Feature

Becoming Communities of Grace

What is it about the gospel that can bring a healing voice to what is called “discipline” in schools? Part of the DNA of Christian schools is the belief that the gospel provides alternative perspectives to the priorities of contemporary culture. These are explored in every area of the curriculum: math, science, literature, history, business, social studies, and more. But what about “discipline” and relationships within the school community? The gospel is comprehensive; to quote one of the founders of Christian education, Abraham Kuyper, “There is a not a square inch of creation in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” What, then, does the gospel offer here, and how can that inform the “communities of grace” that Christian schools seek to be?

Jubilee: God’s Way of Community

In the face of these questions, I invite you to reflect with me on one of the core themes of Scripture: the practice of Jubilee. In the desert, having been delivered from the harsh oppression of the Egyptians, God sought to inscribe within his precious people a way in which they would now relate to each other—a way of relationship that culminates in the Jubilee legislation (Deut. 15, Lev. 25).

In the Jubilee legislation, God stipulated that the land rest every seven years. This sabbath rhythm then culminated every forty-nine years in the year of Jubilee. In the year of Jubilee all debts were cancelled, all slaves and prisoners were set free, and all purchased land was returned to its original owners. This meant that one’s workforce and one’s land base were diminished; one’s capacity for material expansion was reduced. But it also meant that the have-nots, those who had fallen on hard times, were restored to their rightful place in the community. At the heart of the Jubilee legislation, therefore, was a regular rhythm of reintegrating into the community all those who had been sidelined because of the social and economic practices of fallen humanity. With Jubilee, everything and everyone that was at the margins of the community was restored back to the centre. This is an image of a “community of grace,” and it was the opposite of the structural alienation practiced by the Egyptian empire.

The Jubilee legislation responds to our deeply fallen human tendency to cause harm in our interactions with others, whether inadvertently or deliberately, subtly or blatantly. It speaks to our regrettable inclination to sometimes seek to move certain people from the centre of our community to the periphery, even to cast them out. The origins of violence lie in this deeply human impulse. But with Jubilee, people are reintegrated into the community and given the means to continue to live at the heart of community life. (For more on this theme, see the work of Christian literary critic René Girard, in such books as Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory [Baltimore:  John Hopkins Press, 1977], The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero [Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1989], Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightening, trans. with a Foreword James G. Williams [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001].  See also his more recent work, Oedipus Unbound [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004], and Evolution and Conversion [New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2007].)

So central is this theme to God’s Way that Jesus, in his inaugural sermon, declares the fulfillment of Jubilee to be his mandate on earth:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me to

preach Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [that is, the year of Jubilee].

Luke 4:18–19, quoting Isaiah

As followers of Jesus, this means that Christian schools seek to become Jubilee communities. Jubilee school communities are “communities of grace.” They actively practice the reintegration of people—of students, staff, and parents—back into the centre of school life.

The Punitive Paradigm

How are we doing as Christian schools in the practice of Jubilee? When misbehavior happens, do our “discipline practices” honor and restore, to the degree possible, all who have been marginalized by the harm—not just the person causing harm, but also the person harmed and all who have been affected by what happened?

It strikes me that many schools, Christian and otherwise, display an approach to discipline that is largely derived from the punitive paradigm of our criminal justice system. In schools, when misbehavior occurs, we typically ask three questions. These questions are precisely the ones asked in today’s criminal justice process:

  1. What rules have been broken?
  2. Who did it?
  3. What is the appropriate sanction or punishment?

Note that the person who has been harmed is absent from these questions (and subsequent answers). So are any others who may have been affected by the misbehavior, such as members of a classroom, a custodian, or a parent.

In the criminal justice paradigm, wrongdoing is considered primarily a violation against the institution of the state, not against another person. The focus is on finding guilt and imposing a suitable punishment. Victims are sidelined, and their needs are seldom, if at all, addressed. Christian criminologist Herman Bianchi, former professor of criminology at the Free University of Amsterdam, has shown that today’s criminal justice system has its roots in the Inquisition. With the Enlightenment, crime became a “heresy” against the state that had to be punished. The modern-day state’s self-definition rests on the ensuing system of retributive justice. (See his book Justice as Sanctuary: Toward a New System of Crime Control [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994].)

In my experience, schools are desperately looking for alternative approaches to the punitive model. As the former children’s case coordinator in Northumberland County in eastern Ontario, I worked for fifteen years in schools with high-needs children identified with multiple exceptionalities. I saw firsthand the failure of “zero tolerance” policies. And as one who has worked with young offenders and testified in criminal and family courts, I have also seen firsthand the devastating impacts of the adversarial, punitive criminal justice paradigm on both victims and offenders.

The world is hungry for Jubilee. Surely this hunger presents an opportunity for Christian schools to witness to a better way!

A Restorative Approach

When harm has occurred, an approach focused on the restoration of all who have been affected—a Jubilee approach—asks these three questions instead of criminal justice-inspired questions:

  1. Who has been hurt?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. Whose obligations are these?

These questions, by definition, involve all affected and imply the creation of spaces in our schools where those who cause harm, those who have been harmed, and others who are affected engage in a direct process of repairing the harm, to the degree possible. These spaces are created in classrooms, hallways, on the yard, in the staff room, in the offices of the administration, at board meetings, and at parent/teacher gatherings.

Shifting to a restorative paradigm is not easy, because the criminal justice paradigm is deeply ingrained in us, influencing even how we read scripture. But the good news is that that shift is possible, and it is happening. And to complete the circle, where it is happening, learning outcomes often improve, and healthy relational practice reverberates back into the content of the curriculum itself.

Shifting to Improved Relational Practice

The shift to a restorative paradigm begins by asking this question: when we are in the midst of conflict, how do we image God? We are not permissive; we insist on accountability for behavior and standards of relational practice. These are nonnegotiable. We are not punitive, though we do accept consequences in the context of restoration. Punishment sidelines, in some cases permanently, those involved. Instead, we are restorative; we hold people accountable in the context of nurture and support. We honor them in their journey towards healing relationships.

In Christian school discipline policies, it is not enough to say that the word “discipline” has the word “disciple” in it.

It is not enough to begin Christian school discipline policies by referring to the apostle Paul’s statement that as Christians we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), but then to resort to traditional discipline tools in response to misbehavior.

It is not enough to preface our discipline policies by noting that we are all created in the image of God, but then to revert to Enlightenment understandings of acceptable responses to noncompliance. If we cloak traditional practice in biblical language, how is our witness to the gospel as Christian schools compromised, both within the school community and beyond?

These are not sufficient to create “communities of grace.”

If a school desires to embrace a more intentional Jubilee approach to relational practice, there are various strategies and tools that can support such a shift. The Shalem Mental Health Network has partnered with the Ontario Christian School Teachers Association and the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools to support any Christian schools in Ontario that are seeking to become restorative communities. (For more information, go to Shalem’s website at www.shalemnetwork.org.) With its FaithCARE (Communities Affirming Restorative Experiences) program, Shalem has also engaged with numerous Christian restorative justice practitioners to adapt restorative practices to respond to church communities seeking to become Jubilee faith communities.

“I Am With You”

None of this is easy. No wonder: the gospel forces us to confront ourselves—our fallen nature, our human tendency to harm others, to hide. But the gospel also provides opportunities for grace. As Jesus notes in the Gospel of Matthew, “where two or three come together in my name” for the purpose of transforming conflict between you and repairing relational harm, “there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). When we seek Jubilee, Jesus rushes in to bless us with his indescribable, exhilarating, and healing presence.