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“Whose side are you on?"

“Whose side are you on? Are you with them or are you with us?” 

It is not an easy time to practice restorative justice.  Whether we view restorative justice as a practice, a philosophy, or simply an outlook on harm and wrongdoing, one thing is basic: a commitment to making things as right as possible for victims, offenders, and the wider community.  Making things as right as possible means restoring broken relationships among those who are suffering and those who’ve caused suffering. More than that, making things right also implies that we get down to the root of a community’s suffering and a victim’s pain: what bigger systems of brokenness are at work that have led to this particular incident of pain and harm, and what can we do to bring healing there? 

I know few people of faith who would question any of this.

I know few people of faith who would question any of this, at least in theory.  Who would be opposed to helping out victims? Who’s against giving offenders the opportunity to change and make things right with those they’ve hurt? 

But ours is a polarized world, as we all are becoming painfully aware.  One need only look at recent elections in Canada, election campaigns in the United States, or provincial politics in my own home province of Alberta.  And that means that many of us feel we need to choose a side and turn our backs on ‘the other’, even if we know that things are more complicated than ‘us’ and ‘them’.

A restorative lens on the incident invites us toward a radical solidarity.

I think of recent conversations about forgiveness and systemic racism, prompted by Brandt Jean’s act of grace toward his brother Botham’s killer in Texas.  Many felt – understandably – that to applaud Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness was to dismiss the very real and largely unacknowledged issues of racism and systemic injustice at work in the trail of Amber Guyger.  A restorative lens on the incident invites us toward a radical solidarity with Botham Jean and other young black men who experience police violence at rates far higher than the white counterparts, while also advocating for systemic changes to a deeply flawed justice system, while also acknowledging the act of Brandt Jean toward Ms. Guyger, while also hoping that Ms. Guyger can be restored to a new wholeness.  But in these polarized times, it is hard to claim all of these things at once. 

As Clint Smith, a poet, scholar, and activist, put it: “It’s okay, I think, to feel conflicted. To know that if this woman was not a white police officer, she would have gotten more time. To know many black people are in prison for much longer, for doing far less. And to still believe long prison sentences can’t be the only answer.” 

Can I embrace the rigour of the grey? 

Feeling conflicted: maybe that is the call for those committed to a restorative vision of justice in polarized times. 

Can we express outrage at the death of Indigenous youth Colton Boushie and the subsequent trial, while also acknowledging the complexities of life in rural Canada? 

Can we call Canadian police forces to account for their handling of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, while also extending empathy to police whose work can be so difficult? 

As a prayer from the Iona Community puts it: can I embrace the rigour of the grey? 

Justice that restores requires a radical trust in Jesus of Nazareth, God-made-flesh. 

There is no easy way out of the discomfort that comes from embracing victims while praying for offenders.  And sometimes making things as right as possible – working with those we disagree with, building friendships with those whose actions make us squirm - sometimes seems counter to our responsibility to call out wider systems of injustice.  Discomfort, tension, inner conflict are common features of life on this side of the new creation. 

That is why a commitment to the Bible’s vision of a justice that restores requires a radical trust in Jesus of Nazareth, God-made-flesh.  Here we find one who calls the peacemakers blessed and invites his followers to prayer for their enemies. Here we find one who is willing to share meals with the cast aside and forgotten, while also breaking bread with Roman soldiers, tax collectors and the religious elite.  Here we find one who cared more about inviting everyone – everyone – to the Welcome Table than he did about notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  Here we find one who died between two criminals in faithfulness to a kingdom and Creator, refusing the categories of goodness and truth provided by the empire and the clerical authorities.

It is right-side up work, in a broken, upside-down world.

If He is the one through whom all things were made, then we can go on with our own small attempts to empower victims and restore offenders. If He is the one in whom all creation moves, then we can know that our own upside-down work of building bridges and extending tables is not upside-down at all – it is right-side up work, in a broken, upside-down world.  It is moving with the grain of God’s universe. 

It is about trust, in the end: trusting the voice of the one who turns to us in our tension, in our deeply conflicted moments, and says ‘Come, follow me.’ 


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