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Restorative justice offers hope to victims and offenders

Hear Chris Marshall speak, and you will begin to think God invented the idea of restorative justice. It is both seriously Biblical and profoundly Christian.

A senior lecturer in Christian Theology at Victoria University, Chris recently gave a presentation to 150 Anglican clergy in which he challenged both the secular and church justice systems and individual thinking.

“The criminal justice system is one of the most violent elements of our society,” Chris says. “Our penal system remains violent. It locks people up in cages, wrenches families apart, and leaves people permanently stigmatized. It denies re-acceptance and condones community violence towards paedophiles and other outcasts even after their release.

“Against this, you have to set the centrality of justice themes in Scriptures. Care of the most vulnerable is the litmus test for justice in Old Testament law.

“In this context, Jesus ministry with its focus on those on the margins – both victims and outcasts – makes sense. For Paul, the Christ event is a revelation of justice, and justification by faith is an exercise of restorative justice.

“So applying restorative justice principles to the criminal justice system is an outworking of Biblical principles.”

Restorative justice is not a magic wand, of course. Nor is it just tinkering round the edges of the system. Rather, Chris sees it as a third way alongside retribution and rehabilitation. It is anchored in alternative communities of values where the focus is on healing and reconciliation – “the polar opposite to talk-back radio”.

Punishment may be part of the process but the emphasis is on serving the victim’s needs, acknowledging and regretting the damage caused and making space for genuine truth-telling.

Chris says such an exercise is not soft on offenders but holds them genuinely accountable for their actions.

“The values, virtues and beliefs of these alternative communities are costly – and Christian,” he says. “But unlike prisons, which are the most hopeless places, they offer hope of change for both victims and offenders.”

District Court Judge Stan Thorburn is an ardent advocate of restorative justice. Stan says it has to start with an attitude change which churches should lead.

“The Christian community, like any other, has its right to feel anger and outrage at the destructive influence of crime but it should go beyond that to focus on healing, repair on restoration. A community that loves only anger and outrage with be a retributive community, not a healing community,” he says.