Violence as a theological problem

[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ted Grimsrud. More on Ted below.]

We live in a world where all too many people purposefully contribute to the harm of other human beings either by action or inaction. Most violence emerges with some kind of rationale to legitimize its use. Based on his work with extremely violent offenders, the psychiatrist James Gilligan argues that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence still have some justification in the perpetrator’s mind.

Supposedly rational uses of violence like warfare and capital punishment follow their own self-conscious logic. At the core of this logic rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, ‘justice’ requires revenge.

Throughout the world, religiously-based violence draws heavily on the logic of retribution—think of the struggles in Northern Ireland, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the Sri Lankan civil war. The legitimacy of retribution is also a common cultural reference point in the United States, but where does it come from? In the U.S., it links directly to a particular brand of Christian theology. Deeply ingrained in the religious consciousness of the United States is the belief that retribution is God’s will.

Read more…

February 17th, 2015 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding)

The shock of forgiveness

Guest blog by Fabrice j. Guerrier


Hell is not merely a fiery story of eternal damnation written in a book; hell is what civilians experience in times of war. It is a lived experience that brings deep psychological trauma. War disintegrates the very social fabric people live in – their sense of safety, hope, and security. War separates, demonizes the other, and unleashes the worst in our human capacity to commit great evil.

“With their machetes, the child soldiers ripped open the stomach of pregnant women to see who would win the game in guessing the gender of the unborn baby.” This was a story I heard this summer, when I travelled for the first time in Africa to Sierra Leone to undertake a field research project exploring issues of justice. My question was, “How do we even begin to satisfy the justice needs of people after mass atrocities, genocide, and gross human rights violations?”

After the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, many ordinary citizens in the rural villages were dissatisfied with the transitional process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN-backed Sierra Leone Special Court. These were very much top-down processes that seemed to satisfy the needs of the international community but not the local community.

I worked with Fambul Tok International, an NGO that was formed after the war to address community reconciliation through community-led peacebuilding efforts, including truth-telling ceremonies rooted in indigenous traditions. Fambul Tok means ‘family talk’ in Sierra Leone’s Krio language and is a grassroots process. The research was intended to assess Fambul Tok’s effectiveness as a community-based, post-war transitional justice process in Sierra Leone.

As we drove through the dirt and rocky roads to access remote villages, the trembles of the car shook away my sense of worry as it reawakened childhood memories from my native country Haiti. It has been 300 years since my ancestors were uprooted around the same area in West Africa and brought to Haiti on slave ships. I said to myself, “I’m happy to be back after so long”.

Through the focus group interviews I conducted, I was able to enter a sacred space within the Sierra Leonean culture. I was shown a mass gravesite where hundreds of bodies had been dumped during the war. As I walked closer to the grave, I could but imagine the suffering they endured. Every single one of them was human. Each had family and dignity and now they lay wasted, buried. How many humans have perished in countless wars throughout history? I felt my mind flood with anger and despair slowly crept into my soul as I was confronted by the meaninglessness of life.

I shared a meal with a town chief and heard many stories. I believe stories are gifts and I carry every single one of them with me today as I write this piece. Through stories the spirit of people is passed down and remembered.

A woman told how the rebels had burned down her house, killed her husband and daughter, and stole all her cattle. She recognized the perpetrator as her neighbor, and had known him since he was a child. Even though there was a lot of pain and sorrow, she understood that since he lived in the community, neither she nor the community could move forward without reconciling with the person who had caused this harm.

I was shocked at how many people were willing to forgive. They said that healing the wounds of their society and village could not take place without it. They believed that it was an essential element to stop the cycles of violence. I was shocked because I expected to hear a more punitive, western approach to justice in which prisons are always the solution and the perpetrator is removed from the community.

I observed that this was generational difference; most of the adults valued forgiveness while the youth quickly sought a punitive approach to justice. It seemed that most of the youth were too young to remember the civil war or had not lived it. However, the older generation recognized that the need for the collective reconciliation outweighed their own primal lust for revenge.

There is a great need to localize justice processes all around the world in places of conflict; people need to be given a voice in shaping their own futures. I believe having a sense of ownership in the process of post-conflict reconstruction is fundamental and is one of the key ingredients for satisfying the needs of people after they experience war and its horrors. What would justice look like after the current conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq? As we speak millions of people are isolated, displaced by waves of pain that continue to drown their sense of hope.

Even though I acknowledge the value of various approaches to justice – restorative, retributive and indigenous – I do not wish to romanticism any one of them. What I know for sure is that we need to allow people to collectively decide for themselves and not impose a “universal” because context always matters. I believe this is what Fambul Tok has done, and has done well.

As for me. I was changed in this way: having observed the experiences of the people of Sierra Leone and their ability to overcome the horrors of the war through their wealth in values, I am no longer bogged down by the trivial things in my life when something goes wrong. I live more lightly.


Fabrice J. Guerrier is currently a 2nd year graduate student at CJP. He was born and raised in the Republic of Haiti. He completed his B.S. at Florida State University in International Affairs with a focus in Political Science. He also holds a Leadership Studies Certificate through the FSU Center for Leadership and Social Change. Fabrice founded and ran a small non-profit think tank called The LEEHG Institute for four and half years. He has extensive leadership experiences in community outreach and student organizations and has a chapter published on his work in the newest edition of the Student Leadership Challenge book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Fabrice interned this summer at U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in Washington D.C. He currently works as the Graduate Research Assistant for the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.

September 11th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Jails aren’t the problem

As is the case in many communities, our jail is full.  (“Overcrowded” is the usual term, but how can something be “over” crowded? It’s crowded, or it’s not).  Although a study is being conducted, the company doing the study is an architectural firm, so it seems inevitable that a new jail will be recommended.

