July 9, 2023

In today’s reading, Jesus encounters a chief tax collector name, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a Publican for Rome. His job was not to collect taxes to be used for the benefit of the people of Israel. Instead, he collected taxes and gave the money to Rome. Publicans also became very wealthy by collecting taxes in excess of what Rome required and keeping the difference. To the people of Israel, someone like Zacchaeus was a traitor and a crook. In today’s time, Zacchaeus would be the equivalent of a Wall Street CEO who is doing shady business deals with a foreign country that works against the interests of the U.S.

When Jesus comes to Jericho, Zacchaeus goes to great lengths to see Jesus, by running ahead of the crowd and climbing up a tree. Perhaps he knew that he was in need of healing. Jesus must have seen it too, because Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus coming over is one of the key points in the story. Zacchaeus immediately says that he is going to make amends for the harm that he caused. Not only is he going to give back what he took. He is going to give back four times more than what he stole.

What Zacchaeus offered to do was to pay restitution to the people he harmed. Restitution is part of a process called Restorative Justice. Maybe you have heard of Restorative Justice in the news. It is becoming a common way to address harm someone has caused rather than going through the courts and the criminal justice system. The focus of RJ is on repairing harm rather than punishing the offender.

The Rev Fred Anderson describes the principles that form the foundation of Restorative Justice. First, authentic justice requires that it focus on the harm that has been done to people and to communities. Second, restorative justice emphasizes offender accountability and responsibility. Third, those most directly involved and effected by a crime should have the opportunity to participate fully in the response and restorative process, if they desire.

This is where retributive justice, which is what our current criminal justice system is based on, and restorative justice, that we often find promoted throughout scripture, differ.

With retributive justice…victims’ suffering is often ignored. With restorative justice…victims’ suffering is acknowledged.

With retributive justice…blame is central. With restorative justice…problem-solving is central.

With retributive justice…the focus is on the past. With restorative justice…the focus is on the future.

With retributive justice…differences are emphasized. With restorative justice… commonalities are searched out.

Restorative justice is a vision of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm through cooperative processes that include all “stakeholders,” including the person most directly affected by the crime (who is the victim), friends and family of the victim, friends and family of the offender, and members of the community. Restorative Justice recognizes that the entire community is also harmed even in a crime that directly affects only one or two people.

Professor Howard Zehr writes that “restorative justice REQUIRES, at minimum, that we address victims’ harms and needs, that we hold offenders accountable to put right those harms, and that we involve victims, offenders, and communities in the process.”

I volunteer with a local organization called Communities for Restorative Justice, or C4RJ for short. C4RJ works with local police departments to help juvenile offenders understand and repair the harm they have caused. Usually the incidents are minor, like shop lifting or, in one case, breaking into an unused building to play a game called Air Soft. Most of the time, they don’t even realize that their actions will have negative effects on others. However, as Restorative Justice is becoming more commonly used, the cases have also become more complex, including incidents such as assault and grand larceny.

Part of the restorative process is to bring all those who were affected together to try to understand what happened and how the offender, or offenders, can repair harm to the victim. Often the victims just want to understand why the incident happened. In one case that was very memorable to me, a group of kids decided to take golf carts joy riding around a golf course in the middle of the night. Things got out of hand and the kids tore up the golf course, destroyed one of the golf carts and cause $20,000 in damages. The owner of the golf course arrived the next morning to the damages. When people showed up to golf, they had to be turned away. The people who worked at the golf course had to fix all the damages. This was a ripple effect was the unintended consequences these kids didn’t anticipate or were aware of.

The owner of the golf course was obviously very upset by this and wanted to understand why these kids had done this. He felt like it was a personal attack against him or the golf course. In reality, these kids just weren’t aware of the effect their actions would have on other people.

In almost every incident, the offenders are not thinking. Often when I ask them if they thought they were doing something wrong at the time, they say no. They often don’t realize they did something wrong until the police get involved.

In C4RJ’s process, the victim, offender, the offender’s parents, the police, and case facilitators, who help the offender through the process, meet together to hear from the offender about what happened and why it happened. The victim shares how the incident impacted him or her and how others were also indirectly impacted. Then, everyone together discusses and agrees on what the offender needs to do to repair the harm. The victim has a voice in what the offender needs to do so that the victim will feel like the harm has been repaired.

Often the offenders do some community service, write letters to apologize not only to the victim but to others affected, such as their parents, and spend time reflecting on the decisions they made that led to the incident. The goal is for the offender to understand the decisions that led to the incident and where he or she could have made different choices that wouldn’t have led to causing someone harm.

Once the offender has completed all the items agreed upon to repair the harm, everyone involved, the victim, offender, offender’s parents, police officer, facilitators come back together and recognize what the offender has accomplish. The victims hear the offenders talk about what they have done to repair harm and what they have learned through the process. The offenders also have the opportunity to reassure the victim that the incident will not happen again to the victim or to anyone else.

In the case of the golf course, at the beginning of the process, the golf course owner was visibly upset by what had happened. At the end of the process, when we all came back together and the golf course owner, who had received an apology from the kids, had a chance to understand why these kids did what they did, was reimbursed for the damages and saw the work these kid did to make sure they never did this again, was noticeably much less upset than at the beginning of the process. He was able to accept their apology and move past the incident. This is one of the benefits that Restorative Justice can bring.

In John 14:27, Jesus says “Peace, I bring you.” I believe that at the end of the process, the golf course owner was able to find peace about the incident.

Data shows that Restorative Justice works as well or even better than the traditional criminal justice system. According to various studies, the recidivism, or reoffence rate with Restorative Justice is 15% and between 30-60% with the traditional criminal justice system. Victim satisfaction with Restorative Justice is 80% and just 55% with the traditional criminal justice system

Restorative Justice does not just apply to crimes and the criminal justice system, but also to heal relationships. It is an approach that can help individual and communities address harm and conflict. Restorative Justice is becoming more common in schools to help kids learn healthy ways to deal with conflict. It has been used in prisons to help inmates and violent offenders learn healthier way to deal with conflict. It has been used in various countries to respond to genocide and civil war. And it was part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring healing to South Africa after apartheid.

You may have noticed that I’ve said repair the harm a lot because this is the focus of RJ and this is the focus of how Zacchaeus responded to Jesus. Jesus told Zacchaeus that salvation had come to him because of his willingness to repair the harm that he had caused.

As I thought about Restorative Justice over the past few days and the struggles that this country is going through. I started wondering what would it look like if people listened to one another about how the current dynamics are affecting them and their communities. If people listened to one another about how the harm they have experienced could be repair. What if Restorative Justice could bring healing to our nation, communities and families. What if Restorative Justice was the way to salvation and new life? What if Restorative Justice was our way forward?

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