November 29th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)
Is a victim of crime who values restorative justice welcome in the restorative justice community only if s/he “works for” forgiveness?
How is a victim of crime who believes in healing for both victim and offender, but continues to struggle with her/his understanding of justice, supported by restorative justice groups and associations?
Are victims invited to the restorative justice dialogue even when they are far from knowing what healing means – but yearn to enter this place?
If a victim does not understand or believe in restorative justice, is s/he excluded from the dialogue?
Does rj have room for victims who are in the throes of deep and savage grief, feeling that they are somehow “bad” because they are not “chosen” or “holy” or “healed” enough to belong to what can often seem an elite group who “know” about living life after crime?
Margot Van Sluytman, whose father was murdered, has dedicated her life to the healing of both victims and offenders. Recently she emailed me these questions after attending a restorative justice conference. They are important questions.
It is tempting for restorative justice advocates, consciously or not, to differentiate between “good” and “bad victims.” Good victims are those who are ready to forgive and reconcile; bad victims are those who are angry, punitive and unforgiving.
“How do we react to such victims?” asks Heather Strang in her essay, “Is Restorative Justice Imposing Its Agenda on Victims?” (Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, Zehr & Toews, eds.). “Probably most often by dreading and discouraging the one and encouraging and welcoming the other,” she observes. Strange goes on to suggest that “bad” is often a function of the emotional harm they have suffered and that they may have the most to gain from an encounter.
An attitude of forgiveness is a lovely thing, and a restorative encounter that results in some measure of forgiveness or reconciliation is wonderful. However, I would suggest that this is not a goal of restorative justice and is not a measure of whether an approach qualifies as restorative justice. For me, restorative justice is about addressing harms and needs, and helping those who have offended to understand and accept the resulting obligations. To the extent possible, it implies a collaborative and dialogical process. As long as an encounter can be engaged in respectfully and safely for all participants, whether a victim is angry or forgiving is not the decisive factor. And in an encounter, the choice to forgive and reconcile is totally up to the participants; forgiveness is not a measure of whether a restorative justice approach has occurred or is worthwhile.
It is important that we as practitioners welcome those who have been harmed into our midst, regardless of their orientation. Restorative justice calls us to listen to their harms and to the extent we can, help them identify and address their needs, regardless of whether they are forgiving. That, to my mind, is essential to being a restorative justice community.