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“Her wallet was stolen and over $700 was spent on her credit card.”
A ministry leader stopped by recently and told me that their newest volunteer had driven a student home from weekly Bible study and realized soon after that her wallet was missing. Over the next day or two, her credit card was used for hundreds of dollars in purchases.
Neither the ministry leader nor the volunteer wanted the student who had stolen the wallet to be arrested, convicted or incarcerated. Instead, they wanted a process that would hold the young person accountable for her mistakes, facilitate healing and trust between everyone who was impacted, and develop structures that would prevent the situation from reoccurring. So, I connected the ministry leaders with a trained facilitator of restorative justice.
- Johonna Turner
“We don’t think these students are “one of us”. Is there another church better suited for them?”
While working as a youth pastor in a local church, a few of our students invited some unchurched high school friends to youth group, which raised concerns among several elderly members and parents in our congregation. Our traditional ethnic church was experiencing both a generational and cultural divide. There was hurt and misunderstanding all around. We worked to educate and bring understanding, but some students left the church, never to return. We needed different tools to help walk our church through these conflicts.
- Mary Glenn
Restorative justice resources were needed in both stories. Our hunch is that others might benefit from these important tools too.
Through restorative justice, students can identify and resolve conflicts, restore values, repair relationships, and establish dignity while learning the building blocks of peacemaking. This is the first article in a two part series that will explain the restorative justice (RJ) model and suggest ways to integrate it into your youth ministry/group context. Through our combined experiences of youth worker, educator, researcher, and police chaplain, we have seen restorative justice used as a powerful tool for reconciliation.
What is restorative justice?
Living in a judicial society, it can be challenging to reconcile biblical and societal justice. How can we teach youth to embrace and live out the justice of Jesus?
Harm is a key concept in restorative justice. Wrongdoing is understood as harm—a violation of people and of relationships, rather than as crime—a violation of rules and laws.
The RJ approach emphasizes repairing harm and involving all affected parties in creating healing solutions. A practice or process based on RJ accomplishes three broad goals:
- It addresses both needs—the needs of those who have been hurt, as well as those who hurt them.
- It provides accountability for wrongdoers so that they are empowered to take responsibility and make amends.
- It compels communities to work together in resolving conflict and harm together.
The development of RJ can be traced back to indigenous communities around the world, as well as Mennonite communities in North America. It was initially conceived as an alternative response to individual acts of wrongdoing. However, it is now increasingly embraced as an approach to facilitating wholeness within groups and whole communities.
Does RJ really work? What does social science research tell us?
- As a whole, existing research confirms that RJ processes prevent further wrongdoing more effectively than criminal justice. Restorative justice is the basis of New Zealand's entire juvenile justice system and is increasingly used as an alternative to standard legal proceedings as well. Adults who participated in New Zealand’s restorative justice conferences were 23% less likely to commit another offense than those who went through the criminal justice system.
- Restorative justice helps people who have been wronged experience a stronger sense of justice. An analysis of the 22 key studies measuring victim satisfaction found that, “Compared to victims who participated in the traditional justice system, victims who participated in restorative processes were significantly more satisfied.” Howard Zehr explains this is because RJ directly addresses the core needs that arise when people are violated—the need for safety, answers, voice, empowerment, vindication, and validation.
- Restorative practices help young people learn new skills for creating and maintaining healthy relationships. At one urban middle school in Michigan, “Nearly 90% of participating students reported learning new skills in their restorative experiences, and 86% reported using those skills to peacefully resolve or avert conflicts after their restorative interventions.”
What is the biblical and theological framework for RJ?
According to theologian Derek Flood, the primary metaphor of sin in the New Testament is one of sickness, not crime. In essence, a crime is a symptom of a deeper sickness. This means that in addition to one taking responsibility for our own behaviors, we must also analyze the negative behavior and attempt to understand and address its root causes. Flood uses the example of a bully whose behavior is rooted in feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. Focusing on healing can lead to restoration.
This focus on healing and restoration lies at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Matthew 5:21-26 provides detailed instructions on how to resolve and find healing in our conflicts. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (v.23).
This reconciliation is a form of justice that leads to peace. The Hebrew word translated as peace in the Old Testament is shalom, and in the New Testament Greek it is eirene. Shalom connotes a sense of wholeness, well-being and prosperity. Likewise eirene refers to wholeness, the restoration of relationship and healing. Together, these two words appear over 550 times in the Bible. These comprehensive concepts of God’s peace and justice express society as God intends it.
