Restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition

& Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice.

I recently had occasion to reflect on some of the points of resonance between restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition.  I am particularly grateful for the help of my friend Sujatha Baliga in this.

As a Mennonite, I grew up in a family and a tradition of nonviolence and peacemaking, and knew something of Gandhi.  However, it was as a student at Morehouse College, during the civil rights era, that I engaged more deeply.  It was there that my understanding of the Gandhian tradition was mediated through the work and example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whom I had the privilege to meet), Dr. Vincent Harding (a long-time influence on my life), my professors and the civil rights activists with whom I came in contact.

Many observers (and not only those within what has been called the “peacemaking criminology” tradition) have noted that our criminal justice system is based on, and enforced by, violence or the threat of violence.  Political scientists often point out that the basis of the modern state is the “legitimate monopoly on violence.” The criminal justice system is a major player in enacting and expressing this:  “You’ve harmed us, so we will harm you.”

Quinny and Wildeman, in their book The Problem of Punishment, note that from its beginning in the 18th century Enlightenment, the primary focus of criminology has been on retribution and punishment: “Historically, the focal concerns of western criminology have not centered on the themes of personal peace and social justice…. We have had a reactionary criminology of violence and repression in the defense of an existing social order rather than a criminology of peace, justice and liberation.”

Thanks to Sujatha, I will focus my observations around three words associated with Gandhi:

1.  Ahimsa, often translated as “nonviolence,” should not be a negative.  Rather, it refers to positive action grounded in a worldview of respect for one another, a vision of how we live together.  Likewise, restorative justice is based on respect.  It too represents positive actions of caring for one another, for our needs, and our relationships.  It reflects a vision of how we live together, steeped in values such as respect, responsibility and relationship.

In my religious tradition, it is expressed in what I call the “Shalom triangle” – a reminder that we are called to live in right relationship with each other, with the Creation and the Creator.

2.  Swaraj refers to the concept of self-rule.  The Gandhian movement emphasized self governance, both personally and socially.  Similarly, restorative justice argues that individuals and communities have the potential and the resources to govern themselves.  In its practices, it encourages both individuals and communities to call upon their best selves.  Restorative justice is, or should be, about helping individuals and communities develop their capacity for self-governance.

3.  Satyayraha, probably the best-known of these terms, is often translated as nonviolent resistance. However, it is better translated as “truth force,” or action through truth.  Like ahimsa, it is a positive, not a negative.  Restorative justice too represents encouragement toward truth-telling and truth-seeking.  While the criminal justice system, and our disciplinary policies generally, often discourage a holistic telling of the truth, restorative justice encourages it.

I will end with three quotes attributed to Gandhi.

1.  The first is well known:  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” – a critique of revenge and retribution.

2.  “Be the change you wish to see.”  It is not clear that Gandhi said exactly that, but he did say something similar:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”[1]

We see this happening in restorative justice conferences and circles.  Restorative justice asks us to be this change – to live it, practice it – as practitioners and as participants.  Many argue that restorative justice represents a way of life.

3.  “That action alone is just which does not harm either party to a dispute.”  This, like restorative justice, represents a direct challenge to the prevailing criminology of violence.


[1] Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi , vol. 19 (Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publications Division, 1958), 233; quoted in Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 342.

6 Responses to “Restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition”

  1. Brian R. Gumm

    Thanks for this post, Howard, and to Sujatha as well for helping inform it!

    It strikes me that points 2 & 3 – swaraj/self-rule and satyayraha/truth-force, respectively – resonate with what I tentatively called here recently an “anarchist” genius to restorative justice. “Anarchist” here being understood as basically a synonym for “radical democracy.”

    Radical democratic movements are by definition concerned with self-rule/governing in as local & participatory a form as you can get it, and that is often itself an implicit or explicit critique (truth-force/telling?) of dominant systems of power and control.

    If there’s something to this resonance, have the radical democratic political dimensions of restorative justice been adequately investigated, Howard? Seems like it would be fertile ground for RJ scholarship…

  2. Charito Calvachi-Mateyko

    Your thoughts are very inspiring!
    “Doing Democracy with Circles: Engaging Communities in Public Planning” by Jennifer Ball, Wayne Caldwell and Kay Pranis, is a very good example on how restorative justice processes could help to attain community governance on issues that matter in democracy. Circle process bring the element of respect, which is the bases for one of the STAR Transforming Historic Harms’ strategies: Connections, which means to speak truth to those who have the power of decision making without being confrontational –to be actually more effective.

    Barbara Toews came with Tyrone Werts to Delaware, yesterday, October 24, 2013, and it was a great moment when voices of those concerned with the criminal justice system in Delaware spoke their truth, respectfully, to the officials present in the room, who were amazing, and participated in the exchange. That was different from the environment of Town Hall meetings. I think that restorative justice has a lot to contributive in democracy building.

  3. Utah Home Loans

    I dad’s generation grew up with more violence then did I. And I’m raising my son with much less violence then I had. Yet, excluding wars, there is more violence exploited on most media outlets then ever before. Is education the answer? Seems as though society needs to be getting their “fix” somewhere.

  4. alan

    This is an excellent post i will read more from you in the future. Ghandi has many connections to my country(south Africa) but not many people in my country learnt from his teachings. I think many countries should learn from exceptional heroes from the past and in the future hopefully this will shape us into better people. The current generation is very violent an need to learn what people like Dr king and even our own people like Nelson Mandela fought for.

  5. japar

    Your thoughts are very inspiring!
    “Doing Democracy with Circles: Engaging Communities in Public Planning” by Jennifer Ball, Wayne Caldwell and Kay Pranis, is a very good example on how restorative justice processes could help to attain community governance on issues that matter in democracy. Circle process bring the element of respect, which is the bases for one of the STAR Transforming Historic Harms’ strategies: Connections, which means to speak truth to those who have the power of decision making without being confrontational –to be actually more effective.

    Barbara Toews came with Tyrone Werts to Delaware, yesterday, October 24, 2013, and it was a great moment when voices of those concerned with the criminal justice system in Delaware spoke their truth, respectfully, to the officials present in the room, who were amazing, and participated in the exchange. That was different from the environment of Town Hall meetings. I think that restorative justice has a lot to contributive in democracy building.

    http://kutempel.blogspot.com

  6. travel world online

    Barbara Toews came with Tyrone Werts to Delaware, yesterday, October 24, 2013, and it was a great moment when voices of those concerned with the criminal justice system in Delaware spoke their truth, respectfully, to the officials present in the room, who were amazing, and participated in the exchange. That was different from the environment of Town Hall meetings. I think that restorative justice has a lot to contributive in democracy building. – See more at: http://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2013/10/23/restorative-justice-and-the-gandhian-tradition/#sthash.mBw4Qqq2.dpuf