California, meet Rwanda – and learn about justice, reconciliation, and prisons

In a culture characterized by high unemployment, isolation, mind-numbing addictive drugs, and ready access to weapons, it’s no surprise that prison populations are swelling.  But our response to the inevitable overcrowding is, just possibly, a moment when we can take pause and learn from others.  The lessons we’ll discover are important, not just for prisoners and governments, but for ever person who’s ever wronged another and looked for a way forward in the relationship.  Interested in learning?  Read on…

The Supreme Court ruling this week in California will require the release or transfer of 33,000 prison convicts in order to reduce overcrowding deemed to be cruel and inhumane.  The noise about state’s rights, risk to populations at large, and how we got into this mess, is both worth listening to, and responding to, but that’s not the point of this conversation.  This conversation is intended to remind California that Rwanda’s been down this road – with some measure of success.  They’d do well to at least take a look.

In the wake of the horrendous tribal genocides of 1994, the prison populations were swollen with perpetrators of violent rape and murder.  In 1993 Rwanda president Paul Kagame issued a decree to release elderly, sick, and lower-level killers and looters from the 1994 genocide who had confessed their crimes.  The whole story is to be found here, but it’s the phrase “confessed their crimes” that opens a window into a system from which we might stand to learn something.

The court system of our country is primarily rooted in concepts of retributive justice, which means we’re committed to making perpetrators suffer for their crimes, usually by “doing time.”  In our system, the restoration of neither the victim nor the perpetrator is seen is a priority.  Finding the truth, finding the criminal, and making him/her “pay” is the end of it all.

This stands in sharp distinction to many other cultures in our world, whose views of justice more closely resemble the “shalom” of the Hebrews.  As Catherine Larson writes, “True shalom meant that punishing the offender had an ultimate goal: restoration of peace for the victim, restoration of peace in the community, and finally, restoration of peace for the offender.”

The Rwandan view of justice captures this spirit, and where this spirit prevails we see a commitment not to retribution, but to restoration.  Again, Catherine writes, “Restorative justice is a process in which victim, offender, and community are involved in dialogue, mutual agreement, empath, and taking of responsibility.”  The Rwandan version of this requires confession on the part of the perpetrator and, upon release, asks the perpetrator to confess their crimes to victims, face to face, with a mediator, and work towards some form of restitution.

This model presents a challenge not only to the criminal, but to the victim, for the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mindset can’t exist if we’re committed to restorative justice.  Instead, the victim is called upon to commit to the process of restoration as well, and this, of course, is rooted in the conviction that the victim will never fully be freed until they can forgive their offenders, whether face to face, or in the heart.

And now, it seems to me, we get to the crux of the matter.  To the extent that forgiveness and restorative justice has flourished in Rwanda, it’s done so because of Christ.  This isn’t a syrupy, romantic notion.  Restorative justice has been, to those with honest eyes, slow and painful, halting and tear-stained.  And yet, one can see it everywhere:  Joy on the face of a victim who has now become a pastor and broker of forgiveness.  Hard conversations, painful memories, face to face work towards restoration; these are the ways of many Rwandans – these are the ways of Christ, who taught us to pray:  “Forgive us our sins, in the same manner in which we forgive those who sin against us.”

When one takes the gospel out of the equation though, one wonders:  Forgiveness, restoration, and confession live in a sort of symbiotic ecology, a system built on the preemptive, sacrificial, forgiving love of Christ.  Take that stuff away and what have you got?  Retributive justice… nothing more.

This critiques governments and systems, surely.  But it challenges us personally too, or should.  Is there a broken relationship in your life?  Jesus tells us that confession and working to restore are important  - more important, even, than the rituals of worship.  It’s not easy…but worth the trouble.

I’ve seen people literally bent over in pain, wracked by bitterness because of petty lawsuits, in one case having to do with less than $1,000.  I’ve seen worshippers dancing in Rwanda, in one case with intermingled tears of joy and loss, as they face square on, their callings to confess, forgive, restore.  I know which I prefer.

