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Towards a Christian Theology of Transformative Justice

“…what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.” -adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy p 53

We are, as adrienne maree brown writes, all fractals, as are our families and communities. Each fractal is repeated in its smaller and larger iterations – who we are and what we practice at home gets repeated at church, which gets repeated in our cities and on and on. This means that by shifting what happens in our church communities, we have a real possibility of shifting what happens both in homes and in our national government. There is great hope in this for so many of our oppressive systems, particularly our system of criminal justice.

Individual Christian communities, denominational bodies and, well, American Christianity in general tend to have three responses to harm: 1) sweep it under the rug, 2) punishment 3) forgiveness no matter what. We are punitive or nothing happens – and all too often the response to harm has a lot more to do with who has power than who was harmed or the degree of harm. How we respond to harm in our church communities sets the pattern for the whole system. When we look both, we generally see those with the most structural power experience little accountability and those with the least experience the most harm with little attention paid to their restoration.

Church as fractal presents us with an opportunity for transformation. If we engage transformative justice* practices at the church community level, we have the possibility of an entirely different way of responding to harm being integrated into the structures all around us, repeated throughout the organism that is creation. A process of Transformative Justice would examine not only the harm done in the individual relationships, but the harm to the community and what structures were in place that created the possibility for this harm to occur in the first place. This would happen in addition to what might be going on in the life and systems of the person who committed harm that contributed to their behavior. The person who committed harm receives a list of things they are being asked to do in order for some kind of restoration (though depending on the harm that may not mean restoration to community). This process has compassion for both the harmed and the council member, but it is the responsibility of the latter to make it right. How might our communities look different if we functioned in this way? If people knew they could mess up and receive both grace and accountability? If people knew that, were harm to happen, they would be heard and supported?

There are many models for how to do transformative justice throughout the United States. However, we need not only a how, but a why. We need to articulate a theology of Transformative Justice – a theology for which there is much support in scripture.

We are forgiven our sins against God through Jesus Christ – our sins against our neighbor, however, are another matter. When Christians think of forgiveness, we tend to think of either The Lord’s Prayer or Jesus saying, “forgive 70 x 7 times” in Matthew 18 or Luke 17. What we miss is that both Luke 17 & Matthew 18 include repentance directly (Luke 17) or through a parable (Matthew 18), and that through Jesus, God calls us to repent throughout the Gospels. In our modern context, to repent is frequently watered down to saying, “I’m sorry,” and promising to never do that particular harm again. However, in Jesus’ context, to repent would have been quite different. These differences can inform a Christian theology of transformative justice.

In modern Judaism, teshuvah, or repentance, has many elements; most rabbis and scholars agree on these: recognition of ones sins, desisting from sin, restitution where possible, and confession. While the elements of teshuvah didn’t begin to appear until the 12th century, we know these elements appear in scripture. Both Leviticus and Numbers have lists of requirements for restitution when harm has occurred. The histories and the prophets contain stories of a wide variety of other God calls God’s people to demonstrate true contrition, and the prophets repeatedly call the sinful people to live in entirely new ways. Text after text tells us that when harm occurs, there is a process that moves towards restoration for both the harmed and the person(s) who have done harm. This is the foundation upon which Jesus stands when he calls for repentance as part of the process towards forgiveness, and the base from which we build a Christian theology of restorative justice. To move from restoration to transformation, or from the interpersonal and communal to the systemic, we need only look at Jesus’ repeated calls to transform the systems and structures around him. Change of heart was never the sole call – the call is to change the world.

Disclaimer: I have practiced restorative processes in youth programs in which I have worked over the years, but I am still very much a learner when it comes to TJ. I am proposing this out of hope for transformation in our systems and dreams of a different future.


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