Friday, March 11, 2011

Restorative or transformative theology?

in Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Howard Zehr
For the past few years I've had the joy of assisting Howard Zehr in the administration of his restorative justice blog. As I mentioned in my very first post back in October 2009, the name of this blog - Restorative Theology - takes its cue from the field that Howard helped shape over 30 years ago, a field in which I've studied and done a small amount of work. So in addition to simply helping administer, I also look at Howard's blog as a conversation partner to this one.

Howard's posts tend to be be reflective inquiries into the state of restorative justice as it's presently understood and practiced. Perhaps the primary concern in his work at this stage of his career is helping practitioners in various arenas keep true to what he sees as the values and principles of restorative justice. He's just put up an interesting post with the following query:


Read on for some of the ways in which I think a theological conversation shifts the concerns underlying such a question. I'll also make a case for restorative, transformative, and theopolitical Christian practices...


Restoring what, exactly?
As Howard indicates in his post, the word "restorative" has been a focus of debate since the term's inception. Perhaps for some, "(r)estorative justice may be too backward-looking, seeking to restore something that is unattainable, undesirable or never existed." These are important challenges that should inform restorative justice work at a practical level. But Christians thinking theologically about the work of restoration and justice have an important faith teaching to hold in view: Sin. That shadowed nature of our existence leads to an understanding that any talk of restoration is a yearning to be brought back into a fuller light, a closer walk with God as we find in Jesus. Salvation described in a way more akin to Old Testament teachings - i.e. not simply what happens to us when we die, but what salvation means here and now - has a lot to say about restoration and faithful living, including in our work for justice. (This is not to say salvation in the New Testament has nothing to say on these here-and-now matters, but it's perhaps easier to illustrate with pre-Hellenistic biblical narrative.) So from a theological perspective, it strikes me that talk of restoration is a perfectly good frame of reference that we shouldn't get too anxious about.

Toward transformation
But there's also much to commend for the word "transformation." In practice, Howard has seen that restorative justice work has fallen short at times to limiting the work of justice to personal and interpersonal dimensions - victim and offender at the bare minimum, families and communities as you step out in scope - leaving systems which nurtured such instances of wrongdoing untouched and unchallenged. Transformative justice advocates want to go further, to start affecting change at societal levels in order to create more just systems, to mitigate conditions which foster crime in the first place. Howard laments that "while restorative justice often seems to create awareness of larger social issues, unfortunately I hear fewer stories of true social transformation."

This is where I go theopolitical
While Christians can and perhaps should at times engage in movements that seek to bring about societal change for the goal of relative justice for those groups marginalized by society (a liberal approach), they should do so with extreme caution and have an awareness of what they're getting themselves into. Engaging in the machinery of political social change is a big, big step into a big, big world. To simply equate our Christian faith with such a move is a dangerous one and it's often the integrity of the Church, the body of Christ, that suffers such a move. To be fair in my critique, there is an analogous conservative approach which, while espousing different ends ("taking back" or restoring America, for instance), increasingly uses the same tactics of social movements and so underneath is really no different than the liberal approach. Same means, different ends. It is the means, and the story which makes such means possible in the first place, that are seductive for American Christians. (For more, see my engagement with Taylor, Rowe, and Hunter.)

For Christians, the work of restoration, transformation, and justice is best understood as taking place in the Church, and these things are God's work that we are blessed to take part in, if we are faithful. Does this mean that Christians can't work for those things in "secular" society? Of course not! Such work for justice and transformation can happen primarily in church contexts, both locally in the congregation but also at higher levels of church (I advocate for the former, which sadly is rarely the case). Done in such a way at the local level, this work is deeply rooted in the worshiping life of the congregation and is thereby infused with a missional impulse.

But the reality is that much restorative justice work happens in organizations lodged in civil society and not the church. So there's a tricky dialectic, a lived tension, that Christians in the field should be aware of and so seek to do faithful "translation" as they work, imagining how their work might look more relatively Christ-like. It's worth saying that this same lived tension happens inside church life itself, but the resources there are clustered in such a way as to make the tension more tolerable and the theopolitical imagination more acute and active. Of course Christian restorative justice practitioners can't run around talking like this because it's ridiculous to assume that most people in the field and most people whom you're serving would even understand such language. So, again, the translation step is an important one.

Restorative-transformative theology and witness
To close I'll say that the theological reflections I've offered on the field of restorative justice are both restorative and transformative. First, they seek to restore a holistic understanding of the vocation of theology. Theology done strictly for theologians in the academy is not theology that I want to be a part of. Theology needs to matter to local expressions of the body of Christ as it also needs to be helpful for Christians who are working professionally outside of church contexts, in restorative justice or any field for that matter. It seeks to restore a broadly participatory approach to being Church, understanding that it takes all of us, not just the paid professional we call "pastor," to strive toward faithfulness in the body of Christ.

Finally, Church so understood and performed is transformative, both for the faith community itself and the world to which it is ministering. Being united and animated by the Holy Spirit in our missional worship leads to, by its own logic, compelling and organic forms of ministry that sustain the worship of God and reflect God's glory throughout our work-a-day lives as Christians. Or as Paul says, "we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18, NIV).

These are somewhat idealistic aspirations but they're meant to be realistic and do-able. Certainly challenges abound both inside the church and in broader society, and I have no "5 steps to achieve congregational awesomeness" to recommend. Where to begin will depend on each local expression of Church and where they currently sit in relation to God and their neighbors, all of whom they're called to love in costly ways.

Where does your congregation sit in relation to these challenges? Where can your fellow sisters and brothers in Christ catch a vision for God's justice and God's peace in your community and the broader society? How can such vision and mission be infused into the worshiping life of the congregation?

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