WN: A massive body of Restorative Justice literature has emerged. A superb early study is Restoring Justice (Strong and Van Ness, 1997). A great early overview of the wider context is The Expanding Prison (Cayley, 1998). The first major study was Changing Lenses (Zehr, 1990) – considered a classic. The two best Christian theological studies are Chris Marshall’s Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2001); and Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012.) An anthology of early writings on Restorative Justice is Restorative Justice: Ideas, Values, and Debates, Gerry Johnstone (Devon, UK: Willan Publishing, 2002). The first and enduring Restorative Justice website is: http://restorativejustice.org/.
The paper below was written several years ago to offer a brief look at Restorative Justice. It was updated last year and presented at the International CURE Conference in Costa Rica. It was again slightly revised June 2018 and published in Clarion Call of Love: Essays in Gratitude to Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, edited by Brad Jersak and Ron Dart, St. Macrina’s Press, 2018. The publication includes chapters by seven contributors, including Archbishop Lazar, to Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice.
Ubiquitous Cultural Scapegoating Violence and Criminal Justice
Where did such violent notions of punishment originate?
When the above question is asked generically, even of all cultures, anthropologist René Girard argues that the founding moment of every society known to history is in fact violence. All human societies then initiate a scapegoat mechanism in order to contain the violence restore social cohesion.
Such a scapegoat mechanism arises to siphon the violence away from the community, thereby creating peace for a time for the rest of society. In religious cultures, this kind of violence invariably took the form of myths, rituals, and prohibitions legitimizing the violence against the scapegoated target or targets. In Christian cultures, this form of violence for instance especially in response to offenders, was supported and spread by the satisfaction theory of the atonement (why Christ died). In the secular West, the ultimate instance of the same dynamic in sheer numbers is the Holocaust. One could adduce myriad further examples: destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures worldwide; enslavement and oppression of Blacks in America; the mass murder of Tutsis in Rwanda, etc., etc. Girard claims there is no culture or society free of this foundational scapegoat mechanism.
It was precisely over against the excesses of various forms of scapegoating violence that well-meaning Christian philanthropists tried in 1790, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to move away from physical punishments towards an emphasis instead upon reformation of the criminal. If only they could lock wrongdoers into a jail cell with a Bible and a rule of silence, surely the violence would cease, and the criminal would become “penitent”! The new institution was of course named a “penitentiary”. The new motive was rehabilitation, not retribution. The first such “penitentiary” was the repurposed Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia.
The idea caught on throughout the Western world like wildfire. But, it soon became evident that, whereas former means of scapegoating administered physical wounds that eventually would heal, the penitentiary began to inflict psychic harms that rarely ever mended. Though not the intent, a new scapegoat mechanism arose in the form of the penitentiary that indeed tended to destroy the very soul and self-worth of the prisoner. Then where did that lost soul ever after fit into society?
Early in the development of Restorative Justice in Canada, Professor Vern Redekop authored a widely received piece: Scapegoats, the Bible, and Criminal Justice: Interacting with René Girard (1993). In it he posed the question:
Is it possible that what we call a criminal justice system is really a scapegoat mechanism? (p. 1, emphasis in original).
He then analysed Girard’s thesis on ubiquitous cultural scapegoat mechanisms; and answered the question he posed affirmatively (later receiving Girard’s approbation). Redekop wrote:
It [is] possible to think of the criminal justice system as one gigantic scapegoat mechanism for society (p. 33, emphasis in original).
When one considers how much crime is unreported, how few crimes are brought to trial and among those how few result in conviction and prison sentences it turns out that we in Canada imprison in the order of 3% of criminals… This tiny percentage of offenders who are severely punished can be thought of as a collective scapegoat for society. Those individual criminals who warrant sensational news coverage, can function as scapegoats themselves (pp. 33 and 34, emphasis added).
In this context of criminal scapegoating, Restorative Justice poses perhaps the most troubling yet simple rhetorical question: “Why harm people who harm people to teach people that harming people is wrong?”
The Restorative Justice vision moves away from a warmaking, “stigmatizing shaming” scapegoat mechanism to a “reintegrative shaming”, peacemaking way of nonviolence in a bid to break definitively with the endless cycles of recurrent scapegoating violence in Western and Western-based criminal justice.
lease click on: Restorative Justice Then, Now and a Dream
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- See Gorringe (1996).↩
- Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison (1978) presents this well. Professor Redekop has been working creatively in conflict studies for decades. You may see more of his work, also in relation to René Girard, here: http://ustpaul.ca/index.php?mod=employee&id=48, last accessed March 20, 2017.↩
- Gil Bailie (1995) supplies a particularly sinister example, the 1989 execution of serial killer Theodore Bundy, when hundreds of men, women and children camped outside the Florida prison in a festive spirit one reporter likened to a Mardi Gras. The same reporter described the event as:
… a brutal act… [done] in the name of civilization (p. 79).
Bailie reflects on that commentary thus:
It would be difficult to think of a more succinct summation of the underlying anthropological dynamic at work: a brutal act done in the name of civilization, an expulsion or execution that results in social harmony. Clearly, after the shaky justifications based on deterrence or retribution have fallen away, this is the stubborn fact that remains: a brutal act is done in the name of civilization. If we humans become too morally troubled by the brutality to revel in the glories of the civilization made possible by it, we will simply have to reinvent culture. This is what Nietzsche saw through a glass darkly. This is what Paul sensed when he declared the old order to be a dying one (I Cor. 7:31). This is the central anthropological issue of our age (ibid,p. 79, emphasis in original).↩
-  The classic book on this idea is Braithwaite (1989). A good brief online resource is here.↩