Restorative Justice: Faithful and Fair

I am sure we can all remember playing “school” when we were younger. At a very young age, children act out what they think school looks like. Have you ever watched this happen? The kids find chairs, line them up, put their dolls into the chairs, and proceed to teach the students. I am sure you have witnessed something that looks like this. Where do children get their ideas about a classroom? When I see children lose themselves in a make-believe classroom, I can’t help but notice the wisdom that they share about our schools. I have even watched a young child manage her classroom by pointing a stick at the doll in a chair. Where does this come from?

When we begin to examine how we discipline our students, the power positions in our schools, and the use of authority (or discretion) in our classrooms and hallways, we need to be honest and ask if the balance is appropriate and whether our current practice actually pursues shalom or stands in the way. Without devaluing our current understandings or dishonoring those that went before us in Christian education, we need to question assumptions that may have been harmful and refocus the lens.

In the true sense of reform, we must begin to see a dying to our old self: our old ways of discipline, power structures in the classroom, and our use of authority. It is not easy to die to our old selves; it is tough and unfamiliar, and there is comfort in how we have always done things. The outcome of all our discipleship our Christian schools must have the end result of love, grace, and forgiveness.

Howard Zehr, in his book Changing the Lens, refers to restorative justice as a just framework for covenant communities to pursue shalom in our schools: “The framework: it makes a difference. How do we interpret what has happened? What factors are relevant? What responses are possible and appropriate? The lens we look through determines how we frame the problem and the ‘solution.’ That lens is the focus of this book” (Zehr, 2005, 178). And ultimately, it is that lens that we all need to focus on when embedding the culture of restorative justice in our schools. It is not an easy overnight change; it is deep and structural. And one of the reasons for the tough change is that we have been “playing school” since we were very young; we have all acted out the main characters of “school” from an early age.

Our schools are places where harm happens, and it can happen at many levels. How do we handle this?Zehr suggests that we go to the Bible to search for the answer to justice and wrongdoing. If our Christian schools seriously want our children to live and learn what it means to be a disciple, we must take a long look at our current discipline practices and assess what we are teaching our children about love, grace, and forgiveness.

Restorative justice as a framework is not easy, and it must be applied contextually with all the variables (McCold 2004). However, philosophically, it is fundamental in accomplishing the vision of Christian education that, according to Stronks and Blomberg (1993), rests on three distinctions: seeking shalom, sharing each other’s joys and burdens, and uncovering each other’s gifts. (Stronks 1993, 15–38). The current realities within our schools have large scopes that are both beautiful and tough, some named and others untold. Being a school that practices restorative justice simply provides the possibility for persons that have been harmed to face each other and share the harm with a deep desire for making things right. “Circles provide a space—perhaps the only space in most communities—for us to discuss shared values and expectations” (Pranis 2003, 13).

When implementing restorative justice, it is important to stay attuned to many of the questions that exist about the philosophy. Taking a sober second look at the philosophy of restorative justice requires that we ask questions about the actual process. What happens at a school that embodies the core principles and philosophies of restorative justice? Are there any questions that have come up around the philosophy or framework? Theo Gavrielides (2008), through historical analysis and discourse, points out six very important “fault lines” that exist currently in the field of restorative justice, five of which are mentioned below as they affect schools. These five fault lines are all very valuable to those of us who are implementing or considering restorative justice.

  1. Restorative Justice: A New Paradigm or a Complementary Model? This fault line points out the tensions between the organizations that use restorative justice as the “only way” and other organizations that use restorative justice to complement the current model. This asks the question: What does it mean to adhere to the restorative philosophy? Is it overarching or does it only affect a certain portion of the operation (Gavrielides 2008)?
  2. A Definition of Restorative Justice: Outcome-Based or Process-Based? This fault line points out that we have a tendency to see the outcomes of restorative justice as final and punitive, not needing any follow-up. This puts pressure on the circle to achieve grandiose results; in a world that is imperfect, the circle will not and cannot be the final outcome. This is why the process of transformation is being considered in the field; the journey beyond restoration into transformation is a serious consideration for all parties contemplating the restorative philosophy (Morris 1998).
  3. Stakeholders in Restorative Justice: How Big Should the Circle Be? This is a tension that exists in schools. How many people (students, administrators, teachers, parents, or friends) are affected by the harm that was caused? When is there too many people and when is there not enough? There isn’t a clear answer to this question. McCold (2004) has provided some guidelines to follow, but one might ask if they are to be followed religiously? (Gavrielides, 2008)
  4. Restorative Justice: An Alternative Punishment or an Alternative to Punishment? Punishment is such a tricky word when we are dealing with discipline and people, especially at school. It is not a tricky word when the traditional power structure is in place (administrator over teacher, teacher over student, senior student over junior student). It is not hard to imagine punishment in this type of world. However if the power is balanced, what will that look like? It is always fine to imagine life without punishment until your son or daughter is harmed, then punishment becomes a must. Restorative justice forces school communities to evaluate what are healthy power norms and what happens when the balance shifts outside of the presumed norm (Gavrielides 2008).
  5. The Restorative Principles and Their Flexibility This is where restorative justice is murky: are the restorative justice principles set in stone or are they flexible? An example would be: is the process voluntary for everyone? It is stated that in order for a full circle to happen, everyone involved must be invited. Depending on where you are in the field will determine how rigidly you would follow this norm. However, this creates problems with consistency for people in schools; when do we invite and when do we demand? (Gavrielides 2008)

These tensions and inconsistencies of restorative justice are not to suggest that this movement is not worthy, valid, and faithful. Rather they are named so the reader will wrestle with them and use them within their own community to help in clarifying the tensions that might exist.

If your school community finds itself cognitively dissonant with the current practices of handling situations of harm and wrongdoing, restorative justice should be considered as an option. While restorative justice helps Christian educators accomplish the vision of Christian education, it cannot be taken out context or become the super cure for everything wrong in the school. The journey of restorative justice will be iterative and incremental. This is never done overnight, but we must be awakened to the fact that there is a need for change and be willing to begin the journey.

Works Cited

  • Gavrielides, T. 2008. Restorative justice—the perplexing concept: Conceptual fault-lines and power battles within the restorative justice movement. Criminology and Criminal Justice 8 (2): 165–83.
  • McCold, P. May 30, 2004. From restorative justice to restorative practices: Expanding the paradigm. IIRP International conference on conferencing, circles, and other restorative practices. Retrieved from International Institute of Restorative Practices:
  • Morris, R. 1998. Why Transformative Justice? Paper presented at the ICCPPC World Congress. Mexico City.
  • Plantinga, C. 1995. Not the way it’s supposed to be: A breviary of sin. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
  • Pranis K., B. Stewart, and M. Wedge. 2003. Peacemaking circles: From crime to community. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press.
  • Stronks G., and D. Blomberg. 1993. A Vision With a task: Chrisitan schooling for responsive discipleship. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
  • Zehr, H. 2005. Changing lenses: A New focus for crime and Justice. Waterloo, ON: Herald Publishing.