Is justice about restoration or retribution?

In the summer of 2012, an angry, racist man set off a bomb in a downtown, then, while all the emergency responders were helping there, he drove to a summer camp and massacred 60 campers and adults before being captured by authorities. However, because this happened in Norway, which has adopted a justice system focused on restoration instead of retribution, where the death penalty has not existed for over a century, and even life sentences are forbidden, he was given the maximum sentence of 21 years. For many Americans, this is not justice. But many Americans, even the Christians, think justice is about retribution, punishment, and vengeance. This idea of justice colors our American understanding of the Bible when it comes to the topic of hell.


Restorative justice, when examined as practiced today, offers an intriguiging, hopeful, and aspirational alternative to justice as we Americans consider it. In my mind, it also offers a different way to think of hell, that does not add to yet another reason to consider the American Christian God as a monster.


Please consider how this trial proceeded, as described in the Atlantic.


Proponents of this system might argue that it emphasizes healing: for the victims, for the society, and, yes, for the criminal him or herself..."Restorative justice thus begins with a concern for victims and how to meet their needs, for repairing the harm as much as possible, both concretely and symbolically," explains a 1997 academic article, by a scholar of restorative justice named Howard Zehr, extolling the systems' virtues. In the Breivik trial, this meant giving every victim (survivors as well as the families of those killed) a direct voice. Victims were individually represented by 174 court-appointed lawyers. The court heard 77 autopsy reports, 77 descriptions of how Breivik had killed them, and 77 minute-long biographies "voicing his or her unfulfilled ambitions and dreams." In an American-style retributive system, the trial is primarily about hearing and evaluating the case against the criminal. Norway does this too, but it also includes this restorative tool of giving space to victims, not as evidence, but to make the trial a forum for those victims to heal and to confront the man who'd harmed them. The trial itself is about more than just proving or disproving guilt, but about exorcising the victims' suffering.


Every victim’s family is heard. Every victim’s life is honored in the trial. The hope is for the offender to recognize the humanity in those he harmed and to acknowledge the damage, hurt, and immorality of his actions. In this circumstance, the killer has not, but he is only 2 years into his sentence. In the meanwhile he is in a Norwegian high security prison, which is unlike any high security prison in the US.


In a New York Times article earlier this year, the Norwegian prison system is described,

“Better out than in” is an unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service, which makes a reintegration guarantee to all released inmates. It works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens…
In officer-­training school, he explained, guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is something they should do not for the inmates but for themselves. The theory is that if officers are taught to be harsh, domineering and suspicious, it will ripple outward in their lives, affecting their self-­image, their families, even Norway as a whole. Kristoffersen cited a line that is usually attributed to Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”


Watch a short video from Vice about a prison in Norway.

This transformation can happen before prison, before a crime. It sometimes happens when people practice the enemy love ethic modeled and taught by Jesus. Here are two examples from an article in the Guardian written after a different killer entered a Swedish school with a sword and starting attacking immigrant children.


We know “normal” people can be drawn to extremism and violence, but also that normal people can help bring others out of extremism. One example is Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi who was deeply involved in the white power movement, and who was first shaken from those views by a black woman at a McDonald’s cash register who met his hatred with unconditional kindness.
Another example is the late Johnny Lee Clary, a former Ku Klux Klan leader. Clary was invited on to Oklahoma radio to debate with Rev Wade Watts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; he abused Watts and attempted to intimidate him. Clary explained later in a YouTube video how a black man’s kindness and forgiveness defeated his hate.

The Bible teaches that God’s followers should leave vengeance to him. Maybe that is because our attempts at justice are so immature, focusing on the short term self-satisfying retributive justice, instead of the long term community healing restorative justice. As I continue to read the gospel stories of Jesus, and reinterpret the rest of the scriptures in light of his example, believing that God is indeed love in essence and Jesus is the best demonstration of who God is, I think hell is not about retribution, but restoration and healing.

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