Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The anarchist genius of restorative justice?

Do "Grandpa" Zehr's lenses have an anarchist tint?
(Dr. Howard Zehr)
One of my abiding interests during and after my time studying at Eastern Mennonite University was the influence of Anabaptist-Mennonite thought and practice in the formation of the modern restorative justice movement, whose "grandfather," Howard Zehr, was my professor and mentor. (I wrote a paper about the subject, which was later published here.)

Howard has gone on record as saying his intellectual formation was influenced in part by the late Mennonite pacifist theologian, John Howard Yoder (to whom Howard was related; gotta love that Swiss-South German Mennonite gene pool!). And while I've never picked Howard's brain about the particulars of this influence, my imagination continues to look for hints and echoes of Yoder's thought in the vision for restorative justice that Howard taught me.

One thing I've picked out that Howard seems to have affirmed in my paper is the Anabaptist suspicion of the state, rooted in the early movement's historical experience of persecution in the 16th century at the hands of magisterial church-state arrangements. This suspicion of the state and its "wielding of the sword"/"carrying out justice" is one thing that  I argue influenced the formation of the restorative justice movement, and is a critique that remains implicit in restorative justice as I've received it. (More importantly and positively, I argued that it was the movement's ecclesial/social imagination that made it possible for Mennonites in Canada and the U.S. in the 1970s to come up with programs that would eventually get called "restorative justice.")

But back to that suspicion of the state - This is what I think connects Anabaptism and restorative justice to yet another movement: anarchism. In a recent post on his Thinking Pacifism blog, Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud surveys a very compelling paper on the thought of John Howard Yoder and various forms of anarchism, written by Ted Troxell, a professor at Central Michigan University.

Troxell argues that earlier forms of anarchism held a deep suspicion/cynicism toward the state, and often actively sought its abolition. More recent developments in the field of anarchism, however, namely postanarchism, take a more nuanced and tactical (rather than strategic) approach to realizing anarchism's positive aims: "freedom and...decentralized ways of organizing social life," as Grimsrud points out. And this is where Troxell see's Yoder's thought connecting, i.e. in postanarchism.

Yoder's radical theological commitments led him to what Troxell calls a:
structural indifference to the state: it is not that the state is unimportant or inconsequential on a practical level, but that neither the existence of the state nor the particular shape it takes is the primary locus of the community’s political considerations. (47, Troxell’s emphasis)
 Grimsrud then argues:
When the focus is on constructing decentralized spaces to be humane more than concentrated efforts at overthrowing the state, the emphasis will be on the practices that sustain that humaneness—another point of close connection between Yoder’s thought and postanarchism.
And now we come full circle to restorative justice! RJ has been described as a more humane response (than the state's response) to wrongdoing and harm done in families, communities, and societies.

Perhaps there are rich possibilities in further unpacking the intersection of Yoderian-Anabaptist theology and (post)anarchism, and their intersection with restorative justice (hence the question mark in the title). The implications of this three-way intersection cut back all three directions, and I have an interest in all of them:
  • As a lay theologian, I'm interested in further exploring Yoder's thought that just keeps going deeper for me
  • As a periodic adjunct professor of peacebuilding and restorative justice, I'm interested in the more radical dimensions of these movements in order to "radicalize" students, in that I seek to broaden their political and social imaginations beyond the so-called "real" or "self-evident" structures of society (that I see as inherently violent)
  • As a missional minister interested in church-planting, how these theological and ethical commitments shape a dreamed-of fellowship in our worshiping and world-serving life together as a site of the body of Christ

[Update: This post has since been slightly edited and re-posted at Howard Zehr's and Carl Stauffer's RJ blog, as well as at Mennonite World Review; thanks to both for picking it up!]

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