Category Archives: Restorative justice

The prophet Amos and restorative justice

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.3

[Published in Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, Justice and Peace Shall Embrace: Power and Theo-Politics in the Bible: Essays in Honor of Millard Lind (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 1999), 64-85]

When I was a doctoral student in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of taking a year-long seminar on justice from Professor Karen Lebacqz of Pacific School of Religion.  At the time, Lebacqz was in the process of writing a two-volume theological study on justice.[1]  As we read and discussed works such as John Rawls’s classic, A Theory of Justice[2], and Robert Nozick’s critique and alternative, Anarchy, State, and Utopia[3], I found myself increasingly disenchanted with these modern philosophical theories.

I was uneasy with both points of view, and I saw them having many problems in common—things that were particularly troubling to me in light of my own faith commitments. They both share certain assumptions (or faith commitments) that are problematic.  I will mention a few, in general terms, not so much in an attempt to criticize them significantly, but more as a means of expressing part of my immediate motivation in seeing if an alternative might be constructed.

Briefly, these assumptions (sometimes more true of one than the other, but largely applicable to both) include:

(1) a fundamental rationalism, an assumption that we can come up with a notion of justice which all “reasonable” people can accept;

(2) an emphasis on self-interest, a kind of faith that a balance of self-interest can lead to the common good for society;

(3) individualism, a locating of the basic unit of moral discernment with the autonomous individual;

(4) an emphasis on what seem to be quite abstract principles such as “equality,” “fairness,” “liberty,” “entitlement,” etc.;

(5) a utopianism (in the sense of utopia = “nowhere”) which is ahistorical and not closely tied to historical developments concerning genuine injustices and genuine practices of justice;

(6) a bracketing of any discussion of religious and faith and rejection of any notion of “particularlism;”

(7) a focus on western consumptive goods and notions of liberty as if these are the ultimate human values.

Out of my unease with this general approach to justice, I decided to look at the Bible to see if it might contain something that might provide help in formulating an alternative approach.  I wrote a letter to my seminary Old Testament professor, Millard Lind of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, asking if he had any help to offer.  Professor Lind kindly sent me several papers, including a most helpful unpublished (at that time) essay, “Transformation of Justice:  From Moses to Jesus.”[4] Lind is one of the few pacifist theologians and biblical scholars I am aware of who has accepted the challenge to attempt to rethink justice.  A pacifist theory of justice that would serve as an alternative to the problematic approaches mentioned above continues to be an urgent need.[5]

This essay is only one more fragmentary attempt to point toward a thorough-going Christian pacifist approach to justice.  One of my main arguments, following Lind, is that the Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a resource.  In fact, if we can get beyond what Canadian social theorist George Grant called “English-speaking justice”[6] (or, said in other words, beyond the western philosophical tradition represented in recent years by Rawls and Nozick) and look at the biblical materials concerning justice (including the Old Testament) on their own terms, we will find that they are a tremendous resource for a pacifist approach to justice. Continue reading

Old Testament Peace Theology

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.1

[This paper was presented to the Contextual Ethics section of the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Atlanta, November 2010. It was published in Ted Grimsrud, Arguing Peace: Collected Pacifist Writings, Volume 3: Biblical and Theological Essays (Peace Theology Books, 2014, 18-31.]

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.

So it’s no surprise when a Christian peace theologian such a Jack Nelson-Pallmyer writes a polemical book critiquing Christian acceptance of violent theology, he would portray the Old Testament mainly as a problem.[2] Every Fall I teach an undergrad class called “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” to students who by and large are Christian pacifists of a fairly theologically conservative stripe (mostly Mennonites). Rare is the student who doesn’t see the Old Testament as a major problem.

Even peace theologians who don’t share Nelson-Pallmyer’s antipathy toward the Old Testament (such as John Howard Yoder, Glen Stassen, and Walter Wink) nonetheless do little to develop a positive Old Testament centered peace theology.[3]

Happily, numerous Old Testament scholars have helped us make progress in understanding the Hebrew scriptures as conveying a message of peace, not only giving us problems to overcome in constructing a biblically-based peace theology.[4] But as yet, these scholars have mainly produced careful historical and textual studies more than constructive biblically based peace theologies. Continue reading

A Theological Critique of Corporal Punishment

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.4

[Presented at the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” October 1999]

What difference does it make to assert that nothing is as important for our theology as pacifism (i.e., the cluster of values which include love, peace, shalom, wholeness, kindness, mercy, restorative justice, nonviolence, and compassion)?

I propose that one difference pacifism makes (or should make) is to cause pacifists to look critically at all justifications for violence – and to question all theological underpinnings for such justifications.  In this essay, I will focus critically on one case – theological underpinnings that help justify acting violently toward children (what is commonly called corporal punishment).

I want to reflect on six theses concerning the theological problem of the justification of violence against children.

(1) Human beings tend to be reluctant to act violently toward other human beings.  We usually require some kind of rationale to justify such violence.  We must believe some value is more important than nonviolence.  For Christians, this value or conviction is usually expressed in terms of “God’s will.”

(2) A theological framework, that I will call “the logic of retribution”, underlies the rationale for the use of violence against children.  In “the logic of retribution,” God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness.  God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured.  Human beings are inherently sinful.  God’s response to sin is punitive.  Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings escaping their deserved punishment.

(3) Consistent pacifists must raise theological concerns here.  When God is understood, as with the logic of retribution, primarily in terms of impersonal holiness, legal requirements, and strict, vengeful justice, the biblical picture of God as relational, compassionate, and responsive is distorted.

(4) Not only is it justified according to problematic theological assumptions, corporal punishment also has problematic practical consequences.  It may well intensify the dynamic of responding to violence with violence, actually educating young people into the practice of using violence.  It may also contribute to a stunted experience of life for its recipients.

(5) Given that all theology is humanly constructed, we may (and must) reconstruct our understanding of God in order to foster consistently pacifist theology and practice.

(6) Foundational for such a theological reconstruction, the Bible may be read as providing bases for a “logic of restoration.”  According to the logic of restoration, God’s holiness is personal, flexible, dynamic, and relational.  God’s justice is concerned with restoring relationships and community wholeness, not with punishment, vengeance, and balancing the impersonal scales of an eye for an eye.  God’s mercy is unconditional, not dependent upon human beings in any sense earning it. Continue reading

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.

Revenge

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