Tuesday, August 9, 2011

...to do justice, to love kindness...

In "What does the Lord require of us?", I gave a gut reaction to the grief I see caused by the current justice system and gave a few reasons I am opposed to it. 

  • I see the "trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" (kudos to Clair Kauffman for the great phrase) method as detrimental to all the individuals involved and far less than the healing God wants to grow in the community.
  • "Trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" is ineffective. It only reinforces a pattern of violence and estrangement that results in more crime and repeat offenders.

In this post, I hope to sketch the story of my interest in restorative justice, a synopsis of what restorative justice, hereafter called RJ, is, and a few models I have witnessed as effective. A lot of meat for one bite. Brace yourself, and I'll try to keep it light.

Prior to the 8th grade, I hadn't given the judicial system much thought. There were good guys and bad guys. But this was the spring before Timothy McVeigh was executed. My teacher told us the charges against McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing. He showed us the pictures of the dead children being carried out of the basement of the building, where there had been a daycare, and that image is still seared inside my eyes. Mr. Jay, as we called him, mourned those children and the others who died in the blast, but his reaction to the grief wasn't the anger and hatred I expected to see. He also showed us a picture of McVeigh's face and asked us to pray for him. Mr. Jay didn't tell us what McVeigh "deserved". He didn't ask big, theological questions. He only showed us that he cared about McVeigh, despite what he had done. He helped us see a person... a person whom God loved. 

(It was only later that I discovered McVeigh was protesting the rather insane government force in the Waco, Texas incident and, having had served time in the army, said a few things like this: "Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations." He had seen the inside of the judicial system on a national level and, concluding that the system was pretty messed up, thought his obligation was to expose it by using the same methods. Please understand that I am in no way glorifying or sanctioning Mr. McVeigh's actions. I only find his actions more tragic since he was trying to say something worth saying, but did it in a way that served up more horror.)

After the school year ended and the date set for McVeigh's execution approached, I became more and more disturbed. Most people said that he deserved to die because he had killed. Intellectually, I almost agreed, but on June 11, 2001 I walked our half-mile lane to the mailbox with a heavy heart and sense of nausea I could neither shake nor explain. I was disgusted and felt guilty, the way I had in second grade when my teacher had made a public spectacle of humiliating a classmate for a wrong-doing, as if we "good kids" should take increased pride in our goodness at our classmate's expense. 

Living on the seamier side of Lancaster City at 20 years old taught me a lot about the judicial system. I saw how much harder and more broken my neighbor boy was after "doing time". I very quickly caught the "us vs. them" subculture created by a system that only focuses on the breaking of state laws and avoiding the enforcers of those laws. Witnessing several incidents of police racism and undue violence further clarified how this rift in society widens. When my neighbor across the street was jailed for dealing drugs, I saw the wide, dark eyes of his young siblings that I had often heard scream with laughter as he had slung them over his shoulder and had carried down the street with fingers outstretched and smiles that would have been blinding if they hadn't been upside-down. I wondered how the pain of losing the only adult male figure in their lives would affect them. Sure, accountability was needed. Just as surely, this sort of punishment was only creating more pain. Did "justice" equal more pain? Should administering "justice" desensitize its administrators and make them act power-hungry?

When I voiced these questions, Clair and Anna handed me a LAVORP newsletter. I read stories of healing for victims and testimonies of offenders that, for the first time in their lives, had to opportunity to face the people they hurt... how they made amends... how they were changed. It was my first introduction to Restorative Justice, and I was hooked. It was a cleansing wind in the confusion and chaos I saw.

So I met with the founder of LAVORP. And he told me stories of what happened when victims and offenders met in sessions facilitated by LAVORP volunteers, meetings where they saw each others faces. Victims voiced their loss and pain. Offenders had the opportunity to SEE the pain they caused. Questions were asked and answered: Who was hurt? Why were they hurt? Whose obligations were these? How could things be made right? 

