Category Archives: Restorative justice

Violence as a theological problem

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.2

[Published in Justice Reflections, Issue 10, #70 (December 2005), 1-25.]

We live in a world where all too many people “purposefully contribute to the harm of another human being, either by action or inaction” (my working definition of violence).  In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises, how do we respond to violence, how do we respond to evil?

Despite widespread occurrences of inter-human violence, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to evolve to the point it has. In human experience people need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoid lethal violence.  To act violently, especially to kill other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with a rationale that justifies its use. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked in the criminal justice system for many years, argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[1]

Other more obviously rational uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (that is, repayment of violence with violence, pain with pain).

The legitimacy of retribution is widely accepted in the United States.  Where does this commitment to retribution come from? One key source is Christian theology, the belief that retribution is God’s will, or that the need for retribution stems from the nature of the universe.   That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most Western Christians believe, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading

The justice of God in the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.11

[This essay was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-52.]

For the person seeking to gain a Christian theological perspective on justice, it is likely not self-evident that the Book of Revelation would be a crucial source.  For example, Jose Miranda’s well-known study, Marx and the Bible,[1] only tangentially refers to Revelation, and the biblical chapter in the United States Catholic bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on the US economy does not refer even once to Revelation.

We can paraphrase Tertullian’s famous question: What has Patmos to do with Rome?  What do these obscure and seemingly fanciful visions have to do with justice in the real world? I will attempt to show that they have a great deal of relevance.

Does Revelation picture God and God’s justice in such a way as to make it illegitimate to apply Jesus’ teaching about God being the model of Christians’ loving their enemies to a rejection to a rejection of Christian involvement in warfare? Is the justice of God in Revelation punitive, angry, and vengeful in such a way that it becomes a warrant for acts of human “justice” such as just wars, capital punishment, a harsh and strictly punitive prison system, and a “big stick” foreign policy that seeks to punish “ungodly” and “unjust” enemies.

Is this really the view of God’s justice presented in Revelation?  My thesis is that it is not, that just as Jesus and Paul give us a picture of God’s justice that is different from the justice of “the nations,” so too does John. Continue reading

Justice in the New Testament

Ted Grimsrud

In the Christian tradition, “justice” has often been seen as something far removed from Jesus’ life and teaching. However, when we posit a polarity between Jesus’ message and justice we undermined both our ability to understand justice in more redemptive and restorative terms and our ability to see in Jesus a political approach that indeed speaks directly to the “real world.”

Jesus and God’s Healing Strategy

Several Old Testament terms describe God’s healing work—shalom (peace), hesed (loving kindness), mispat and tsedeqah (righteousness/justice) prominent among them.  These terms often cluster together in a mutually reinforcing way.

Just a few examples include Micah 6:8 (“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness?”), Psalm 85:10-11 (“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the sky.”), and Psalm 89:14 (“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”).

Jesus understood himself (and was confessed thus by early Christians) to fulfill the message of Torah.  He makes the call to love neighbors, to bring healing into broken contexts, and to offer forgiveness and restoration in face of wrongdoing central.

As he began his ministry, Jesus clarified his healing vocation in face of temptations to fight injustice with coercion and violence.  He made clear that genuine justice has not to do with punishing wrongdoers nor with a kind of holiness that cannot be in the presence of sin and evil. Rather, genuine justice enters directly into the world of sin and evil and seeks in the midst of that world to bring healing and transformation—a restoration of whole relationships. Continue reading

Beyond Vengeance

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2011

When human beings are violated in major ways, profound needs are created in the survivors.  By “survivors” we mean people who survive violent acts themselves and those left when one of their loved ones’ lives is taken in violence.  Major violations create for survivors the need to restore their dignity, sense of identity, selfhood, and honor.  We have several ways we might restore our dignity: taking personal revenge, relying on the state’s retribution, and seeking some sort of vindication that restores the sense of selfhood without exacting vengeance on the wrongdoer.  I believe the third path best opens the way to restored wholeness.


I will define “revenge” and “retribution” as pointing toward two distinct, though overlapping, responses to violations.  Revenge occurs when people, in response to violations, seek to retaliate, responding to wrongdoing apart from “official” governmental channels.  Retribution occurs when the state takes over for the victim (and victims’ associates).  State involvement brings formal procedures to apprehend, try, offer judgment, and punish the offender.

A major violation leads to the victim feeling diminished.  When people feel damaged, they tend to want to get even.  Being violated leads to a loss of dignity and a powerful sense of shame.  A violated person may feel a powerful drive to do something that will restore their sense of honor.  In many cultures, people assume that ones restore this lost sense of honor by retaliating against the violator.  Social pressure plays a large role in pushing people to seek vengeance, especially in contexts where a high premium is placed on reputation and honor. Continue reading

Old Testament Bases for Christian Peace Theology

Ted Grimsrud

[Paper presented to the Scripture and Contextual Ethics Section at the American Academy of Religion annual meetings, Atlanta, Georgia—November 1, 2010]

The “just peacemaking” project that brought together Christian ethicists holding both to pacifism and to versions of the just war theory but united in the goal of “abolishing war”[1] has made a great start in a practical effort to overcome the curse of war. The desire to expand the project beyond Christianity is welcome—in fact absolutely necessary.

My paper points in two mutually reinforcing directions—one is to challenge Christians in our understanding of the bases for our peace theology, the second is to work at finding common ground between Christian peace theology and other traditions (most obviously Judaism, but potentially beyond).

