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Jul 22, 2013 | The Rev. Lillian Hyde

Hyde: What Does Jesus Ask of Us?

Restorative Justice ImageBefore I attended seminary, I was a law enforcement-based victim assistance coordinator in Mississippi. I worked with, and on behalf of, victims of violent crime. My office was in the downtown jail, next to the courthouse. Our department had a working penal farm, so I was also exposed to a number of convicted felons.


I saw what worked and what didn’t because of this first-hand experience with our judicial system—both with regard to victims of violent crime and offenders. Then, after about three years, I was introduced to the concept and practices of restorative justice. I became a passionate proponent, because it mirrors the biblical response to wrongdoing. When practiced properly, it works for victims, for offenders and for the community.


Jesus’ teachings are as relevant for victims of injustice today as they were in Nazareth 2000 years ago. My experience taught me that when a person becomes the victim of a crime, they want the offender to admit what he or she did; they want to be allowed to tell the offender how it affected them; they want the offender to be sorry, and say so; and they want the offender to be rehabilitated, so he or she won’t commit that same crime again.


This sounds exactly like what Jesus had in mind. But that’s not what crime victims in the United States typically experience. First of all, when a crime is committed, the two people most affected—the victim and the offender—are not included in the way the incident is treated by the system. The decisions are made by the prosecuting and defense attorneys and the judge. Manipulating procedures is more important than finding the truth. The victim is typically treated like a trespasser by law enforcement and by the prosecutor’s office. The case rarely goes to trial unless it will help the prosecutor be reelected. If the accused admits he did it, he loses his constitutional rights. The only time the victim is given a voice, or even addressed as having been part of the incident, is at the time of sentencing, because victims’ rights advocates have worked so hard to get it included in the law. It is usually at this stage that the victim requests the maximum punishment, because it is the only time the victim is allowed any voice. The maximum punishment is not what they really want. What they want was what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 18:15-20.


Justice in our system is defined as “exacting punishment,” rather than repairing the harm that was done to the victim or the community. The punishment is based on two erroneous assumptions—that the offender gave thought to the legal consequences before committing the act, and that the offender knew the effect his choices would have on the victim. Those are rarely the case. And there is no method by which the offender can earn his way back into full participation in the community.


There is nothing that a retributive system like ours will provide for the affected parties—the victim, the community or the offender—to repair the harm, or restore right relationships, as Jesus directs us.


Victim-offender mediation is possible in a few places, but only in certain cases, and only when the offender is already serving time. I have conducted some of these, and I can tell you that these encounters incorporate some of what Jesus had in mind. In other parts of the world, there are community reparative boards, and there are judicial systems that provide for holding the offender accountable, while repairing the harm done to the victim and the community—other than by disposing of the offending individual. These systems provide the means by which the offender can be reintegrated into the community. In these communities that come closer to practicing what Jesus taught about the response to wrongdoing, there is a very low rate of re-offending—seven percent, as opposed to the very high rate—eighty percent—in our own system.


When juveniles have to apologize to the people whose property they vandalized, and to the community, they don’t do it again. But here they are sent to a detention center and develop an “us vs. them” mentality. Imagine a society where restorative practices are begun at a very young age, with relatively minor offenses, so that very few people reach the point of major transgressions.


Here, today, we can’t overhaul the penal system of the U.S. But we can change the way we treat each other when we’ve been offended. After all, Jesus’ remarks began with an answer to a question, “if another church member sins against me, how often should I forgive?” For us, it should be that, as with the old Waylon Jennings song, “The Door Is Always Open” when someone offends us. If we believe that “the door is always open” for us with Jesus, that we are always able to confess our sins, and through Jesus, reconciled to God, then we should hold ourselves to that same standard, when we are offended by one another. And in making reconciliation possible, we become more nearly the community Jesus wants us to be.

The Rev. Lillian Hyde is a chaplain at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, Houston.