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.

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