Reconciliation is central to shalom, and shalom is central to human flourishing.  All of it, though, needs Christ.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Robin Vestal

    So how to make it happen?

  • Ken

    Ah, Richard. So you do agree there’s a difference between “social justice” and the justice that those of Faith are called to. Hmmm… didn’t we have this discussion a while back about a certain Justice Conference? But then it wouldn’t be “just” of me to rub your nose in that. ROFL.

  • raincitypastor

    Hmmm…. Couldn’t find the phrase social justice in my article, so am not sure what you’re talking about. I will say that Mennonite, Catholics, Christian Reformed, American Baptists, and dozens of other denominations all have “social justice” departments, or ‘wings’, and a quick google search of Shane Claiborn and Social Justice links those four words together rather tightly.

    I think the big problem here isn’t with the word justice. We all agree that God is calling us to embody and work for justice. We all agree that God’s justice is different than any human construct. The word “social” though carries various meanings for various people – Jim Wallace, Glenn Beck, Shane Claiborne, Ken, Richard, etc., which is why I didn’t use it in this article.

  • Ken

    I was referring to our conversation about the difference between social justice as our society here in America defines it (primarily retributive justice) and what believers are called to. That was the point of the Justice Conference back in February, a calling beyond what our society often means when they think of justice to one of mercy and grace. You placed a good exclamation point on what I was trying to say in that Facebook discussion. Well said.

    How that can happen in our society in regards to things like prisoner overcrowding and all its accompanying web of issues in our increasingly faith eschewing nation is really the tough conundrum. Can we teach (or implement) the Mercy and Grace of God to a godless people without Christ’ work in their lives? The opposition uses human fears precisely for the purpose of getting us to not trust on God but in human institutions to protect us. Sadly that fear works almost as well and in many ways even better on Believers. Watching the “religious” leadership campaign for tougher prison sentences doesn’t seem to assist in showing the heart of Christ to a dying world. Perhaps it takes something as horrific as genocide to awaken human hearts to God’s overcoming Grace. Hope that isn’t in America’s future.

    • raincitypastor

      Thanks for clarifying Ken… I think we were always on the same page but the way words are used these days, so differently by different people, leave divisive connotations in the wind.

  • Robni Vestal

    The idea of being able to change how we handle crime from retribution to redemptive and reconciliation is really really important. Our current system is destroying people’s lives. So how to get this started. Is there a pilot project or any initiative to offer people coming into the justice system to persue redemptive justice rather than the usual? Most court systems will offer mediation in civil suits. Wonder if Chuck Colson who certainly has a big voice in the prison ministries could help with this? Too many people’s lives are being wasted to ignore this.

  • Ken

    Funny that this blog post of all things should have my thoughts today, but I saw the article about releasing inmates and you must have struck some cord in me.

    That said, perhaps the last comment has an idea with a possibility. I don’t think we can really wholesale change our society to thinking as God would have us think as true Believers, that is with His mercy and gracefulness towards others as we have ourselves received from God. However, perhaps if we could get a variance in the established justice system that would allow the opportunity for those that choose to demonstrate those characteristics we could make a start. By this I mean that by the variance we could have the option to put into practice the shalom of which Richard speaks beyond what the present retributive system demands. If we are called to be Christ-like and show God’s attributes to a dying world, we should first and foremost create every way possible to do just that. How then could forgiveness and reconciliation be incorporated into the the justice system to demonstrate shalom justice? So then write laws not to demand a fallen world act as God would desire, because that is certain to fail. (Insert ten commandments here.) Instead create a law allowing Godly souls the chance to put Godliness into practice. What has more impact? Yet more laws to illustrate how far short of God’s standard we fall? Or a radical new law that allows a mediation between the offender and offended beyond the world’s understanding to show love, mercy and justice in a heavenly light? That’s a new law worth writing.

  • Kyle

    I’m a big fan of Story Corps and thought this clip went with your topic well:

    http://storycorps.org/listen/stories/mary-johnson-and-oshea-israel/

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