Forget restorative justice

Guest Blog by Aaron Lyons

“True justice emerges through conversation” – Howard Zehr

“So, what are your thoughts on the killing of Osama Bin Laden?,” a woman inquires almost casually at a spring dinner party. Admittedly, the US military operation in Pakistan occupies the minds of many at this time – but surely this is not the usual pre-dinner small-talk. Realizing I’ve probably invited the challenge by my mention of my work in restorative justice, I engage with her in the hopes that we might unearth some of the topic’s complexity.

Quickly the more fundamental questions rise to the surface: How do we make sense of injustice? What is the true meaning of accountability? How do we attempt to restore order in the face of irreparable harm? Can people change? What does healing require? What are our own needs within all of this? Caught in this rich quagmire, and with no easy answers, we are the last to sit down to dinner.

Our work in restorative justice demands a skill that both transcends and includes direct engagement with participants. Beyond facilitating dialogue in the aftermath of harm, restorative justice practitioners have the implicit role of facilitating a gradual, collective re-visioning of justice in society. As we look up from our immediate work to the larger conversations that form our social and political environment, we observe that to practice restorative justice is to engage with the retributive and adversarial frames of justice that constitute the status quo.

Whether we wish it or not, our work brings us into dialogue with the people who by their views uphold an apparently different conception of justice. The stance we take in engaging with the deep-seated impulse towards punishment is of vital importance. It will be paramount to the success of our attempts at re-visioning justice in accordance with restorative values.

We as restorative justice advocates are often lured by our own passion into a kind of philosophical zealousness. It goes something like this: we know a way that is more holistic, effective and morally satisfying to deal with crime and its impacts; thus in order to achieve a more truly just world, we must educate and convert the public and decision-makers on the merit of this approach. Sound vaguely familiar?

There is a dissonance in the notion of restorative justice approaching its aims through adversarial means.  Restorative justice is not about denying or silencing the voices of anyone, including its opposition. Its spirit is just the opposite. When we’re most clear-headed, we understand that our prerogative is to listen to dissent as though our survival depends on it – which indeed, as a movement, it might. We cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the sentiments underlying the impulse to punish. There is too much richness there, too much of importance.

This very conversation is the realm in which we humans negotiate our feelings of hurt and fear and grief, our rage, our needs for safety and dignity and felt accountability. We will never succeed as a partner in that negotiation if we cling to our positions and blindly impose our preferred outcomes.

The search for justice should be an act of deepening, not hardening. Let’s be clear – engaging openly with the punitive impulse does not mean accepting the thirst for vengeance at face value, or standing by mutely while destructive emotions chart the course of action. A restorative mindset suggests a spirit of both curiosity and companionship – of working together to excavate ever deeper through the layers of constructed meaning about justice. It is about inquiring deeply into an individual’s perceptions of justice, and then when their apparent conclusion has been presented, asking “what for” once more.

Our work invites us to seek the bedrock of a person’s sense of justice, trusting that beneath the strata of fear, pain and reaction there are some clear gems of truth. We cannot predict what we will find there. It may appear messy, falling nowhere within our own neat conceptions of “restorative.” But maybe this unknown and even feral quality is part of the inherent richness of our work.

Being a catalyst for exploratory justice conversations does not require that we adopt a facade of neutrality with regard to our own sense of justice. Such conversations rightly hold all of us in dialogue with our own most deeply held values. But if our concern is with meaningful justice, then our primary task is that of holding space for others as they navigate their way through emotional, substantive and spiritual questions.

Our commitment to justice is expressed as an invitation to dialogue. More than advocating for a certain type of justice, we are invited to stand for a certain type of conversation about justice.

[Aaron Lyons (MA ’08) is a restorative justice practitioner and trainer with the British Columbia based Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association. His journey with restorative justice began 10 years ago and has brought him into dialogue about justice issues with people throughout many parts of the world. Aaron blogs at Restoring Justice.]

6 comments on “Forget restorative justice”

  1. Bonnie Price Lofton says:


    Your thoughts are beautifully articulated and have certainly caused me to think of all the times and ways that I have ended up in a stymied conversation — and thus not a thoughtful, sensitive dialogue — with someone whose views differ widely from mine.

