Reconciliation vs Retribution

Restorative Justice

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. ”
-John 1:3

The Christian concept of forgiveness and reconciliation are incomprehensible to a society where retribution is the response to breaking the law.  A law which ironically traces its roots back to the Commandments of the Judeo-Christian God.  In modern society, those who break the law are subject to harsh punishment and even after it is over continue to ostracize and marginalize the offender.

We can see this in the change of language used to describe a person coming out of prison. Fifty years ago, this person would have been referred to as an “ex-con”.  As a former convict they have fulfilled all the requirements of punishment placed on them for the crime they committed, and returned to society, hopefully to be a productive member.

Today we refer to those coming out of prison as “ex-offenders” and continually punish them in the form of hiring and housing discrimination, track them in databases, and restrict their freedoms by laws targeted specifically at those who have been convicted of a felony.  This is retribution.  Revenge for violating the societal covenant.  It precludes the idea of reformation.  It goes from trust but verify to skepticism and hatred.

Contrast this with the Biblical model of forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation.  The victim and the offender have a relationship and certain steps must be taken in order for the relationship to go forward.  12-Step programs teach that without being able to forgive those who have hurt us, we are only hurting ourselves.  We keep ourselves in bondage to another by maintaining the bitterness and anger.  We have bound ourselves in a way that prevents healing and keeps us trapped in time, unable to move forward with our lives.  By forgiving others we let go of the hurt and grow spiritually and emotionally.  Forgiveness allows us to move forward.

When we move forward can have closure on the past.  The world just doesn’t get this at all.  They speak of re-victimization, that old hurts will be reopened when the offender gets out of prison or when the past offense is revisited in the courts or the media.  If the offender should ever encounter the victim or their family it’s like the movie “Ground Hog Day” having to relive the crime over again.  Revictimization occurs because the hurts haven’t healed.  The relationship was suspended at its lowest point and the trauma has not been dealt with by the types of counseling the world utilizes.

The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:13 “Forgetting what is behind I press on towards the goal.”  We must put the past behind us.  “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”  As Christians we are called to take on the character of God, so must forgive others just as God forgave us.  We are called to look to the future where there will be “no more sorrow, nor crying, nor pain.” (Revelations 21:4)

The world just doesn’t get this just as the darkness doesn’t comprehend the light.  They are two different natures.  The Christian response of forgiveness is incomprehensible to the worlds concept of retribution.  A victim that doesn’t hate their offender doesn’t fit into the world’s view.  The talking heads on television become confused when trying to talk about the revictimization of a victim who refuses to be revictimized.  Those like Nancy Grace can feel confident when speaking to or about a victim or victim’s family who wants to see the harshest penalty applied or see the offender kept in prison well past their Earliest Release Date (ERD).  They will speak vehemently about victim’s rights, so long as they remain the victim.  But what happens when the victim no longer wants to play the part?  When the victim expresses forgiveness to the offender?  Then they becomes the offended.  The vitriol with which they will demonize the perpetrator of a crime rings hollow when forgiveness instead of retribution characterizes the relationship.

It’s easy to demonize someone you don’t know personally.  You can read the “facts” as stated by the prosecution, discount any attempt by the defense at humanizing the offender and speak based on your “professional opinion” without taking time to get to know either party involved.   They can pontificate with righteous indignation.

But forgiveness and reconciliation require communication and communication is the basis for relationship.  Both parties in a relationship need to have some skill to effectively communicate and that may be where counseling may be of actual benefit. Communication requires a set of mutually comprehensible points of reference.  A common language requires all parties to agree on the definitions of the words and standard forms of usage.  Counseling can help both parties reach the stage where effective communication can take place so both sides can understand one another.

To genuinely forgive someone is a supernatural act where the offended lays down their “rights” to vengeance and instead following God’s example choses to restore the relationship with the offender, as if the offense never happened. When the offender seeks forgiveness, there is an implied promise that the offense will never happen again. Trust which was broken must be restored.  It may take time to earn that trust by demonstrating commitment to not reoffend.  Given time, trust can be re-established and the relationship will grow stronger.

With retribution there is no trust only suspicion.  The underlying premise is that people can’t change, that once trust has been broken it can never be restored.  Retribution serves to widen the gap between people, separating them by time, distance, and experience.  In no way can retribution undo the harm done. It can’t replace what was lost.  It only serves as a way of communicating the level of displeasure towards an individual because of their actions.

Reconciliation doesn’t preclude punishment for breaking the law, but it takes away the vengeance component and focuses more on discipline.  Discipline is the correction of unacceptable behavior with the intention of changing the perpetrator’s attitudes and actions into those which are acceptable to society.  Correction involves education in an environment conducive to learning.  This is something that is severely lacking in today’s prisons.  Over the course of time I intend to explore what prison conditions are like based on my experience and raise points for further public discourse.  Crime and Punishment are difficult issues for which there are many perspectives and few viable solutions to what appears to be an intractable problem.  I don’t claim to have the answers but want to focus on raising public awareness of issues for which we all have a vested interest.

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