A simple question was put to the two young men who burned down the church: “Why did you do this to us?”

There was a long pause, and the question sat heavily in the room. The victims, a group of eight adults from the Scandia Lutheran Church in Barron County, Wisconsin, needed to make better sense of the situation. Some of them had belonged to this farmland church their entire lives, having been baptized there as infants. And now there was nothing left; the building had been reduced to ashes. The meeting was therefore happening in another rural church nearby.

The offenders began to go deeper into their own stories in hopes of giving a better answer to the victims’ question. The older one spoke of his recent tour of duty as a soldier in Iraq, how he struggled with what he saw there, and how on returning he blew his “award” money by living it up, only to regress into a drug habit that needed to be financially sustained. This led to desperate acts of stealing metal, such as copper, that could be traded for money. He, with his younger accomplice, had burglarized over ten locations. This story hit home for one of the victims, who shared the tragic story of his nephew who committed suicide after returning from Iraq.

The younger offender, recently out of high school, spoke of how he had been picked on at school for his minority ethnic status. He openly talked about the frustration and pent-up anger that brewed within him, often resulting from times when school staff treated him as the primary troublemaker. He eventually developed a habit of destroying property, as he did with the furniture in the sanctuary before a smoldering candle later set nearby items aflame. Wrecking things in the burglarized locations was his way of venting his feelings on a community that failed to show the care and support he sought.

On hearing these stories, one of the victims, speaking for the rest, replied with a genuine “thank you.” There was a palpable feeling of relief in the room. The offenders had previously expressed their remorse and apology, but when the victims received a fuller account of what motivated the misbehaviors, it helped them make better sense out of a seemingly senseless situation. And then one of the victims talked about her desire and choice to forgive the offenders since forgiveness was something they all recited every Sunday in the liturgy. When the offenders heard the victims say, “We want to forgive you,” it truly took them by surprise. It was the last thing they expected to hear.

As the main facilitator for this case, I noted how the entire dialogue process moved from an awkward tension at the beginning to a more relaxed state of conversation toward the end. This shifting of energies is nothing new for restorative justice practitioners to witness. In fact, the very model of bringing parties together for safe, constructive dialogue is designed to foster this sort of shift. Without such a shift that relaxes participants and even dispels mistrust and hard feelings, it is very difficult for people to move on well and experience greater peace. And it remains next to impossible for the group to focus on working out future reparations consensually. When the restorative justice process offers no genuine shift, people remain captive to the past.

Through my years working with victims and offenders, I have developed a passion for chronicling stories of deep resolution. There is something very powerful about people moving from a place of complete separation to a place where they shake hands or even hug each other at the end. I also enjoy finding connection points between this work and biblical narratives. In a concrete way, this work has allowed me to put my faith into practice. This is largely due to the many parallels between person-to-person reconciliation and divine-human reconciliation. One of the common features in restorative narratives is how true justice involves the overcoming of evil with good.

Religion and spirituality have always been integral to the restorative justice movement. This is evident in its North American genesis in 1974, when Mennonite probation officers in Ontario pushed their Bible study reflections into the realm of criminal casework. When the movement began to revitalize centuries-old indigenous traditions such as Native American talking circles and Maori family group conferences, it became evident that these non-Western models had sacred status on a par with other spiritual practices. And is not the mending of human hearts and broken relationships the core of the Christian gospel? It is not surprising that theological studies are increasingly being influenced by the restorative justice movement, as exemplified in the writings of Christopher Marshall.

When asked to summarize what restorative justice is, I often resort to a simple illustration. If your child throws a ball and breaks your neighbor’s window, what do you do? Invariably, adults will say: I would take the child with me to the neighbor to apologize, to listen to what the neighbor has to say, and to offer to make amends. This, of course, is what the neighbor would want too. If, on the other hand, the neighbor found out that the child was merely punished and no communication efforts were made, he or she would rightly feel that justice was not done, precisely because the victim was ignored. Restorative justice focuses on the harm done more than on the law broken. Attention to the harm draws greater attention to victims and thus to the repairing of harms.

