Restorative Justice and the Scandal of the Gospel

By Stephen Siemens, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada

Restorative justice has the power to display the scandal of the Gospel. I love the Gospel, and I love to see the word “scandal” close by.

Why? Think of those familiar Bible verses, “God demonstrates his love for us that while we were still sinners [offenders] Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); while I was an enemy of God, bent on my own self-destruction and the destruction of others “Christ was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19).

God is not content to sentence me, to simply remind me of my past record and make me prove my repentance before pouring out love and compassion. Scandalous, isn’t it?

So scandalous that common assumptions about justice–an eye for an eye–are immediately called into question. While “an eye for an eye” is indeed in the Bible, it had a specific purpose of limiting revenge–1400 years before Christ (and as good biblical scholarship has demonstrated the command to limit revenge, when compared to Israel’s neighbours’ moral codes, was actually quite redemptive and ahead of its time).

But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes the calculation of revenge out of the equation altogether, and instead calls for enemy love.

Period.

Yet, even though we know this well, we are still very good at distancing ourselves from “offenders” and “law breakers.” In a stable society like ours, criminals are often the closest thing we have to an “enemy.”

So often we have thought, talked and lived a Gospel looking scandalless.

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself that theologizing has its place but what about public safety? “People want to feel safe.”

Amen. I agree.

The need to feel safe should always be validated.

Unfortunately we are justifying our punitive attitudes and policy to feel safer but in reality the Canada we know is simply choosing revenge over (and at the expense of) public safety.

We are seeing this reality expressed in a number of aspects of what Bill C-10 – the Safe Streets and Communities Act – is bringing to the fore, such as new mandatory minimum sentences and  longer sentences—which inexorably will house more inmates for longer periods of time making prison expansion the logical outcome. As the US has shown, the more we focus on prison expansion the more we lose sight of prevention and other creative community approaches to make our streets safer.

Based on decades of working with both victims and offenders of crime, MCC’s experience has demonstrated time and again just how much safer we are when we become involved in the lives of offenders, and when we support those who have experienced the trauma of being victims of crime.

We are safer – a lot safer – when we put dollars into the community, into prevention, mediation, and victim services rather than into the bricks and mortar of more prisons.

There is a place for prisons.  There needs to be a place to detain individuals who are too dangerous to themselves and others in the general population for a time.

But is that where the church, too, should put her energy?! Is that what the body of Christ should be gravitating towards? Should not we look different than culture around us?

Should not the Gospel break through cultural obsessions with revenge?! What about new beginnings? Is not God reconciling the world to himself in Christ?  Have we not been commissioned as ambassadors of this message?!

For over a thousand years Christians did not live with a “state law” as we do now (ironically it was only after the church produced her “Canon Law” in the 12th Century that secular legal systems and state law took shape and form?!). Christians took the call to be Christ’s ambassadors by showing radical hospitality and love to anyone, with no “easy way out” to exempt and insulate themselves from certain groups of people who “broke the law” and “had a record.”

The Gospel was drenched in scandal.

Sadly, though, living on this side of a state law can often trump radical love, quarantining the scandal of the Gospel.

MCC hopes to encourage and remind the Church of her justice background. A justice that is “set apart,” completely “other” from the world’s take on justice. Justice that looks a lot more like enemy love rather than a calculated eye for an eye.

From coast to coast MCC is involved in—and has been catalytic in establishing—creative community approaches to crime. For example MCC facilitates Circles of Support and Accountability, where four to five folks from our communities and churches voluntarily walk with released federal offenders that are deemed “high risk to reoffend” upon release.

They do this so that there are no more victims! And that there is a possibility for redemption.

There is power in transformed lives—victims, offenders, Christians!

Power even greater than empirically proven safer streets.

Every time Christians choose to gravitate towards offenders, crossing the chasm between “themselves” and “the offender,” “us” verses “them,” or “me” verses the “enemy” they are mirroring God’s reconciliatory nature and power!

They are ambassadors of a Gospel fully loaded with scandal!

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