colorful valley

God’s Restorative Justice For All

In a video titled “Restorative Justice in Action: Teen Asks Forgiveness,”1 17-year-old Lil’ Mikey returns to the barbershop that he and two others robbed at gunpoint three years earlier and asks forgiveness of those he traumatized. He served time, fulfilling the punishment for the crime he committed, but he wanted to return to apologize and to make amends. Lil’ Mikey’s mentor says, “It takes a lot of guts to walk back on the surfaces you did dirt on.” One of the victims shares about the trauma she is still dealing with, years after the event. The emotions of fear and anxiety are real. Lil’ Mikey stands there taking it all in. He doesn’t respond defensively nor rationalize his behavior, but instead he remains present as emotions are shared. He listens and makes space for the pain, and in doing so, validates what they went through. Mid-conversation, one of those victims takes his hands, hugs him, and offers him care and blessing as she accepts his apology. Lil’ Mikey realized that his decisions, behavior, and choices on that day continue to impact people. By showing up and staying, he demonstrated a willingness to be vulnerable. What does justice look like for Lil’ Mikey, for those he victimized, and for the greater community? How does God’s justice connect their lives to each other?

We Belong to Each Other

This video is an example of how restorative justice can bring healing both to the one who commits the offense and to those hurt by it. The story also demonstrates how our wellness, our peace, and our very lives are intertwined. Mother Teresa famously said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Fuller professor Jude Tiersma Watson says, “We belong to each other, and together, we belong to God.”2 We do not live as islands to ourselves. By God’s design, our decisions, our words, and our lives impact each other. For good or for bad, we are connected. Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries says, “We’ve become focused on peace, justice and equality, when the truth is, none of those things can happen unless there’s some undergirding sense that we belong to each other, that we’re connected, that we matter.”3 When Lil’ Mikey asked for forgiveness, he began to see how intertwined his life was with those he robbed. God makes clear that our lives, peace, and futures cannot be separated.

A Jeremiah 29 Framework

As I’ve written about elsewhere, I see Jeremiah 29 (in particular, v. 7)4 as a framework that challenges the way we see ourselves and each other:

God exiled the people of Israel from Jerusalem to live in the land of their enemies, Babylon, calling them to make a home there generationally and to seek the peace of a city not their own. Understandably, this is a place that the Israelites didn’t want to be. God promised that if they sought the peace of their neighbors and the land, God would bring peace on them, would shalom them. By God’s design, the peace of Israel and the peace of Babylon are intertwined and interdependent. . . Shalom is a comprehensive concept that expresses society as God intended it to be, including a sense of wholeness, harmony, and justice. The church is called to be reconcilers and peacemakers in the world, in our specific location and context.5

The Israelites had no desire to share space with the Babylonians, with those they despised, yet this biblical text describes a way of being in the world together and a model of navigating the complexities of life and justice in a shared community, even with people we don’t want to be with. When we contextualize this story, however, we must proceed with care, as we never want to imply that those who have been victimized need to share space with those who hurt them. This is complicated work. But God holds the many tensions and us. Jeremiah 29 illustrates how God’s peace is rooted in relationship and reminds us of our connectedness.

Partnering in God’s Restorative Justice

God provides a way for us to share peace, healing, and reconciliation. Rather than a one-time act or experience, peace and reconciliation are predicated on daily decisions to be part of the conversations and relationships that God has placed us in. As we experience God’s reconciliation, we are invited to partner in this call to reconciliation (2 Cor 5:11–21). However, we often can approach restoration and justice like a transaction or exchange rather than a relationship. The example of Lil’ Mikey and the wisdom of great saints like Mother Teresa, Dr. Jude, and Father Greg help us to understand how peace is intertwined in our interdependent lives, by God’s design. It would make sense then that justice would need to be experienced in the same way. As we examine our systems, in particular the criminal justice and educational systems, we find (with a few exceptions) that punishment is often prioritized without restoration. If societies continue to incarcerate people without thought about them once they are locked up, they deny the truth that people’s lives and peace are wrapped up in each other. “But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too,” writes Bryan Stevenson. “There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”6

Similarly, the African concept of ubuntu reminds us that our humanity and what it means to be human are tied together. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that reviewed crimes committed during apartheid, once said, “There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative—not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”7

For the last 20-plus years, I have served as a law enforcement chaplain in three different agencies, and I have seen the criminal justice system up close—what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing. Punishment and accountability are necessary aspects of justice, but we don’t want systems and societies that only punish. We hope for communities that offer a process for addressing the cause of the offense and potential ways to heal personally and collectively from those crimes.

