Reflections on Restorative Processes and Justice

Reflections on Restorative Processes and Justice

Reflections on Restorative Processes and Justice by facilitators in training during the Roots in the Ruins: Hope in Trauma program after reading “The Little Book of Restorative Justice” by Howard Zehr and participating in restorative role-plays and simulations. 

By Pastor Danilo Jimenez from the Congregational Church in Nayarit
Pastora Adriana Aldama from the Church of the Nazarene in Oaxaca 
Pastor Josué Martínez from the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in San Luis Potosí
and Elena Huegel, Editor

How do I begin to tell the story of my fun-loving, caring son?  My son, a father, an older brother, a musician, an active member of the church, last year became another number in Mexico’s statistics:  over 33,000 people were murdered in 2018, the highest number in the recorded history of my country.

On average, 94 people were murdered every day last year.   There will be no justice.  When I asked a few questions about the police, they threatened me into silence.  Who can disentangle the web of government representatives, police and military officials, and criminal organizations that fight for territory, money, and power in my town, state, and country?  My son was one more good, upright, hardworking, young person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In my country, we must bite our tongues not only in fear of powerful criminals but also the authorities who, instead of giving us answers, often treat us as suspects.  The traditional position of the legal system in Mexico is “one is guilty until proven innocent.” Everyone even remotely related to a crime can be judged.  Innocent people go to jail and are forgotten by the system while criminals go free through bribes, cashing in on favors, or threats of kidnappings or further violence.

A restorative process is, first of all, about learning to speak and learning to listen.  The first step in my restoration process has been to tell my story and for it to be heard. What can be done so that my story and those of thousands of victims in our country can be heard in the service of truth, justice, restoration, and healing?

Restorative justice seeks to restore people to right relationships in a community.  The focus is on the hurt or damage done to the victim, the victims family, and the community.  The needs of the victims, as well as those of the community, are taken into consideration.  Restorative justice also looks at the perpetrator in a holistic way seeking to broaden the picture from the crime to how it has affected individuals, families, and communities, to make offenders directly responsible for their actions and behaviors, and to find ways to restore the cohesion of the community.   It is important to understand the basic tenant of Restorative Justice that states that only those people who recognize their offense, at least in part,  can participate in restorative processes.  Someone who refuses to recognize how they have hurt others and damaged their community cannot work from the ground up to rebuild what they have destroyed.  Will the drug lords, people traffickers, fuel thieves, and corrupt government workers ever recognize what they have done?  If this is a condition for restorative processes, then healing the torn fabric of Mexican society seems hopeless and impossible.  Perhaps, we need to not think about starting so big; perhaps we need to start with our families and children, encouraging each of us to recognize the ways we have hurt others and dare to participate in restorative processes, learning step by step the hard but rewarding work of shedding light on shame, speaking truth in love, recognizing and protecting the dignity of each individual no matter what they have done, and restoring damaged relationships.   

Howard Zehr proposes five simple questions to measure the breadth of restorative justice present in a process.

  • Have the victims experienced justice?
  • What are the needs of the victim?
  • Have the offenders experienced justice?
  • What are the needs and responsibilities of the offenders?
  • Has the relationship between the victim and offender been dealt with?
  • Have the needs of the community been considered?
  • Have the greater implications of this situation been considered in looking towards the future?

Restorative justice is about the importance of caring for the dignity not only of the victim but also of the offender.  If in Mexico there are thousands of murders each year, then that means that there are also thousands of murderers.  How are we going to bring about the healing and transformation of all of those citizens who have taken part in violent crimes?  Even if the retributive legal system worked in this country, we would never have enough space to jail all those involved in criminal activities, and our communities would suffer as incarcerated fathers, brothers, and sons would disappear from daily life.

Can there be a justice-serving path for offenders, even murderers, to be reintegrated into our society?  Can we find ways to bring healing to offenders as well as victims? What can we do as church leaders in the face of such widespread violence? 

We can start to practice and apply restorative processes in our local churches, teaching people how to commit to community covenants and participate in restorative circle processes when those covenants are violated or damaged.  We can educate the members of our churches on the different forms of justice,  on how systemic injustice creates the environment of hopelessness and powerlessness where crime can flourish, and on how to implement restorative practices in their families and communities as well as church relationships.  We can create opportunities to apply these practices first in small ways and with simpler issues before tackling the big ones.  The most important skills we can teach the members of our churches are:

  • To listen with empathy and curiosity, suspending judgment until all the voices have been heard.
  • To speak the truth from our hearts, nurturing, and caring for our dignity as we consider and uphold the dignity of others.

Perhaps if we model restorative justice practices in our churches, then we can begin, one drop of water at a time, to fill the empty bucket of justice with new ways to correct wrongs and restore right relationships.  Relationships in families, friends, and community are at the heart of Mexican culture.  May we be instruments in the healing of that heart. 

Elena Huegel serves as a Mission Co-worker with the Intercultural Research and Studies Institute (INESIN), Chiapas, Mexico. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Churchs Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.