    Or, perhaps even more frequently, I simply walk away from the conversation or let it slide into innocuous chit-chat rather than do the hard work of really listening and engaging.

    But I can’t help wondering: What DID you end up saying about Osama bin Laden’s killing?

  2. Mary Kamo says:

    I am a Chaplain in a Womens Prison. After the killing of Osama Bin Laden several women prisoners approached me at different times to comment on the scenes, via the media, of the celebrations of his death.
    Without exception they were shocked at how the news of his death was so joyfully publicly received.

    This was not to do with the opinions they held on the need to capture him and hold him accountable for the atrocities attributed to him. That they did agree with.

    Their dismay was to do with what they saw as a vengeful lack of respect for the intrinsic dignity of a human person by a society that prides itself on being committed to the upholding of that value.

    The fact that Osama Bin Laden was not captured and the means of his killing, an apparent summary execution, was also troublesome for them.

    These are women who do not excuse themselves for the crimes of which they were convicted. Indeed their sentiments display an innate belief in the basic fairness and justice of the philosophies and practises of western ideology.

    They felt let down and disillusioned.

  3. Nathanael Snow says:

    And how shall we enter into conversation with the perpetrators of injustice? Or even with those who may be the unwitting beneficiaries of some bygone injustice? How are we to demonstrate that an injustice even exists? It must be through personal sacrifice. We must voluntarily step in and assume the punishment if the wrongfully accused upon ourselves. We must pay the ransom required by slave owners to free them. We must take the brunt of the whip for innocents.
    This much is radical, and beyond the scope of rational self interest, though it might be possible for those motivated by empathy.
    Next we become creators of new justice by practicing the same sacrifices on behalf of our enemies.
    The former is restorative justice. The later goes beyond and works to create an even better world, but is absolutely impossible without the help of God.

  4. Gerry Johnstone says:

    This strikes me as very interesting. I would like to say, first, that I wholly agree with the observation that ‘restorative justice advocates are often lured by our own passion into a kind of philosophical zealousness’ and with the suggestion that instead that we should ‘stand for a certain type of conversation about justice’. I find this very refreshing.
    The discussion of reactions to the killing of Osama Bin Laden is quite interesting in this context. Many adherents to the conventional values of a civilized, rationalized, professionalized, bureaucratized criminal justice would, of course, find such reactions repulsive (they would want to distinguish just retributive punishment from revenge, and wanat a cool, dispassionate administration of just punishment – as something regrettable – rather than a public orgy of joy and celebration).
    On the other hand, here and John Braithwaite and Heather Strang writing about restorative justice:
    the power of restorative justice may be connected to the fact that it does not subordinate emotion to dispassionate justice … Nor does restorative justice subordinate emotion to rational bureaucratic routines. Space is created in civil society for the free expression of emotions, however irrational they may seem (from page 10 of their book, Restorative justice and Civil Society).
    This suggests to me that, for those interested in restorative justice, there is potential for a more complex dialogue with those celebrating the killing of Bin Laden (and indeed with critics of such celebrations).

  5. Aron, thanks for sharing your views on this matter. Like previously commented it has been celebrated and happily received in the media. But i cannot help to think to myself, is it really “true” did they actually kill him? Just like with 9/11 conspiracy theories start to spread and documentaries get made. I am just waiting for this documentary to give a second perspective on what actually did happend.

    Thanks for sharing your views, had a good read.

  6. 'Peju says:

    Thank you Aaron, and I thank those who have commented…good food for thought.

    However, what I do, especially, like about this entry is how it seems, Aaron, you used the catalyst of Osama to discuss some issues that do occur frequently in our world… . Being an advocate of RJ does not mean that we should not engage in or with others with different view points. I appreciate that point and do not think it can be overstated.

    You’ll be happy to know that I am continuing the research along peacemaking circles and their relevance to the particular topic we discussed last summer. At a later point, I’ll find you to see if I have addressed the concern you raised about such research.

    Hope all is well on your side…peace

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