Restorative justice offers an opportunity to participate in God’s restorative work including addressing conflict, honoring dignity, and facilitating peacemaking. When crimes are committed against others, harm is the result:

Wrongdoing is understood as harm—a violation of people and of relationships, rather than as crime—a violation of rules and laws. The RJ [restorative justice] approach emphasizes repairing harm and involving all affected parties in creating healing solutions . . . It addresses both needs—the needs of those who have been hurt, as well as those who hurt them. It provides accountability for wrongdoers so that they are empowered to take responsibility and make amends. It compels communities to work together in resolving conflict and harm together. The development of RJ can be traced back to indigenous communities around the world, as well as Mennonite communities in North America. It was initially conceived as an alternative response to individual acts of wrongdoing. However, it is now increasingly embraced as an approach to facilitating wholeness within groups and whole communities.8

Restorative justice helps us to see the crime and the sickness behind it. Why do people hurt one another? What is going on within to cause the crime in the first place? The sickness is not just in us but is also manifested in our systems and larger communities. As Johonna Turner and I have written:

According to theologian Derek Flood, the primary metaphor of sin in the New Testament is one of sickness, not crime.9 In essence, a crime is a symptom of a deeper sickness. This means that in addition to one taking responsibility for our own behaviors, we must also analyze the negative behavior and attempt to understand and address its root causes. Flood uses the example of a bully whose behavior is rooted in feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. Focusing on healing can lead to restoration.10 

While I served as a chaplain with a local law enforcement agency, young people who committed low-level offenses had the opportunity to have their records cleared if they participated in restorative justice. If we see crime beyond the intention and act on the sickness that caused it, our care and concern for ourselves and our neighbors can deepen. God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The very core of the gospel of Jesus Christ is love, healing, and restoration. Reconciliation is an embodiment of God’s justice and shalom. The Hebrew word for peace is translated to wholeness, well-being, and prosperity. Restorative justice can lead to this kind of experience. These comprehensive concepts of God’s peace and justice express society as God intends it.11 Restorative justice is a model for partnering in God’s justice and peace for all, helping us believe in this kind of justice for ourselves, our neighbors, our communities, and our world. Below are ways restorative justice can practically shape our theology, identity, spirituality, relationships, lenses, and systems.

Restorative justice helps us to face our personal and collective beliefs about who God is and the justice God embodies. Do we long for a God we conjure from Old Testament stories, who will vindicate us and get those people who harmed us? Do we expect God to love the “good people” and damn the others? Is God made in our image, or are we made in God’s image? The justice we practice reveals the God we believe in. In serving as a law enforcement chaplain for over two decades, I have responded to scenes where unspeakable crimes have been committed against the most vulnerable—including young children. I have witnessed people wearing their trauma. God weeps with those who have been traumatized and promises to remember every tear (Ps 56:8). In God’s economy there is accountability, justice, and mercy. God’s justice is neither conditional nor retributive. God’s justice is just, restorative for those harmed and for those who cause the harm. The justice we believe, preach, and practice reveals the God we follow.

