The first three chapters of the Book of Genesis describe the creation of the universe and the disobedience and ultimate expulsion of the first man and woman from the Garden of Eden.
Then, in chapter 4, the first thing human beings do after leaving the Garden is kill — Cain murdering his brother Abel.
It seems that violence and killing are the curse and constant companion of humanity. Every social unit from the family to the empire has had to deal with violence. In many places where CNEWA works, especially most recently in the Middle East, the violence is numbing and seems never to stop. Throughout history, humans have tried to contain violence through punishment—simply put, with more violence.
To say that using violence to prevent further violence has not been successful should be obvious.
Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have struggled with the notion of justice. By the 21st century one finds three notions of justice: retributive justice, which focuses on punishment; distributive justice, which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders; and, most recently, restorative justice. Beginning on 17 November, the UN observes International Restorative Justice Week, to focus the world’s attention on this vital and increasingly important concept.
The notion of restorative justice brings together the offender and the victim with the goal of “sharing the experience of what happened, to discuss who was harmed by the crime and how, and to create a consensus for what the offender can do to repair the harm from the offense.” Relatively new to modern systems of justice, restorative justice — whether called by that name or not — has been practiced in many ancient, traditional societies. It has been noted that in some Native American communities in the U.S. and Canada and the Maoris in New Zealand, the response of the communities after a crime is to attempt to restore the societal balance in a community that has been destroyed by violence.
The method of restorative justice in the modern world was most clearly seen in the Truth and Reconciliation Committees which met after the dismantling of the racist apartheid system of government in South Africa.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was influential in this. He was convinced that there had been great violence and injustice against South African people of color for decades. He was also aware that the perpetrators needed to face the victims and understand the pain and suffering that the system caused. Most importantly, as a proponent of restorative justice, Archbishop Tutu knew that mere retribution or punishment, regardless how understandable or justified, would not heal the deep wounds and divisions in South African society.
The practice and theory of restorative justice is being studied and applied in some places in the world. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, based on “the potential benefits of using restorative justice with respect to criminal justice systems,” in 2018 encouraged member nations to consider applying it in local situations.
It is important to note that restorative justice does not minimalize the gravity of the crime or the injustice and suffering in inflicts on its victims. What it does is makes the injustice and suffering personal to both the offender and the victim. It is a process whose goal is to get the offender to recognize the enormity of the crime committed and to recognize the humanity of the victims of the crime and to help victims overcome a sense of powerlessness.
Several popes have spoken about the importance of restorative justice. Pope Benedict XVI in Munus Africæ, the Apostolic Exhortation (19 November 2011) promulgated after the Synod on Africa, wrote of restorative justice. Last year Pope Francis in his address to the 19th Congress of the International Criminal Law Association in Buenos Aires also stressed the importance of this concept.
One of the few signs of hope in the violence-torn Middle East has been the emergence at different times and in different places of the notion of musaliha, “reconciliation.” Although it is difficult to determine exactly when and from whom this emerged, one finds references to it from Franciscans first in Damascus and then in Aleppo. Although it has hardly reached the level of a “movement,” religious leaders in Lebanon have also spoken about the importance of musaliha, which can be seen as an attempt at restorative justice.
Last year in the pages of CNEWA’s magazine, ONE, we reported on efforts by the church in Ethiopia to practice restorative justice, and bring hope and possibility to those behind bars through education, skills training and counseling. As one of the chaplains put it, ”In the heart of each prisoner we come into contact with, we are building love, a love for God and a love for his church.”
In a world of not only unabated violence but also of increasingly available means of mass destruction, the problem of justice is extremely important. However, unless the cycle of violence is broken, there may be retribution but a truly just society still appears an unattainable goal.
Restorative justice may provide a new approach to the problem of violence, a problem which has resisted solution since Cain and Abel.