In this essay I would like to explore and make explicit some of the connections between relational, participatory spirituality and restorative justice. In particular, I aim to highlight what I see as a crucial distinguisher in assessing approaches to spirituality, meaning-making and justice-seeking: between “singular” revelation models that posit an ultimate, objective Truth, and relational, intersubjective frameworks that find wholeness and meaning in diverse, dialogical and living processes. It is this latter approach to spirituality that is inextricably linked with restorative justice. Indeed, restorative justice in its broadest definition becomes a natural and necessary undertaking when one orients to an integral, spiritually-informed relationship with the world. The two form a reciprocal, mutually enhancing circuit: restorative justice is an expression of such a participatory, relationship-based cosmology in the world, and this relational cosmology provides the basis for the healing power that restorative justice brings forth.
Restorative justice is an approach to dealing with crime and misdoing that arises from an “old, common-sense understanding of wrongdoing… probably common to most traditional societies” (Zehr, 2015, p. 28), and serves as an alternative to the dominant model of criminal and retributive justice that has long held sway in Western culture. Rather than focus on rewards and punishments (Breton & Lehman, 2001), or placing all blame on a single perpetrator and removing this individual from society, restorative justice demands accountability and an addressing of victims’ needs (Zehr, 2015) while understanding the web of influences and circumstances that have driven the perpetrator of a crime to their actions. This view of justice is rooted less in retribution as it is in accountability. The focus centers around the restoration of relationships. “In this worldview, the problem of crime – and wrongdoing in general – is that it represents a wound in the community, a tear is the web of relationships… damaged relationships are both a cause and an effect of crime” (Zehr, 2015, p. 29). The restorative justice model thus focuses on addressing this damage to relational lines by creating supportive spaces where victims can be heard, perpetrators can be held accountable, and the affected community can also voice the ripple effects of a crime or hateful act outside of the adversarial context of the criminal justice system.
This primacy of relationships is expressed in the restorative justice movement’s emphasis on Circle Processes (Pranis, 2005), in which victim, perpetrator, and affected community members come together to share and listen to one another in an organized manner, usually with the help of a facilitator, guidelines, certain shared values (such as respect), and a talking piece. The circle itself, and its “marvelously paradoxical nature” (Pranis, 2005, p. 67), become the vehicle for healing and coming to terms with injustice within others as well as ourselves. This link of others’ actions with our own experiences “weds outer events to inner processes – [and] this paradigm instills an understanding and compassion that can restore badly broken relationships” (Breton & Lehman, 2001, p. 12).
This elevation and valuing of the Circle Process presupposes, as Pranis (2005) suggests, “several assumptions about the nature of the universe. These assumptions are common in the worldview of most indigenous cultures and are often metaphorically associated with the image of the Circle” (p. 25-26). These assumptions include the following: “that everything in the universe is connected” (p. 26), “that every action affects everything in the universe, that it is impossible to isolate something to act on it without affecting everything else… [that] there is no such thing as an objective observer or detached perspective… that we cannot just ‘get rid of’ our problems… [that] we are interdependent” (ibid). Above all, this worldview suggests that impartiality is a myth and that intersubjective relationships lie at the heart of existence, rather than a dissociated, abstract truth: “it is not the content of matter which defines it but its relationship to other pieces of matter” (p. 59).
This perspective is useful in helping to elucidate some of the assumptions underlying the traditional Western justice model, which starts from a very different premise. This outlook, which actually impacts far more than just the Western understanding of justice and extends to basic notions of reality and human nature, presupposes a number of factors: the notion and primacy of objectivity, the lifelessness of matter, and the inherent competitive and bad character of human beings when left to their own devices (Breton & Lehman, 2001). As Wheatley (1992) articulates, the linear, Western outlook, or “Newtonian model of the world is characterized by materialism and reductionism – a focus on things rather than relationships” (p. 8-9). The basic assumptions of this worldview can be seen in the Western gravitation toward a dualistic justice system of reward and punishment that imagines “getting rid of” a criminal and their bad behavior, in much the same manner that the Western mind has for centuries “taken the trash out”: placing blame on some thing, institution, or individual, and then eradicating this object from society. Yet as this example illustrates, these assumptions permeate Western culture and, alongside the erection of its justice system, influence its relationship with other peoples and cultures as well as its relationship with nature and the wider environment.
In an era of globalization, climate change, and the empowerment of minority voices, the limitations to this worldview are increasingly and abundantly clear. Indeed, this false objectivity that has for centuries privileged a Eurocentric (re: white) and patriarchical (re: male) gaze, while perhaps serving some evolutionary purposes, has helped to advance a colonizing and imperialist agenda that dehumanizes the other and sees the world as an opportunity to capitalize for personal gain. These assumptions permeate the very fabric of our times, and indeed are the injustice and false premise at the root of our culture: a presupposing of objective fact and then an unconscious privileging of which fallible subjects have access and authority to speak on behalf of that supposed truth.
Given all of that, it should not be surprising that prevailing criminal justice models “aren’t doing the trick” (Breton & Lehman, 2001, p. 16). It is just the same as prevailing models of culture, society and reality that aren’t doing the trick, for both are based in a worldview that places the human endeavor at odds with the natural laws of the universe. The reward and punishment model of classical Western justice follows the same reductionist, objectifying principles on which much of imperializing culture is based, principles which make it possible to event equate such a model with justice in the first place. This notion of justice leads ultimately to an abuse of self-connection and community relationships: “Not only do rewards and punishments put the outer before the inner, but worse, they chip away at our inner connectedness, until we lose our inner guide altogether” (p. 33). This model equates justice with control which is wielded externally, and invalidates in ways large and small the existence and significance of one’s inner life and one’s relational experience with others in favor of external solutions that resolve injustice monetarily or through retributive punishment, in the form of community service, a fine, imprisonment, or in extreme cases, death.