Restoration and reconciliation begin with understanding how we identify, label, and value one another. Long-time gang worker Father Gregory Boyle starts his book with the invitation to see this population differently: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.” Each of us is made in God’s image, and this is the first label we must apply to every person in front of us.
What does restorative justice look like?
Two RJ techniques are peacemaking circles and restorative chats.
A peacemaking circle is a structured dialogue process that brings people together to understand each other, work through conflict, and learn from one another. Literally sitting in a circle provides equal footing as well as connection.
You and the students in your youth group are seated in a circle of chairs. You light a candle and read a passage of scripture such as 1 Peter 2:5 (“You like living stones are being built together...”). You hold your talking piece, a small stone, in your hand and explain that like stones, we are designed to work together and become more beautiful over time in God’s hands. Next, you introduce the guidelines of the circle: “Respect the talking piece (only speak when you have it), speak from your heart, listen respectfully, and maintain confidentiality. Next, you ask each student to name a value that they would like to express during your time together. One student says honesty. Another says respect. Another says love. These are the values at the foundation of your circle. When the stone returns to you, you ask another question. You might ask the group to share their perspectives on a concern (e.g. the relationships among youth and adults in your church) or share stories of personal experiences (e.g. a time that you felt excluded from a group or a time that you felt like you truly “belonged”). You share your own response to each question first, modeling vulnerability.
While organizing and leading circles to address deep conflicts or repair harm requires training, it is fairly simple to set up and facilitate this kind of talking circle for many situations.
Restorative chats are informal conversations designed to help people address their own harmful behavior and help people harmed by their actions. Whereas circles are formal, structured group dialogues, restorative chats are typically brief one-on-one conversations between a teacher and a student, or a youth pastor and a young person or volunteer, for example.
A member of your youth group used Twitter to publicize an embarrassing story about another group member (shared in confidence during your last group session). You speak with the student whose personal story was shared, asking a series of questions that help her to talk about what happened and what might make things better. Later, you talk with the student who shared the story and ask him a series of questions to help him to reflect on the hurt he caused and how he can make amends.
Restorative Questions: To help those harmed by others’ actions:
- What did you think when you realized what had happened?
- What impact did this incident have on you and others?
- What has been the hardest thing for you?
- What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
Restorative Questions: To help those who harmed others:
- Tell me more about what happened.
- What were you thinking about at the time?
- Who has been affected by what you have done?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
Bringing restorative justice in your youth group
While there are a broad range of methods for restorative justice, there is one underlying philosophy: Justice is restorative when we focus on making things right. The ultimate mission is to bring connection, healing, and shalom to places of disconnection, trauma, and wounding.
- Facilitate peacemaking circles: When someone feels offended by another’s actions, lead students through a process of repair and healing utilizing the peacemaking circle.
- Identify and describe how labels and beliefs about others might keep us from being in good relationships with each other.
- Teach about the power of giving and receiving forgiveness.
- Model and encourage taking responsibility for mistakes. (e.g. not following through on your commitments, not showing up when you said you would.)
- Provide outlets for adults and young people to make amends when they have harmed others and to re-enter the community in healthy ways. (e.g. If a young person is disruptive in youth group or if an adult speaks to young people disrespectfully, facilitate a process of honest conversation and forgiveness).
Get training in restorative justice (in prevention and response) for yourself, adult volunteers, and youth. Helpful links are provided in the “learn more” action step below for more information, training and research on RJ.
- Be an example! Teach students by modeling RJ when conflict or harm happens.
- Share your experiences. There are few examples of RJ among church youth groups. As you implement RJ into your youth groups please share stories and outcomes with us and others who are furthering this movement.
- Learn more. Here are some resources on restorative justice and related approaches:
Note: In part 2 of this article series, we will address issues regarding re-integration, collaboration, and systemic impact.
 Howard Zehr, “What Does Justice Require for Victims?” Eastern Mennonite University, May 17, 2013. Lecture.
 Several denominations and Christian organizations (I.e. the United Methodist Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Catholic Church and the Mennonite Church) have adopted restorative justice and invite their members to do the same.
 Derek Flood, Healing the Gospel, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 17.
 Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, (Scottsdale, PA: Harold Press, 1990), 130-132, 153.
 Fr. Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010), .xiii.