Tag Archives: Criminal justice

A Theology for Restorative Justice

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.5

[Co-authored with Howard Zehr; published in Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 35.3/4 (Fall 2002), 259-285.] 

“The whole trouble,” Leo Tolstoy wrote about the criminal justice system, “is that people think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love, but no such circumstances ever exist.  Human beings cannot be handled without love.  It cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the fundamental law of human life.”[1]

Our criminal justice system certainly is troubled by tendencies to treat some people (offenders and victims) without love; the consequences are costly.[2] From a Christian perspective, and simply for the sake of social wellbeing in our society, we need to challenge those tendencies.

This paper will address three issues:  (1) On what bases do people think they can deal with offenders without love?  That is, what views of God, ultimate reality, and justice justify unloving (retributive) approaches to criminal justice?  (2) Is it possible to construct an understanding of God, ultimate reality, and justice, based on the founding texts of the Christian tradition (i.e., the Bible), which supports Tolstoy’s assertion about the fundamental law of life being love?  (3) Is it possible in “real life” to approach criminal justice issues from the point of view of Tolstoy’s assertion that love is foundational?

Concepts of God and retributive justice:  A summary and critique

Despite the widespread occurrence of inter-human violence throughout most of recorded history, few people would deny that most human beings have an inclination to avoid violence toward other human beings.  In human experience we usually need some overriding reason to go against this inclination.  That is, to act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value, commitment or instinct overrides the inclination not to be violent.

Punishment involves, by definition, the intentional infliction of pain and the use of coercion and thus must be seen as a form of violence.  Punishment by the state, then, is morally problematic as it involves the state doing things that are normally considered morally and socially unacceptable.  The problematic nature of punishment has given rise to a huge variety of justifications for delivering such pain.

In the criminal justice tradition of the Western world, the overriding justifications given for violently punishing offenders, even to the point of death, have and continue to be tied to a certain understanding of ultimate reality.  In this view, ultimate reality requires retributive justice when fundamental natural or divine laws are violated.  Such “retributive justice” is seen to restore the moral balance.  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

Pacifism With Justice (13)

Restorative justice is a recent movement in the criminal justice arena that has sought to foster more humane approaches to dealing the offenders. This essay, “Theology and Restorative Justice,” which part of my book-in-process, Pacifism with Justice: The Biblical and Theological Case, looks at the theological and historical roots of restorative justice and how its philosophy differs from standard, retributive approaches.

Pacifism With Justice (12)

Where does violence come from? What about the desire for retribution? Are there theologies that undergird violence? These are crucial questions for constructing a theology of Christian pacifism. They are addressed in this essay,“Theology, Retribution, and the Ways of Peace”, part of my book in process: Pacifism with Justice: The Biblical and Theological Case.