What’s crucial to recognize here is that all these assumptions arise out of an estranged relationship with the world. This self and world concept has emerged “in response to pain, of which European and American history offers innumerable examples. From this collective, multigenerational trauma, we’ve adopted a paradigm designed to guide us through what is perceived as a violent, predatory, meaningless world” (Breton & Lehman, p. 18). This is an essential point not to be missed – that the tyrannizing devil, be it imperialism, patriarchy, violent behavior or exploitation, is itself in immense pain. And so what can better serve as an antidote than the very value that this impulse disposed of – the power of healing and right relationships?
At their essence, this what both restorative justice and process-oriented, or participatory spiritualities are about – a return to what Howard Zehr (2015) calls “a basic reality, one that is understood clearly in most religious and cultural traditions” (p. 79), that restores the “notion of the centrality of relationships” (p. 29). This is much more than an approach to justice, and is rather “a way of life… [that] reminds us that we live in relationship, that our actions impact others, that when those actions are harmful we have responsibilities” (p. 79). This relational worldview, which favors an intersubjective accessing of truth rather than any “objective” truth obtained by a privileged individual, has been increasingly favored by process-oriented, participatory philosophies that have coalesced in recent decades, whether in the form of David Bohm’s appreciation for dialogue (Bohm, 1990), Ferrer’s revisioning of transpersonal theory away from Wilbur’s pereniallist truth-claims in favor of a participatory, located, dialogical engagement with the mystery (Ferrer, 2002), or in Martin Buber’s emphasis on relationships and quality of these relationships in his seminal work, I and Thou (1937). These theories reflect the emergence of a post-modern “relativism”, but offer nonetheless a basis for an “objective” reality, mutually confirmed through relationship, that extends beyond existential relativism. This relativity of subjectivity is transcended in part by the recognition that the entire universe is in some sense both subject and object – or, in other words, that the universe itself is alive. This transcending of Cartesian dualism in favor of seeing matter as also spirit and vice versa makes it possible that one’s capacity as a positioned individual are limited, but that one can nonetheless engage toward an objective ideal with others – one that is not neutral, but rather imbued intersubjectively with the values that can be observed to support the evolution and flowering of life herself.
As these novel syntheses and understandings emerge, it is worth harking back to some of the origins of Western culture, where some of this same emphasis on relationships and the whole can be seen. As Zehr (2015) points out, “In the Hebrew scriptures, [our interconnectedness] is embedded in the concept of shalom, the vision of living in a sense of ‘all-rightness’ with each other, with the creator, and with the environment” (p. 29). As Breton & Lehman (2001) highlight, Plato’s writings are of course dialogical, and Socrates’ concepts of justice in The Republic and elsewhere emphasize relational factors. O’Brien (2014) draws attention to the fact that “recent studies of the [Hebrew] term tsedeq/tsedaqah [or ‘righteousness’] favour the view that it refers primarily to right order in relationships” (O’Brien, 2014, p. 265). As cruel and harsh as some Biblical passages undoubtedly are, it appears that the people who these stories are told about were a traditional, land-based people, who, like other indigenous cultures, looked at the world through a relational cosmology. “The prevailing retributive paradigm, it seems, has made use of the Bible for its own purposes by making revenge (in the form of judicial punishment) synonymous with divine justice. The actual orientation of ancient Hebrews toward matters of justice seems to have been something else entirely. Their emphasis wasn’t on punishment but on making things right between people and within the community” (Breton & Lehman, 2001, p. 52).
I raise these examples not because I believe Socrates or Moses should wield some undue authority in our times, but rather to highlight that these restorative impulses, drawn in large part from traditional cultures around the world, are also embedded, if for the most part forgotten, within the foundations of Western culture as well. Within this context, it may become easier to see where as an orientation and ideology Western culture has gone awry, and help more clearly define justice and the values that we work to bring forward in the world today. In that sense, we can understand why “justice isn’t about abstract standards of legality but about serving human well-being and making our relationships work well” (Breton & Lehman, 2001, p. 13). Beyond the individual level to the cultural level and beyond, we can understand that “punishment is not real accountability. Real accountability involves facing up to what one has done” (Zehr, 2015, p. 24).
Today, the challenge to materialism, false objectivity, reductionism, imperialism and patriarchy is stronger than it ever was, and continues to unfold across a wide range of arenas. One of these arenas is in the battle to legitimize restorative justice; another is in the re-emergence of relationship-based spiritualities. These two efforts, as I have sought to demonstrate, are one and the same – different expressions of the same impulse, to restore order, sanity, and right relationship to the world. May the illumination of their shared underlying principles help support and nourish their continued positive impact in the world.
Bohm, D. (1990). On dialogue. Routledge.
Breton, D. & Lehman, S. (2001). The mystic heart of justice: restoring wholeness in a broken world. Chrysalis Books. West Chester, PA.
Buber, M. (1937). I and thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Ferrer, J. N. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Suny Press.
O’Brien, M. A. (2014). Restoring the right relationship: The Bible on divine righteousness. ATF Theology
Pranis, K. (2005). The little book of circle processes. Good books. New York, New York.
Wheatley, M. J. (1992). Leadership and the new science. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. San Francisco, CA.
Zehr, H. (2015). The little book of restorative justice: revised and updated. Skyhorse Publishing, Inc..
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