At the high end of the harm spectrum, restorative justice allows for safe, well-prepared meetings between murder victims’ family members and the perpetrators in prison. The same building-blocks apply as with a simple shoplifting case: the expression of ownership, remorse, impacts, empathy, apology, amends, and so on. In cases of severe and violent crime, when parties share their deep emotional pain, they often end up experiencing the removal of a heavy internal weight. The goodness of honest, heart-to-heart conversation literally overcomes the evil of the crime and its consequences. While there is never a prescribed expectation that forgiveness will be expressed in the restorative process, time and time again participants experience genuine forgiveness whether or not the language of forgiveness is explicitly used.

I once interviewed a woman whose mother was murdered, asking her to sum up what it meant to her to meet with the man who had killed her mother. She talked about how helpful it was to hear him acknowledge the evil thing he had done and to take complete responsibility. She also talked about how good it was for him to hear her pain at not ever being able to get closer to her mother. “When I walked out of the prison, the core of my whole life changed. I felt I was in a state of grace. I felt like a completely new person. I felt like the whole burden of everything had lifted from me.” Through the facilitated dialogue process, she said, “I gave him his life back, and later I realized that he gave me my life back.”

Through this life-restoring lens, justice is defined in terms of positive responsibilities to render good for evil. Full justice is the reinstatement of the good to mitigate the evil that was done. If justice is only a negative response to match the degree of a prior negative – an eye for an eye at best – it may bring a type of equity into play, and it may deter future misdeeds, but such justice does nothing to set things right again between people. New research is now showing how punitive responses to crime that incorporate no remedial means of accountability are frequently counterproductive, driving up future crime rates and taxpayer dollars. Restorative justice, by contrast, seeks positive outcomes for both offenders and victims through attention to accountability and support, through the empowerment of direct communications, through the building of trust and understanding, and through the fulfillment of reparation and reintegration.

In all of the above examples, open communication is central. By speaking and listening from the heart, victims gain new trust and offenders gain new understanding. This internalized learning is an essential ingredient toward taking positive responsibility to make things right, not just for the one incident, but for sustaining right relationships in the future. For this kind of learning to be fruitful, it must involve responding to what one has learned. Unlike courtroom processes, where communication is highly restricted, restorative dialogue helps offenders to be “response-able” to what they have just learned. Meanwhile, the experience of being heard is vital in helping victims to transition toward trust and closure. Out of this comes a double peace: a peace within and a relational peace between persons.

In all of this we see how the restoration of human relationships is vital to the resolution of crimes. Communities are less served by retributive justice measures that fail to heal the brokenness both caused and revealed by crime. Restorative justice seeks to heal these wounds at every level: for victims, offenders, and entire communities. This fits well with the medieval English concept of atonement, literally “at-one-ment,” which is associated with the New Testament concept of reconciliation. Disconnections are overcome by connections.

One of the most pressing questions of our day is, “How can cycles of violence be stopped?” People are realizing that those who violently victimize others were almost always themselves once victims of unjust abuse and resulting trauma. The church-burning case certainly shows this cyclical pattern. Part of what helps victims to move forward out of their resentments or negative ruminations is to experience the humanization of the offender. At some level, every human being is a victim as well as an offender. We are all wounded and we can all wound others.

This is where the death of Jesus provides the ultimate answer. Because all people are victim/offender combinations, forgiveness has to cut both ways to be holistic. The cross in all of its significance is oriented to both offenders and victims. It addresses not only our sins but our sinned-uponness. This is very good news, considering how our own habits of sinning stem out of those deep, unhealed places of past pain. Once we begin to see this interplay within ourselves, we can better see how genuine justice between human beings must bring wholeness to both victims and offenders.

It was necessary for the two young men who had burned down the Lutheran church (and had already spent a year in jail for the crime) to make restitution and other reparations. These plans were worked out in detail so that they could demonstrate their intent to make things right. Even so, the highest restoration happened on a relational level. Forgiveness opened up the possibility for them to live well with others, and to live with themselves.

A while after the meeting with the church folk, I facilitated an encounter between the same offenders and a neighboring farmer and his wife. This elderly farmer had grown up in the same church and also knew the families of the young men. The offenders had stolen metal items from his farm and sold them as scrap to get cash. The farmer spoke very candidly about how hurt he was when he found out who had stolen his property and caused the church to burn down. There were plenty of tears in the room. Hearts were softened. And in the end there were handshakes, heads held high, and eye-to-eye contact before everyone parted ways. People came with their vulnerabilities, but they left with the strengthening gift of reconciliation. Evil was overcome by the good, and new life was rising again.

Photograph from www.restorativetrainer.com; used with permission.