Restorative justice acknowledges that all are God’s beloved. Our belovedness is not determined by behavior or human accomplishment. Belovedness is a birthright that every human being in history has. This is an identity, not a label. Every person is made by God. We are image-bearers. Belovedness is the lens from which we practice restorative justice. Loving those we like can be challenging, but loving our enemies is a different story. Like the people of Jeremiah 29, living among enemies is no easy task. In order for this to happen, one starts with seeing the other, the neighbor, as God’s beloved. It is tempting to compare the best of ourselves to the worst in others. That is why it is imperative that belovedness shapes our practices of God’s peace in our communities. Restorative justice begins with an understanding of how we identify, label, and value ourselves and one another. In a society that values categories of “good and bad,” it will take work to resist limiting and relegating people to their worst offense. I remember one particular chaplain call, when I responded to a gruesome crime scene. I wanted to hate the one who murdered, to ignore him, and to believe that God couldn’t possibly love him. But this man is God’s beloved. This doesn’t negate or erase what he did; he needed to face the appropriate consequences and punishment. But we can’t earn or lose belovedness. Restorative justice doesn’t wash over the pain and trauma but leads us to God’s healing. Restorative justice is a model, approach, and understanding of the nature of God and our relationships.

Restorative justice and reconciliation are rooted in relationship. Restorative justice is not a program but rather a way to practice God’s peace in the context of relationships. Restorative justice calls us to proximity, not distance; vulnerability, not perception; and presence with, not absence from. All of this requires time, intentionality, and care.

Restorative justice helps us to see and understand the world from a both/and perspective. Someone can be both a victim and a perpetrator. One can hurt others while experiencing hurt themselves. I have served as a local church pastor, nonprofit organization leader, academic practitioner, community developer, and law enforcement chaplain. Although there are overlaps between these roles, there are distinct realities, values, and worldviews held in these spaces. From a law enforcement perspective, a law is clear cut. Through a community development lens, someone might have committed a crime after surviving incredible trauma and aging out of the foster care system. As we navigate the distinct aspects of our voices and roles, a both/and understanding acknowledges the tension, challenges, and pain of our intertwined lives and peace. Concrete truths and clarity may be preferred, but when we step into the complex, we are trusting a God who sees and holds it all.

Restorative justice disrupts systems of injustice, inequity, and harm. Many of the current justice systems are incomplete, broken, and unjust, often setting people up for failure. The term “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to policies and practices that lead to young people’s entry into criminal justice systems, especially impacting people of color and those from under-resourced communities. Restorative justice, advocacy, and policy changes can lead to equity and a disruption to recidivism (repeating of criminal offenses)—as a chaplain, I witnessed repeat offenders continue to impact themselves and their communities. Examples of restorative justice at work in the world help us imagine an alternative way that disrupts these broken systems:

Restorative justice undergirds New Zealand’s juvenile justice system and is used as an alternative to standard legal proceedings. Adults who participated in New Zealand’s restorative justice conferences were 23 percent less likely to commit another offense than those who went through the criminal justice system.12 In addition to reducing recidivism, restorative justice provides a sense of closure and satisfaction with the process. According to Howard Zehr, restorative justice addresses people’s needs for safety, answers, voice, empowerment, vindication and validation.13  14   

Restorative Justice as a Journey Towards God’s Shalom

How does our love and justice lead us to God’s shalom, healing, wellness, and restoration? As we lean into restorative justice, our communities are positioned to receive, embrace, and participate in God’s shalom in greater measure. Justice work is hard, complicated, and painful. When someone breaks a law, it is more than a violation of the law; it hurts others. As we lean into restorative justice, we turn to a God who heals and shaloms. Jeremiah 29 reminds us that we belong to each other by God’s design. God calls us beloved, roots our healing in relationships, calls us to dismantle systems of injustice and inequity, and invites us to partner in this restorative justice work in our communities. God’s restorative justice is for all.

Written By

Mary Glenn is affiliate assistant professor of intercultural studies, teaching particularly in the area of urban studies. She is the co-president of Cities Together, a Christian nonprofit organization working with collaborative movements and leaders for city transformation. She has also served as a law enforcement chaplain since 2001 with two law enforcement agencies and is a police chaplain trainer and an ordained pastor with over 20 years of pastoral experience. She previously served as a national board member with the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and as a board member with Central City Community Outreach in Downtown LA/Skid Row.

