Eastern Mennonite University

Summer 2007

'Old Geezer' Aims to Pass the Baton

Howard Zehr
Howard Zehr (Photo by Shawn Hunter)

This article is adapted from a speech that Howard Zehr, PhD, co-director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) and professor of restorative justice, gave last October at Hamline University in Minnesota on the occasion of his receiving the 2006 Journal of Law and Religion Lifetime Achievement Award.

It was Zehrís fifth major award in three years for his role in founding the field of restorative justice and popularizing it.

Wishing to spend more time in restorative justice work, Zehr will step down as co-director of CJP in 2007, but will remain active as a resource person, communicator, and professor based at EMU.


In my restorative justice class at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, I require my graduate students to try to explain restorative justice to someone who knows nothing about it. Moussa was one of these students. He was Muslim, from Rwanda, and had lost his family in the genocide. He decided to explain restorative justice to his Catholic-Rwandan wife. He was just getting wound up when she broke in with a laugh: “You came all the way here, spent all this money, just to learn what every African already knows?”

When I was writing Changing Lenses in the late 1980s I thought I might be laughed at. But that hasn’t happened, perhaps because I was pulling together ideas already deeply felt. This is certainly true for people from many indigenous or traditional systems, but it is also true for many of us.

On my first visit to New Zealand, in 1994, their restorative youth justice system was only five years old. I was asked to speak throughout the islands, on radio, on TV, in community settings. At the end of the visit the chief youth judge, who was Maori, told me, “You don’t know how good it is to hear you articulating all this in a way that Westerners can understand. People want to write our system off as Maori.”

"When former student Tammy Krause takes restorative justice into the unlikely arena of death penalty litigation, I see the baton pass. When Barb Toews works with prisoners to develop restorative justice from their perspective, the baton passes."

In my view, restorative justice resonates with biblical justice. Paradoxically, though, one of the biggest challenges has been to get Christians to rethink their assumptions about punishment and to recognize the restorative themes in their tradition.

The metaphor that has guided most of my work life has been that of a “journalist of justice.” As I got into this work 30 years ago, I set out to be an interpreter, to conceptualize and communicate what was going on. Whatever theory or conceptual framework I have contributed was motivated by a desire to communicate what we were doing and why.

All this is not a path that I consciously chose. My academic background was in European history, of all things, but then many paths began to converge: my commitment to communication and popular education, my history of science background (that contributed paradigm theory), my history training, my dissertation research in historical crime, my advocacy for prisoners and defendants in the 1970s, my faith, even my photography. Indeed, Changing Lenses is essentially the story of my journey to that point.

But it took an “act of God,” a fire (a biblical image!), to open my eyes and set me on the path of restorative justice. It was when the halfway house I was directing burnt that I (reluctantly I must admit) got involved in bringing victims and offenders together, and that was my conversion experience. It was then that I began to truly understand what was wrong with justice as we commonly know it and to realize there was another way.

SPI session with Howard Zehr
Zehr using image theater to explore the dynamics of severe violence mediation/dialogue during the first session of SPI 2007. (Photo by Matt Styer)

Over the past three decades, the field of restorative justice has expanded beyond my wildest imagination. As I look out on these developments, my enthusiasm about these developments is in tension with my concern about the possible – indeed, inevitable – distortions and misuses of the concept. I always tell my students that all interventions have unintended consequences, all will go astray, regardless of our good intentions. Thus it is essential to hold in tension idealism and realism; indeed, I am much more concerned about the true believer than the skeptic.

Our critics point out that we tend to be like butterfly collectors, focusing on the best specimens. But we also must learn from our mistakes. As one of my former students, Craig Spaulding, has put it, we need to tell both butterfly and bullfrog stories. This isn’t easy to do. I was in a workshop where we went around the circle telling stories. Each person had a beautiful story of hope and reconciliation to tell. When it was my turn, I told of a disastrous circle in which we did everything wrong. To use a phrase stolen from someone else, my story went over like a skunk at a garden party. The group went back to their butterfly stories.

One of the many debates in the field is whether restorative justice is or should be transformative justice. Some say these are two different approaches. Some say they are the same under a different name, and some say that restorative justice is a way station on the road to transformative justice. All three of these positions are true in some sense; my hope is that restorative justice will ultimately lead to the transformation of not only individuals but society as well.

It gives me hope when I hear people talk about “restorative marriage.” It’s exciting to hear women at Muncy prison in Pennsylvania supporting and holding one another accountable with a simple question: “Is that the RJ way?” I know something is happening when a police commander in a restorative justice training comes in the next day and tells me that when his daughter wrecked the car the night before, he dealt with her much differently than he normally would have – because of restorative justice.

Today I see myself near the end of my formal career and I’m trying to proactively embrace old-geezerdom. At this point, I believe my primary responsibility is to pass the baton to others. And I’m in a wonderful place to do that. With “students” (my former colleague John Paul Lederach called them “colleagues masquerading as students”) who are practitioners from all over the world, my job, as someone has said, is to “create a space where wisdom can come forth.” Much wisdom does come forth and they go on to take restorative justice into arenas and applications that I never could have imagined. When former student Tammy Krause takes restorative justice into the unlikely arena of death penalty litigation, I see the baton pass. When Barb Toews works with prisoners to develop restorative justice from their perspective, the baton passes. When former students apply restorative justice to help address justice issues in inter-community conflicts in Ghana, the baton has passed.

Through all this, I seek to find balance and personal space in my life, and to encourage my students to do so: to be half-hearted fanatics. I take seriously the admonition of naturalist Edward Abbey: “Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am. A reluctant enthusiast and a part-time crusader. A half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the west. It is even more important to enjoy it, while you can, while it’s still there.”

ZEHRíS BOOKS: The third edition of Howard Zehrís seminal book "Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Punishment" was issued in 2005. Zehr's Little Book of Restorative Justice (2002) is the bestselling book in the field. Zehr's books have been translated into Japanese, Czech, Spanish, Chinese, Pakistanís languages of Pushto, Urdo and Persian, Ukranian and Russian.

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