone. In the story above, that would include the families whose garage was broken into, the young boys who tried to steal the bike (along with advocates), and the witnesses whose own sense of neighborhood safety has been harmed and perhaps an officer as well.
Not only is restorative justice another way to determine what is right, but it also offers us another way to understand what God is trying to accomplish through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. By now I hope you can recall how the church often describes the death of Jesus in terms of punitive justice. Jesus was punished as a result of the crime that humanity committed. However, if you’ve been connected to a more progressive church, you may have heard God’s work described in terms of distributive justice. Sin is not an offence or crime, but the result of a lack. Humans sin because they are lacking spiritual resources. Therefore, God gave us Jesus. At his departure, Jesus promised to give his Spirit so that we could live more like him.
In each case, the church has been trying to describe how God is making things right in the world and establish a new covenant. Both versions of the story have strengths and each has weaknesses. I hope to show you how restorative justice offers a more faithful and more complete understanding of God and the death of Jesus. Rather than focusing on individuals and their decisions, this understanding will focus on community and its relationships.
The quote at the beginning of this chapter makes a claim that true justice is about recognizing other people as fully human. Like restorative justice, it says that we will find what is truly right when we share in relationships with other people where everyone’s full humanity is recognized. That recognition can only happen in relationship. Understanding this will help us understand what God hoped to accomplish through the death of Jesus. It wasn’t punishment or distribution. It was restoration.
Restorative justice is a humanizing process that repairs the dehumanizing effects of sin (chapter 4). Its emphasis on relationships gives us a clearer picture of the shape that the new covenant (chapter 5) partnership with God will take. Understanding restorative justice helps us begin to see what eternal life (chapter 6) will look like in real flesh and blood, in real life. It involves recognizing in one another a “mutual, shared humanity” regardless of any difference in skin color or gender expression or social position. The Bible describes this shared humanity with the phrase “image of God.”
The next post will go on to describe what the image of God means.