In a video titled “Restorative Justice in Action: Teen Asks Forgiveness,”1 17-year-old Lil’ Mikey returns to the barbershop that he and two others robbed at gunpoint three years earlier and asks forgiveness of those he traumatized. He served time, fulfilling the punishment for the crime he committed, but he wanted to return to apologize and to make amends. Lil’ Mikey’s mentor says, “It takes a lot of guts to walk back on the surfaces you did dirt on.” One of the victims shares about the trauma she is still dealing with, years after the event. The emotions of fear and anxiety are real. Lil’ Mikey stands there taking it all in. He doesn’t respond defensively nor rationalize his behavior, but instead he remains present as emotions are shared. He listens and makes space for the pain, and in doing so, validates what they went through. Mid-conversation, one of those victims takes his hands, hugs him, and offers him care and blessing as she accepts his apology. Lil’ Mikey realized that his decisions, behavior, and choices on that day continue to impact people. By showing up and staying, he demonstrated a willingness to be vulnerable. What does justice look like for Lil’ Mikey, for those he victimized, and for the greater community? How does God’s justice connect their lives to each other?

We Belong to Each Other

This video is an example of how restorative justice can bring healing both to the one who commits the offense and to those hurt by it. The story also demonstrates how our wellness, our peace, and our very lives are intertwined. Mother Teresa famously said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Fuller professor Jude Tiersma Watson says, “We belong to each other, and together, we belong to God.”2 We do not live as islands to ourselves. By God’s design, our decisions, our words, and our lives impact each other. For good or for bad, we are connected. Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries says, “We’ve become focused on peace, justice and equality, when the truth is, none of those things can happen unless there’s some undergirding sense that we belong to each other, that we’re connected, that we matter.”3 When Lil’ Mikey asked for forgiveness, he began to see how intertwined his life was with those he robbed. God makes clear that our lives, peace, and futures cannot be separated.

A Jeremiah 29 Framework

As I’ve written about elsewhere, I see Jeremiah 29 (in particular, v. 7)4 as a framework that challenges the way we see ourselves and each other:

God exiled the people of Israel from Jerusalem to live in the land of their enemies, Babylon, calling them to make a home there generationally and to seek the peace of a city not their own. Understandably, this is a place that the Israelites didn’t want to be. God promised that if they sought the peace of their neighbors and the land, God would bring peace on them, would shalom them. By God’s design, the peace of Israel and the peace of Babylon are intertwined and interdependent. . . Shalom is a comprehensive concept that expresses society as God intended it to be, including a sense of wholeness, harmony, and justice. The church is called to be reconcilers and peacemakers in the world, in our specific location and context.5

The Israelites had no desire to share space with the Babylonians, with those they despised, yet this biblical text describes a way of being in the world together and a model of navigating the complexities of life and justice in a shared community, even with people we don’t want to be with. When we contextualize this story, however, we must proceed with care, as we never want to imply that those who have been victimized need to share space with those who hurt them. This is complicated work. But God holds the many tensions and us. Jeremiah 29 illustrates how God’s peace is rooted in relationship and reminds us of our connectedness.

Partnering in God’s Restorative Justice

God provides a way for us to share peace, healing, and reconciliation. Rather than a one-time act or experience, peace and reconciliation are predicated on daily decisions to be part of the conversations and relationships that God has placed us in. As we experience God’s reconciliation, we are invited to partner in this call to reconciliation (2 Cor 5:11–21). However, we often can approach restoration and justice like a transaction or exchange rather than a relationship. The example of Lil’ Mikey and the wisdom of great saints like Mother Teresa, Dr. Jude, and Father Greg help us to understand how peace is intertwined in our interdependent lives, by God’s design. It would make sense then that justice would need to be experienced in the same way. As we examine our systems, in particular the criminal justice and educational systems, we find (with a few exceptions) that punishment is often prioritized without restoration. If societies continue to incarcerate people without thought about them once they are locked up, they deny the truth that people’s lives and peace are wrapped up in each other. “But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too,” writes Bryan Stevenson. “There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”6

Similarly, the African concept of ubuntu reminds us that our humanity and what it means to be human are tied together. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that reviewed crimes committed during apartheid, once said, “There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative—not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”7

For the last 20-plus years, I have served as a law enforcement chaplain in three different agencies, and I have seen the criminal justice system up close—what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing. Punishment and accountability are necessary aspects of justice, but we don’t want systems and societies that only punish. We hope for communities that offer a process for addressing the cause of the offense and potential ways to heal personally and collectively from those crimes.