The Old Testament as a Problem

Christian peace theology tends to be New Testament centered, especially drawing on the gospels. Most Christians would seem to assume that the Old Testament has little to offer for the work of overcoming war and violence. The comment of a friend of mine many years ago may be representative. We were in a Bible study group together and when someone suggested we study something from the Old Testament, my friend snorted and stated flatly, “I don’t want anything to do with that bloody book!” And many Christians who have wanted something to do with the Old Testament, going back to Augustine, have mainly used it as a justification for the acceptability of warfare. Continue reading

Jesus’ “Story of Two Sons” and Our Metaphysics

I reflect on Jesus’ famous parable, often called the “prodigal son” in my December 12, 2010 sermon—the tenth in my series on Luke’s Gospel.

Importantly, we should notice that Jesus’ story begins with “there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). The focus is on the father and both sons. The story doesn’t end with the younger son’s return. Rather, the story ends with the father’s unanswered plea to the older son to join in the party celebrating the return of his brother.

I approach the story in the light of big questions we have in today’s world about why so many people in our American society are so accepting of violence. I suggest one big issue is our metaphysics (our views of “what is” and “what it’s like”). I counter pose a metaphysics of redemptive violence with a metaphysics of mercy.

Jesus affirms a metaphysics of mercy—he tells his powerful story of the two sons in response to “grumbling” from religious leaders about his merciful ways (that reflect his understanding of reality as “mercy all the way down”).

The sermon may be found here: it’s called “Metaphysical Therapy.” The other sermons in the series may be found here.

The Bible’s Salvation Story

One of the areas with the intense debate in recent Christian theology has been understandings of salvation. Much of the debate has focused on theories of the atonement, theologies of the cross, interpretations of theologians such as Anselm and Luther, views of the doctrines of Christian tradition.

Not so much attention has been paid to the biblical portrayals of salvation, except as viewed through the lenses of the various atonement theories. I have been working on a book that does indeed focus directly on biblical theology. I have gotten quite a bit done on this project; I am calling it: Mercy Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story. I mostly need yet to flesh out the chapter on salvation in the book of Revelation and to complete a concluding chapter, “Is There an Atonement Theory in This Story?”

Since I am focusing my energies elsewhere for the time being (and since I have struck out so far in my tentative attempts to find a publisher), I will post here on the manuscript as far as it has been developed.

Theology for Restorative Justice

I am working on a book with the tentative title, Healing Justice (and Theology): An Agenda for Restoring Wholeness.  This small book is meant to be both an introduction to the emerging practices of restorative justice that seek to provide an alternative to the spiral of violence characteristic of our current criminal justice system and an analysis of theological resources that might undergird a Christian approach to restorative justice.

I start with an summary of some of the current dynamics in North America that are placing us in an ever-deepening crisis. At the heart of this crisis, I suggest, is a problematic commitment to what I call the “logic of retribution” that rather than leading to healing of the alienation caused by crime instead mainly heightens the alienation. This logic of retribution has theological roots and hence needs to be challenged on a theological level.

The bases for an alternative approach to justice, one that focuses on restorative rather than retributive dynamics, may be found in the Bible. I look at the big storyline of the Bible and then more closely at the portrayal of justice in the book of Amos, the life and teaching of Jesus, and the early Christian writings of Romans and Revelation.

The concludes with a summary of present-day efforts to embody restorative justice practices and to provide alternatives to the spiral of vengeance.

These are links to the book’s nine chapters:

1. Introduction: An Agenda for Restoring Wholeness

2. Our Current Crisis

3. The Logic of Retribution and Its Consequences

4. Healing Theology: A Biblical Overview

5. Old Testament Justice (Amos)

6. Jesus and Justice

7. Justice in Romans and Revelation

8. Putting Restorative Justice into Practice

9. Restoring Wholeness: The Alternative to Vengeance


Son of Adam, Son of God

Why do we pay attention to Jesus? I think there are many good reasons people do—some not so good reasons, too, I suppose.  I am choosing to focus on the good reasons.  But I think that whatever reason we might have for paying attention to Jesus, we benefit from looking carefully at what the Bible tells us about him.

This morning, I preached the third of what I hope will be a 13-part series of sermons on Jesus.  I called it, “Son of Adam, Son of God.” My purpose was to consider what the Bible has in mind when it calls Jesus “Son of God.”  Actually, as this sermon focuses on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:1-13), the focus is on what the meaning of “Son of God” in relation to Jesus is not.  In a nutshell, Jesus is tempted with using his status as Son of God as a means of exercising power over in bringing in God’s kingdom.

“Son of God” in relation to Jesus has to do with his approach to politics—what kind of king will Jesus be?  Jesus is indeed political, but it’s a politics of compassion and empowering others, not a politics of domination and self-serving.

Healing Justice

Here is a link to an article I published in The Mennonite, October 20, 2009.  The article, “Healing Justice,” is an introduction to a theological rationale for the concept of restorative justice.

The United States currently in the midst of a terrible crisis wherein our criminal justice system undermines public safety and violates the principles of genuine justice and fairness.  One reason people in our society accept such a destructive dynamic is theology that justifies a “logic of retribution” leading to strong support for violent punishment.

Biblically, justice has more to do with healing than with punishment—as we see in looking at several representative texts.  Jesus (echoing the Old Testament prophets) calls us to heal our concept of justice in order to embrace a justice that heals.