Instead of crime being defined as a violation of the law and state, is was seen as a violation of people, relationships, and community trust.

Rather than violations creating guilt, they created obligations.

Instead of justice requiring the state to determine the blame (guilt) and impose pain (punishment), justice involved the victims, offenders, and community members in an effort to put things right.

In place of a focus on the offenders getting what they deserve was a focus on the victim's needs and the offender's responsibility to repair the harm. [Based on a list from Howard Zehr's "Little Book of Restorative Justice"]

After years of being privately funded, the state recently recognized the staggering amount of dollars LAVORP is saving them in a virtually non-existent repeat offender rate and is offering partial funding. What really excites me is that people are seeing that Jesus' ways of seeing and treating people... underserving, broken people... actually WORK. In fact, through working with some juvenile probation teens in a residential treatment facility, I learned last year that all of Pennsylvania's juvenile probation cases are being integrated with a RJ-based BARJ (Balanced And Restorative Justice) program. Already some programs like LAVORP are taking on adult cases, even murder cases. I pray that, in time, this model will affect how violence and crime is handled on a national and international level.

 LAVORP's program follows the RJ model pioneered by Howard Zehr and is part of a landscape of change. Through my contact with LAVORP and my reading of books like 

and, for a more in-depth sociological and theological look at both the argument for RJ and how the concept can be implemented in schools and homes as well as state organizations, 

I learned that justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive. When Jesus told His followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, He was equipping us with the vision we need to bring about healed relationships. And, not surprisingly, it works. In my five years of working with urban teens on both personal and professional levels, I have come to know some teens who are hurt and hardened to the point where they think nothing of utilizing violence. And I will tell you that, over time, all of them respond to love and very few of them have ever had the opportunity to make amends for their actions. They have only been taken from their families, sent to progressively more restrictive facilities, and left alone by people who should stay with them for life. And yet, they still respond to fairness and care... to justice for both the sins done by them and against them. Justice, as defined by the God about whom was said, 

3 “A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 “He will not be disheartened or crushed
Until He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.” -Isaiah 42

Do I think there is never an occasion to restrain or restrict those who pose a continuing threat to others? No. But those occasions should be focused on rehabilitation and restoring relationships rather than dehumanizing and enhancing rifts.

 I could tell so many stories... those I have both seen and heard. Perhaps another time. For now, I hope I provided you with a few resources and questions to pique your interest and get you thinking about a better way.. and about what the Lord requires of you...

Micah 6:6-8

6 With what shall I come to the LORD 
And bow myself before the God on high? 
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, 
With yearling calves? 
7 Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, 
In ten thousand rivers of oil? 
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, 
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 
8 He has told you, O man, what is good; 
And what does the LORD require of you 
But to do justice, to love kindness, 
And to walk humbly with your God?


Christiana said...

I love this so much! Thank you for sharing your heart; this is the first time I've read anything like this and I must say, I'm intrigued.

Becca said...

Thank you for your comment, Christiana! These concepts have completely changed the way I handle difficulties with my girls, and I think everyone who works in our field could benefit from RJ training of some sort. God bless you and your boys!

Marita said...

Becca, I think this put some words to vague thoughts that I've had randomly. Things that I guess I don't think about often cuz they make me rather uncomfortable. I've been reading thru the prophets and seen that when God tells His people how to please Him, He tells them to bring about justice, especially to the oppressed. Of course, we [conservative Christians] don't think of ourselves as oppressors. I don't find my self actively seeking to bring justice.Is it possible to be neutral? When I look at the heart of God, I think not...The Father calls His children to embrace justice. The key to obedience is to be active.

Marita said...

Also, I should say: You are one of my heroes. Reading about how you handle your girls and just hearing these thoughts shows me your beautiful heart...a heart chasing the Father. just wanted you to know...

Becca said...

Marita. Wow. Thanks for your high affirmation. I don't feel worthy, but you just gave me a lot of energy to keep "running my race". You're amazing. I love your heart for our Father, too! God bless...