A needle for the restorative justice compass

In my last blog post I summarized Dorothy Vaandering’s concern that without an understanding of the term “justice,” restorative justice may be a compass without a needle.  It is important not to lose the justice dimension in restorative approaches, she suggests, but we must not allow our understandings to be unduly limited by concepts such as fairness and a narrow adversarial focus that are associated with criminal justice.

Drawing upon Freire and Buber, she bases her understanding of justice on what it means to be human:  “one in which justice is identified as honoring the inherent worth of all and enacted through relationships.”  These two terms together – honor and relationships – provide a needle to guide restorative justice proponents and practitioners.

Analyzing the characterization of criminal justice included in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, she observes that what is at stake are these two concepts.  The justice system tends to turn those who have caused harm into objects to be acted upon.  By omission, those who have been harmed are assumed to have no significant needs.  Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognizes that harm is done by and to human beings.

Injustice occurs when people are turned into objects through relationships.  Justice occurs when people are honored through relationships.

So for Vaandering, what is needed in restorative justice is a concerned effort to remind us all of the following:

  • Justice is a call to recognize that all humans are worthy and to be honored.
  • Injustice occurs when people are objectified.
  • The term restorative justice becomes meaningful when it refers to restoring people to being honored as human.
So it is crucial that the terms “restorative” and “justice” be kept and paired together, but with a broader understanding of justice. Without this pairing, the field is functioning as a compass without a needle.
In practice, she argues that continually asking oneself these three questions can keep us on track:
  1. Am I measuring (i.e. judging, objectifying)?
  2. Am I honoring?
  3. What message am I sending?
She suggests a definition of restorative justice:
“RJ acknowledges justice as honoring the inherent worth of all and is enacted through relationship.  As such it affects all social structures.  When something occurs that undermines the well-being of some, RJ provides a space for dialogue so that the humanity of all involved and affected can be restored and each person can once again become a fully contributing member of the community of which they are a part.” (p. 324)

With this “lens,” restorative justice is not something from the outside, as a solution for others.  It is a way of being for all of us.



5 comments on “A needle for the restorative justice compass”

  1. Gerry Johnstone says:

    I find this discussion very interesting and important. What I have to say is again critical, but I hope constructively so.
    I do wonder whether, to stay with the metaphor, it is being proposed (in the definition cited above) to point the needle of the restorative justice compass in a direction which is so different from the route habitually taken by the majority in most societies today, that one stands little chance of persuading a lot of people that such a direction is possible and desirable. If the needle were instead pointed towards approaches to handling incidents of wrongdoing which take seriously the idea that wrongs can be put right, that encourage wrongdoers to undertake positive acts of meaningful reparation, and that rely not just on coercion but also on the power of certain types of moral communication, might not more people be interested in exploring the restorative justice route?

  2. I’m late to the party here, but I’ve lately been pondering Howard’s influences and how those factor into the ongoing discussion in RJ literature/conversation, including on this blog, about the very term, “restorative justice.”

    Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder’s early interlocutor in the theological ethics field of the mid-twentieth century was Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that the Christian faith was not, and could not ever be pacifist/nonviolent. He construed this with the dichotomy of “effectiveness (his view) vs. faithfulness (pacifism).” It was a false choice that Yoder essentially spent the rest of his life trying to deconstruct and renarrate from what one might call a “postmodern” theological perspective, in that it resisted such simplistic and idealistic categories in favor of “thick” descriptions, particularities, and concrete embodied witness.

    Howard has named J.H. Yoder as a fairly significant influence on his intellectual development, and not just theologically, but also methodologically and philosophically. I see echoes of Yoder in the way he’s carrying out this needle conversation – along with his other work – that similarly resists the “effectiveness vs. faithfulness” dichotomy.

    In the spirit of collegial critique, Gerry, it seems like you’re arguing from a somewhat Niebuhrian angle when you state that, “one stands little chance of persuading a lot of people that such a direction is possible and desirable.”

    Perhaps the telos, or trajectory, of RJ is not toward convincing a large segment of society of its goodness and indeed superiority as an understanding and praxis of justice (though I think it is just that and Howard’s been the one to convince me), but rather taking that vision and praxis of justice and giving it “thickness” in scattered local communities and structures.

    So I’m sensing a bit of that radical (as in radix/root) impulse in RJ that is also present in Yoder and the broader Anabaptist tradition that both Howard and J.H. Yoder inhabit…

  3. Ehgrzych says:

    Victims are objectified constantly in the criminal justice system. The harm caused to victims isn’t usually the focus of punishments. Our criminal justice system see’s the state as the victim, completely silencing the actual victim. Victims deserve a voice in this process so they may heal. As it is now, the criminal process seeks mainly to make the state whole again instead of the actual victim.

  4. LacieZ says:

    Far too often the justice system objectifies the victim, perhaps unintentionally by doing so to the offender. From the restorative justice lens it is recognized that great harm is done to the victim, and through an RJ approach reparation may be obtainable from the offender to the victim and supporters. In order for a victim to fully move forward and “heal”, this process is essential.

  5. JDutton says:

    I agree that asking ourselves the three questions is necessary to keep ourselves on track. Without these I think that we would have to remove the “restorative” part. These questions of measuring, honoring, and the message that we are sending are important. If we don’t think objectively, we might as well do away with restorative justice all together.

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