Life operates on a deal-breaker basis. If I make dinner, Matthew does the washing up. If you don’t pay your TV licence, that man from the ad will be knocking at your door. If you murder someone, you go to prison. If you do something wrong, you get your due punishment. That’s the deal that we all sign into so we can live in vague harmony. We call it “justice.”
If you dig a bit into the reality of your life however, you may find an uncomfortable feeling that actually justice doesn’t always work. Some people trick the system and “get away with murder.” Some play by all the rules and then the one time they go a tiny bit over the speed limit, they get fined and penalty-pointed. Others spend huge legal fees fighting a battle only to realize that the cost and emotional stress of the whole ordeal caused them even deeper unhappiness. Some spend a couple of years in prison and then come out to commit the same crimes that put them behind bars. Does it really make that much difference?
What if justice isn’t simply about punishing the guilty?
The past few years has seen an increase in an alternative understanding of justice that aims towards the restoration of the victim, offender and community, rather than simple punishment. In 2012, two young lads went around a small village in the midlands trashing the place. They slashed tyres, burnt wheelie-bins and smashed flowerpots. Instead of sending these young men to prison, the judge ruled that they could undertake a Restorative Justice programme in which everybody involved got together, told their stories and worked to make amends and rebuild the community. The process was constructive rather than destructive.
Lets crank it up a gear… what happens when a sex offender leaves prison? Most people are aware of the fact that sex offenders often reoffend. Prison has failed. Yes they have been punished, but it doesn’t necessarily make society any safer or better off. We’ve reached an awkward moment.
We need to think outside the box. The Mennonites in Canada have. They have set up Circles of Support and Accountability in which 6 or 7 trained volunteers agree to form a “circle” which includes one sex offender exiting prison. The group spends at least a year meeting weekly together, and the sex offender must meet at least one person from the group each day to go for a walk, have a coffee or engage in therapy. The volunteers essentially sacrifice their time and effort to help one individual learn to re-socialise and revalue themselves. The programme has proved more successful than anything else the Canadian Government has tried and has therefore been adopted as part of the official treatment options.
Jesus did not come to punish but to restore.
Yet in order to have a restored relationship with Him, sin must be accounted for. Punishment is due. But what Jesus shows us is that punishment can in fact be a means to reconciliation, rather than an end in itself. After all, “the punishment that brought us peace was on him” (Isaiah 53:5). Justice is achieved even though the guilty did not suffer. As we learnt at the weekend away, God’s justice is about the accomplishment of reconciliation (see Isaiah 11).
More to come in this series…
The awkward moment when… you couldn’t be arsed, And more!