In this interview by local journalist Andrew Jenner, I argue that building a new jail will not solve the problem. The issue lies earlier in the system.


September 5th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Uncategorized)

A case of mistaken identity

On the day before the conference began I was walking through the market in Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico with friends Katia Cecilia Ornelas-Núñez and Nuri Nusrat. When we emerged from the church on the square, two men were staring at me. We ignored them and began to walk away but they approached us, identifying themselves as journalists.

Someone had called their office to say that prominent poet and human rights activist Javier Sicilia was in town. Apparently I look like him; both of us have gray beards, wear glasses, and wear similar hats.


Javier Sicilia

We convinced the journalists that I was not Sicilia, but then they approached us again in the market and one of them, Marco Esquivel, asked if he could take a picture with me, explaining the resemblance to Sicilia. He next proceeded to interview me and became intrigued with restorative justice.

Read more…

July 15th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice in education – possibilities, but also concerns

The following is a guest blog post by our colleague in the EMU Education Department, Kathy Evans.

There is a great deal of momentum right now for implementing restorative justice in education. This makes me incredibly excited – and a bit nervous.


Let’s start with the good news! RJ is gaining lots of attention in education. Recently, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education came together to issue a colleague letter alerting schools that they can be cited for disproportionately disciplining students in certain categories. These federal agencies then recommended restorative justice as one way to address disproportionate discipline in schools!

Schools across the nation, from California to Virginia, are moving to replace their zero tolerance policies with restorative justice approaches. Every week, I get notices about school-based restorative justice programs popping up. That’s exciting! Closer to home, EMU has just begun the nation’s first graduate program specifically focusing on Restorative Justice in Education (RJE). It’s a great time to be an educator who is looking to implement RJ!

Read more…

June 26th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Reflections on reconciliation and forgiveness

The following is a guest blog post by CJP graduate Sanjay Pulipaka.  A short bio can be found at the end.

Sanjay Pulipaka Photo

Often Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been initiated as a response to mass violence. It is interesting to note that the phrase “reconciliation commission” is used in responses to mass violence but not ‘forgiveness commission.” Why is that so?

What is forgiveness? When a victim stops feeling anger, resentment, and/or refrains from seeking compensation for crime/misconduct/misdeed perpetrated by an offender/individual, then it is deemed that forgiveness has come into play. Forgiveness is essentially an act of a victim. Forgiveness can be unilateral wherein an individual or group of people may bestow it on others without an explicit request for it. Sometimes, forgiveness is initiated when an individual acknowledges that their actions may have resulted in unwarranted infliction of pain/suffering and seeks normalization of a relationship.

Forgiveness necessitates that the anger in a relationship should be addressed. However, does transcending grief constitute an essential component of forgiveness? Is it possible to grieve and yet forgive? Is there a possibility that sustained grief may prompt individuals to rescind their forgiveness? I don’t have answers for these questions.

Read more…

June 18th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

What are your “core texts” for restorative justice?

Changing Lenses:  A New Focus for Crime and Justice, initially published in 1990, is often viewed as a foundational work in the restorative justice field.   It has gone through several editions, and now the publishers plan to release an “anniversary edition” next year, the 25th year since its first release.

I need your help.  I would like to include a bibliography of essential reading, developed from suggestions by people in the field.

What are your favorite texts?  What reading do you consider essential to understand the concept and practice of restorative justice? You can add your suggestions as comments below or, if you prefer, email them to me.

Thanks for your help!


June 5th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice and the arts

Don’t miss our webinar next week!

How can artistic practices and approaches be applied in restorative justice? In what ways might restorative approaches and principles inform artistic practices? In this webinar, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Restorative Justice Program will provide a case study in the intersection of socially-engaged art and restorative justice.

The Mural Arts Program incorporates the theory of restorative justice in providing art instruction, mural making, community service work and a paid work program, (the Guild) within the criminal justice system. Inmates, returning citizens and juveniles are afforded the opportunity to learn new skills and make a positive contribution to their communities to repair prior harm caused, reclaim public spaces, develop competency skills and engage victims of crime in dialog. The Mural Arts Program has focused its Restorative Justice work in three areas: inside Graterford State Correctional Institution; with its Guild Program; and with the juvenile justice system.

Join Jane Golden, Executive Director, Robyn Buseman, Restorative Justice Program Director, and a program artist to learn more about the program and view the work.

Howard Zehr will facilitate the webinar.

Registration is free.

When: April 23, 2014, 4:30-6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (United States)

April 16th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Photography, Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice as a social movement: upcoming webinar

Our next webinar, entitled “Possibility or pipedream:  A restorative justice movement,” is coming up March 19, 2014.

Join us for a frank conversation between Dr. Dana Greene and Dr. Carl Stauffer exploring the unrealized revolutionary promise of restorative justice. They will examine the current direction of restorative justice in particular highlighting missteps all too reminiscent of past reforms. They will discuss tactics, strategies, assets, and as of yet neglected opportunities to use restorative justice to foment a social justice movement in the United States.

Carl and Dana have given considerable thought to social movements and the extent to which restorative justice is, or can be, a true movement.  Here is a chance to explore this important topic.

If the $10 charge is an issue, email Lindsay Martin Styer ( to have the fee waived.

Update: The webinar recording is now available.

March 13th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Critical conversation with “The New Jim Crow” – next webinar

Real World Restorative Justice Webinar: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 4:30-6:00 p.m. EST

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,” has gained widespread attention for its compelling analysis of the relationship between mass incarceration and racism in the U.S. Join us as guests Jacqueline Roebuck Sahko, Shiv Desai and Nekima Levy-Pounds begin a dialogue about intersecting the lanes of education, race, discipline and community-centric practice. What strategies can folks on the ground adopt to address these issues? For more information and to register, visit


February 14th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)