Like the shards of a broken mirror, the world around us reflects the brokenness of our institutions, communities, and individual lives. This brokenness is readily put on display in the context of our criminal justice system; in the lives of offenders and victims, and reverberating through the communities in which these crimes occur
With a system that emphasizes retributive justice, or the punishment of offenders, true justice is often lacking. Victims are left longing for answers, and communities left unchanged. It’s not to say that punishment is not necessary, but rather that justice for all—offender, victim, and communities effected—requires more. Here, restorative justice may play a role. Having been used to address systemic abuses through such things as truth commissions, restorative justice is increasingly being implemented more broadly in our criminal justice system in the forms of circle sentencing and community corrections.
Restorative justice has arisen as an approach to more holistically address the harms and needs—the roles and responsibilities—of all those involved. For victims, restorative justice seeks to give them a voice, empowering them to get answers to their questions, to express their pain and loss to offenders, and find vindication and healing. For offenders, it seeks to hold them accountable, emphasizing their responsibility and power to bring restitution, and move them towards positive change. And for communities, restorative justice is the starting point for reflecting on, and taking responsibility to affect action to deal with the underlying problems at the heart of so much of our crime: broken homes, broken neighborhoods, poverty, addiction, and abuse.
In the end, restorative justice is a path towards seeing true justice established in our world. It is an approach that takes the law seriously, but takes the complex nature of justice—the harms and needs of everyone involved—just as seriously. Through collaborative efforts that are missing in many of our world’s conflicts, restorative justice brings all involved together to affect the righting of wrongs—be it through restitution, retribution, reconciliation, or some combination thereof. As opposed to retributive forms of justice, it is an approach full of hope, healing, and the potential for bringing about tremendous good.
In many ways, it mirrors the justice and love of God in Christ, who not only took on Himself our punishment on the cross, but also gave us the hope of restoration, reconciliation, and renewal through His resurrection and ongoing reign in heaven. Whereas wrongdoing is a tear in the fabric of community and relationship—an abuse perpetrated against God’s intent for His creation—restorative justice points to the cosmic restoration that has already begun, and will be fulfilled, at the return of Christ. It is but another small, yet powerful way in which we begin to see that which will one day be a reality: the righting of all wrongs, the healing of all pain, and the renewal of all things shattered by the effects of sin in this present age.
Tyler Helfers is a campus minister at Iowa State University, overseeing Areopagus Campus Ministry. He and his wife, Christina, and their daughter, Karina, live in Ames and are a part of Trinity Christian Reformed Church. In addition to the ministry at the university, Tyler is interning with Pastor Rick Admiraal at New Life Prison Church as a part of his ongoing studies at Calvin Theological Seminary.