Two competing theological frameworks are at work in the American criminal justice system: retributive justice and restorative justice.
Both are overviewed in “Through the Door,” our forthcoming documentary on prisons and faith.
“Retributive justice is an eye for an eye,” said David Valentine, a documentary interviewee and pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville, Texas.
“When you deal with restorative justice, you are talking about – all right, we know that you are a person that is created in the image of Christ, image of God – how can we help restore you?” he said.
That, in turn, leads to steps that can result in a transformed life, said Valentine.
Emmett Solomon, founder of the Restorative Justice Ministries Network, told EthicsDaily.com’s producers, “The traditional system, which is a retributive system, says that we’re going to punish people for doing things we don’t like. There is very little healing in that.”
The long-time, now retired, Texas prison chaplain, added, “Restorative justice is a concept that comes out of the church … The idea is that we are in the process of restoring peace and tranquility to society.”
Noting that Christians have left behind the teachings of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 and Matthew 25, former President Jimmy Carter, another interviewee, said, “Unfortunately, many of those who insist on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth kind of punishment are in the Christian leadership in different denominations.”
He did make an exception, however: “The Catholic Church has taken a much more enlightened position on it.”
A statement by the U.S. Catholic bishops on criminal justice in fact underscores their position in favor of restorative justice.
“Our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration,” reads the statement.
“We believe in responsibility, accountability and legitimate punishment. Those who harm others or damage property must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused. The community has a right to establish and enforce laws to protect people and to advance the common good,” said the bishops.
“At the same time, a Catholic approach does not give up on those who violate these laws. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God. Despite their very different claims on society, their lives and dignity should be protected and respected,” they said. “We seek justice, not vengeance.”
They noted, “Restorative justice focuses first on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model. This shift in focus affirms the hurt and loss of the victim as well as the harm and fear of the community, and insists that offenders come to grips with the consequences of their actions.”
From the bishops’ perspective, this approach isn’t “soft on crime.”
Instead, victims gain “a much greater sense of peace and accountability” and “offenders who are willing to face the human consequences of their actions are more ready to accept responsibility, make reparations and rebuild their lives.”
Catholic bishops are not the only faith leaders to advocate for restorative justice. The United Methodist Church does as well.
According to the United Methodist statement of social principles, “Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community.”
The statement said that “restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families and the community.”
From a conservative evangelical perspective, Justice Fellowship, “an outgrowth” of Prison Fellowship, has also called for restorative justice. Its statement noted that offenders must be confronted for their criminal behavior and be held accountable, but “restorative justice requires the system to do more than warehouse offenders.”
Justice Fellowship’s position listed a number of actions that advance restorative justice, including moving “nonviolent, minimal-risk offenders out of prison and into community-based treatment;” preparing offenders for re-entering society; removing barriers that make successful re-entry possible; and increasing “opportunities for prisoners’ transformation by protecting their religious freedom.”
Quite clearly, from across the theological waterfront, a number of thoughtful faith leaders and those with experience working in prisons favor restorative justice.
Their vantage point is rooted in both faithfulness to the biblical witness and deep awareness of what actually heals society – advancing the common good.
Yet they face a culture where many politicians have historically played the “tough on crime” card, a slogan for retributive justice.
With the soaring costs of prisons and high recidivism rate, some thoughtful politicians today understand that being tough on crime hasn’t worked.
But our society hasn’t reached a tipping point of understanding the failure of an outdated slogan and an unworkable program.
And frankly, one wonders how many faith leaders and church members have ever given much consideration to restorative justice.
“Through the Door” provides a platform to introduce the concept of restorative justice in churches.
The documentary explores the complexities of engaging the prison issue.
One chapter examines some of the issues that lead to incarceration and defines recidivism.
Another chapter looks at the Bible and the role of faith.
A third chapter spells out misconceptions about offenders, ministers and religious volunteers, and prison officials.
The fourth chapter offers stories of hope. Hope, after all, transformative hope, needs to move through the prison doors.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.