20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 10. Musings on Restorative Justice: Repentance and Forgiveness

These are musings.  Random thoughts that have flitted through my mind today, just like yesterday.

The idea of restorative justice has been around for many years but five years ago it was barely discussed in this town.  Today we talk about it a great deal but I doubt that many understand it.  Part of that is because we are so deeply bound by the precepts of our punitive system that even when we say we want justice–true justice–we usually mean that someone “has to pay.”  Who has to pay becomes a matter of perspective–of which side of the political or other “fence” you sit on.  We want restoration for us. We want punishment for them.

We have a long way to walk before we can shed the skin of our punitive system, the outcome of which is really a belief (deeply ingrained) that if we can just remove “them” from our midst, then true justice will prevail.  But restorative justice means just that: we restore people.  We restore them to their families, to their community, to their lives.  This does not mean that we restore them without some change or correction being made.  But, we seek restoration because we realize that if we send them all away we will end up with shattered and broken communities.

Yes, restorative justice does demand certain things: acknowledgment of harms, statements committing to change, and actions that demonstrate that change.  Restorative justice is rigorous in its defense of truth and truth-telling.  It is unrelenting in its search for harms and making those harms right (as much as possible).  It is rigid in its commitment to change on the part of those who have created the injustice–the broken relationships. But it fundamentally does not accept that driving people out will lead to a healthier and safer community.

Yes, we have a long way to go.

Restorative justice requires repentance but it does not need forgiveness.  This might seem odd: repentance but no forgiveness.  The equation seems so unbalanced.  I confess and you forgive… Isn’t that the way it should work?

Perhaps restorative justice is more pragmatic than we think.  When I say it requires repentance I use repentance in the sense of turning around or turning away from that which is wrong and turning to a new path–a new way of being in the world.  That is repentance: accepting to go in a new direction away from that which is hurtful.  Repentance is what offenders do in restorative justice.  They acknowledge that the path they have taken has led to harm and they seek a way, with the input of the one they have offended, to take a new path, a different path, a path the end of which will not lead to further harms to others.

But forgiveness is NOT what victims do in restorative justice.  Forgiveness is a result that may come, but it is not required of those who participate in this form of justice.  There is, perhaps, some confusion about this point.  The victim or victims in a restorative process–and can we acknowledge that in some cases one can be both victim and offender–or is our thinking simply too binary on this point?–the victim names what they need from the offender.  They name what hurt them. They ask questions.  They seek answers.  Above all, they search for a way beyond the fear and doubt, common to all victims, that maybe, just maybe it was something THEY did that led to all of this.  They seek escape from the fear that they will be victims again. They seek assurances, from the offender, that the offender will NOT inflict the same horror on others.

But they do not forgive.  Or, rather, they are not expected to forgive.  But like anything else when humans rub up against each other in pain and discomfort, they tend to do what humans seem programmed to do: they cast a lifeline into the sea of their pain and their deepest fears and they rescue the offender from their own inhumanity.

Does this always happen?  Perhaps not.  Does it happen often?  Yes.

For we all know–intuitively perhaps–that in our hearts there is an evil that dwells.  A hatred.  A malice.  A destructive force of anger.  And we know that if ever we were to flounder in someone else’s sea of fear and pain, that we, too, would want a lifeline.

One thought on “20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 10. Musings on Restorative Justice: Repentance and Forgiveness

  1. I think one of the other issues in our criminal justice system is that it is not focused on finding out “the truth” but on an adversarial process and “winning”. Also, it not only depends on “which side” of the political fence, but on what rung of the fence you sit on. Plea “bargaining” seems to be at an all time high and this seems to be a strategy suggested to the poor to move through the system. This month’s Atlantic has an illuminating article: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/innocence-is-irrelevant/534171/

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