Restorative justice offers an opportunity to participate in God’s restorative work including addressing conflict, honoring dignity, and facilitating peacemaking. When crimes are committed against others, harm is the result:

Wrongdoing is understood as harm—a violation of people and of relationships, rather than as crime—a violation of rules and laws. The RJ [restorative justice] approach emphasizes repairing harm and involving all affected parties in creating healing solutions . . . It addresses both needs—the needs of those who have been hurt, as well as those who hurt them. It provides accountability for wrongdoers so that they are empowered to take responsibility and make amends. It compels communities to work together in resolving conflict and harm together. The development of RJ can be traced back to indigenous communities around the world, as well as Mennonite communities in North America. It was initially conceived as an alternative response to individual acts of wrongdoing. However, it is now increasingly embraced as an approach to facilitating wholeness within groups and whole communities.8

Restorative justice helps us to see the crime and the sickness behind it. Why do people hurt one another? What is going on within to cause the crime in the first place? The sickness is not just in us but is also manifested in our systems and larger communities. As Johonna Turner and I have written:

According to theologian Derek Flood, the primary metaphor of sin in the New Testament is one of sickness, not crime.9 In essence, a crime is a symptom of a deeper sickness. This means that in addition to one taking responsibility for our own behaviors, we must also analyze the negative behavior and attempt to understand and address its root causes. Flood uses the example of a bully whose behavior is rooted in feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. Focusing on healing can lead to restoration.10 

While I served as a chaplain with a local law enforcement agency, young people who committed low-level offenses had the opportunity to have their records cleared if they participated in restorative justice. If we see crime beyond the intention and act on the sickness that caused it, our care and concern for ourselves and our neighbors can deepen. God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The very core of the gospel of Jesus Christ is love, healing, and restoration. Reconciliation is an embodiment of God’s justice and shalom. The Hebrew word for peace is translated to wholeness, well-being, and prosperity. Restorative justice can lead to this kind of experience. These comprehensive concepts of God’s peace and justice express society as God intends it.11 Restorative justice is a model for partnering in God’s justice and peace for all, helping us believe in this kind of justice for ourselves, our neighbors, our communities, and our world. Below are ways restorative justice can practically shape our theology, identity, spirituality, relationships, lenses, and systems.

Restorative justice helps us to face our personal and collective beliefs about who God is and the justice God embodies. Do we long for a God we conjure from Old Testament stories, who will vindicate us and get those people who harmed us? Do we expect God to love the “good people” and damn the others? Is God made in our image, or are we made in God’s image? The justice we practice reveals the God we believe in. In serving as a law enforcement chaplain for over two decades, I have responded to scenes where unspeakable crimes have been committed against the most vulnerable—including young children. I have witnessed people wearing their trauma. God weeps with those who have been traumatized and promises to remember every tear (Ps 56:8). In God’s economy there is accountability, justice, and mercy. God’s justice is neither conditional nor retributive. God’s justice is just, restorative for those harmed and for those who cause the harm. The justice we believe, preach, and practice reveals the God we follow.

