Change Font Size:   A A A

May 07, 2013 | Kirk Blackard

Restorative Justice is not Cheap Grace

Restorative justice involves generous helpings of grace, but not cheap grace.


We typically think of “grace” as unmerited salvation through the grace of God, or in an ethical sense a favor done freely without any claim or expectation of something in return. It sometimes seems like something for nothing. But in The Cost of Discipleship famed theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called grace for nothing—while the recipient continues to live in the same old sin—“cheap grace.” He wrote, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship …”


From a restorative justice perspective, cheap grace allows offenders to continue their bad behavior while believing their acts are justified through grace. Conversely, Bonhoeffer wrote that true Christian grace, “the treasure hidden in the field,” is costly. “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; …”


Tough on crime advocates often refer to restorative justice as soft, easy, or “hug-a-thug”—the essence of cheap grace. But genuine restorative justice involves costly grace. It focuses on the harm crime does to people and communities; requires offenders to be accountable for the consequences of their actions and responsible for repairing the harm they have done; and empowers the affected parties—victims, offenders, and the community—to find solutions through mutual, consensual decision making. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, restorative justice engages in intimate sharing/communion while also focusing on harm and calling for confession, endorses forgiveness but expects repentance, and strives for reconciliation but asks for restitution. Restorative justice offers grace, but not cheap grace.


Bonhoeffer emphasized the disciplines of Christian community as a way to combat the seductiveness of cheap grace. In restorative justice such disciplines start with judging, not in the biblically forbidden sense of condemning, but as an act of discerning between right and wrong and calling out the difference. Acknowledging right and wrong is necessary for an offender to understand the consequences of his actions, be accountable, focus on the harm he has done, and be a part of the solution. 


Cheap grace acts as if no wrong has been committed, excuses the inexcusable, tolerates the intolerable, or sweeps things under the rug. But not restorative justice. It offers costly grace that focuses on the harm done by holding perpetrators accountable and expecting them to repent and fulfill, either actually or symbolically, their responsibility to repair the harm done and find mutual solutions.


Restorative justice demands forgiveness that is more than a simple therapeutic absolution from guilt. It sees forgiveness as the restoration of communion and the reconciliation of brokenness that requires confession of past wrongs and commitment to a changed life through sincere repentance. This kind of forgiveness, by offenders of those who have hurt them and by those they have hurt, is necessary for the level of communion that can address harm and foster solutions.


Restorative justice requires the parties to address the harm they have done and find solutions through their mutual efforts. Such communion can only happen if the offender pays the price of reconciling with self, with God, and with others through mutual acceptance and appropriate restitution based on strength, love, and understanding. Restitution, what one actually does, either actually or symbolically, to make amends or indemnify another, is the essence of the restorative justice principle of repairing the harm done and a key part of the price of costly grace.


Such disciplines are costly to offenders. But when practiced with love, restorative justice programs that require them avoid the seductiveness of cheap grace, while providing a generous portion of grace that justifies offenders without justifying their bad behavior.


Blackard is chairman of the board, Bridges To Life Restorative Justice Ministry and author of Love in a Cauldron of Misery: Perspectives on Christian Prison Ministry.