I always get a little nervous when people start invoking the Old Testament in relation to justice or morality. The Old Testament can be a little tricky in this regard. I have heard people justify vengeance and retribution (including capital punishment) by pointing to Exodus 21:23-25: 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (New Revised Standard Version). This is when I try to gently remind people that Christians are followers of Jesus. For those of us who believe Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, then it is our responsibility to view the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus to make sense of it.
In this particular case, the answer is straightforward because Jesus directly addressed the Old Testament scripture I just quoted. Matthew 5:38-42 records these words from Jesus:
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you (New Revised Standard Version).
Seems pretty unreasonable or incredibly naïve and certainly not very practical in the modern age, right? And yet there it is. It’s important to let this sink in because I think the teachings and example of Jesus are very relevant to the concept of justice. Jesus was constantly reaching out to the marginalized people of his day. The religious authorities of the time were constantly grumbling about how Jesus would interact and break bread with sinners and outcasts like the hated tax collectors. Now think about the many miracles of healing Jesus performed – making the blind to see, the lame to walk, casting out demons and healing all manner of other afflictions. One in particular that stands out for me is when Jesus heals the woman who has been suffering for years from constant bleeding, which may have been related to menstruation. She would have been considered by the religious authorities to be unclean and was no doubt socially and religiously isolated. When she was healed by Jesus, what he said to her was very striking, and it’s one instance where I prefer the King James Version translation of both Mark 5:34 and Matthew 9:22 – …thy faith hath made thee whole. Jesus restored people to wholeness. This is what restorative justice is all about – restoring individuals and communities to wholeness.
It’s a far cry from a criminal justice system that doles out punishment and seeks vengeance and retribution. I would go so far as to say that any form of societal justice that aims at anything other than restorative justice is in direct contradiction to the life and teachings of Jesus.
If you’re willing to accept this notion that all justice should be restorative (and if you’re a Christian, I kind of think you really do have to come to terms with this), what in the world are we supposed to do when the laws and systems of our society are based on principles that are largely the exact opposite of restorative justice?
For me, it means doing whatever I can to live out the principles restorative justice. It’s why I serve on the board of directors for the Monadnock Restorative Community, an organization working directly with women making the difficult transition from incarceration at the county jail back into the community. We’re providing mentoring and coaching services to help them navigate this transition and break what might otherwise become a vicious cycle of incarceration. I do this work because I believe everyone deserves a hand up after being smacked down by the criminal justice system. The more we can get the entire community working together towards restorative justice, the better off we’ll all be in the end.