Restorative justice acknowledges that all are God’s beloved. Our belovedness is not determined by behavior or human accomplishment. Belovedness is a birthright that every human being in history has. This is an identity, not a label. Every person is made by God. We are image-bearers. Belovedness is the lens from which we practice restorative justice. Loving those we like can be challenging, but loving our enemies is a different story. Like the people of Jeremiah 29, living among enemies is no easy task. In order for this to happen, one starts with seeing the other, the neighbor, as God’s beloved. It is tempting to compare the best of ourselves to the worst in others. That is why it is imperative that belovedness shapes our practices of God’s peace in our communities. Restorative justice begins with an understanding of how we identify, label, and value ourselves and one another. In a society that values categories of “good and bad,” it will take work to resist limiting and relegating people to their worst offense. I remember one particular chaplain call, when I responded to a gruesome crime scene. I wanted to hate the one who murdered, to ignore him, and to believe that God couldn’t possibly love him. But this man is God’s beloved. This doesn’t negate or erase what he did; he needed to face the appropriate consequences and punishment. But we can’t earn or lose belovedness. Restorative justice doesn’t wash over the pain and trauma but leads us to God’s healing. Restorative justice is a model, approach, and understanding of the nature of God and our relationships.

Restorative justice and reconciliation are rooted in relationship. Restorative justice is not a program but rather a way to practice God’s peace in the context of relationships. Restorative justice calls us to proximity, not distance; vulnerability, not perception; and presence with, not absence from. All of this requires time, intentionality, and care.

Restorative justice helps us to see and understand the world from a both/and perspective. Someone can be both a victim and a perpetrator. One can hurt others while experiencing hurt themselves. I have served as a local church pastor, nonprofit organization leader, academic practitioner, community developer, and law enforcement chaplain. Although there are overlaps between these roles, there are distinct realities, values, and worldviews held in these spaces. From a law enforcement perspective, a law is clear cut. Through a community development lens, someone might have committed a crime after surviving incredible trauma and aging out of the foster care system. As we navigate the distinct aspects of our voices and roles, a both/and understanding acknowledges the tension, challenges, and pain of our intertwined lives and peace. Concrete truths and clarity may be preferred, but when we step into the complex, we are trusting a God who sees and holds it all.

Restorative justice disrupts systems of injustice, inequity, and harm. Many of the current justice systems are incomplete, broken, and unjust, often setting people up for failure. The term “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to policies and practices that lead to young people’s entry into criminal justice systems, especially impacting people of color and those from under-resourced communities. Restorative justice, advocacy, and policy changes can lead to equity and a disruption to recidivism (repeating of criminal offenses)—as a chaplain, I witnessed repeat offenders continue to impact themselves and their communities. Examples of restorative justice at work in the world help us imagine an alternative way that disrupts these broken systems:

Restorative justice undergirds New Zealand’s juvenile justice system and is used as an alternative to standard legal proceedings. Adults who participated in New Zealand’s restorative justice conferences were 23 percent less likely to commit another offense than those who went through the criminal justice system.12 In addition to reducing recidivism, restorative justice provides a sense of closure and satisfaction with the process. According to Howard Zehr, restorative justice addresses people’s needs for safety, answers, voice, empowerment, vindication and validation.13  14   

Restorative Justice as a Journey Towards God’s Shalom

How does our love and justice lead us to God’s shalom, healing, wellness, and restoration? As we lean into restorative justice, our communities are positioned to receive, embrace, and participate in God’s shalom in greater measure. Justice work is hard, complicated, and painful. When someone breaks a law, it is more than a violation of the law; it hurts others. As we lean into restorative justice, we turn to a God who heals and shaloms. Jeremiah 29 reminds us that we belong to each other by God’s design. God calls us beloved, roots our healing in relationships, calls us to dismantle systems of injustice and inequity, and invites us to partner in this restorative justice work in our communities. God’s restorative justice is for all.

Mary Glenn

Mary Glenn is affiliate assistant professor of intercultural studies, teaching particularly in the area of urban studies. She is the co-president of Cities Together, a Christian nonprofit organization working with collaborative movements and leaders for city transformation. She has also served as a law enforcement chaplain since 2001 with two law enforcement agencies and is a police chaplain trainer and an ordained pastor with over 20 years of pastoral experience. She previously served as a national board member with the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and as a board member with Central City Community Outreach in Downtown LA/Skid Row.

Up Next
Fuller Magazine

Najuma Smith-Pollard, pastor and assistant director of community and public engagement at USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, looks to history’s examples of Black faith leaders and considers the role of the pastor in today’s modern movement.