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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ Justice is Reconciliation ~

Desmond Tutu, honored by the award of the Nobel Prize for Peace, wrote in The Times of India:

"In South Africa, indeed around the world, we are raised on a strict diet of justice as retribution. With violent crimes on an upsurge...there are frequent calls backed by wide public support to restore capital punishment. Mercifully, South Africa's constitutional court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional. Sadly, in many places in the world, it seems that men and women have not advanced beyond the biblical admonition of 'an eye for an eye' in their yearning for retribution."

The "eye for an eye" standard was a break on people's penchant for retribution justice, not well understood by many. This was a limitation on behavior, not a governing principle of justice. For example, if someone throws a rock through your living room window, you are not entitled to throw rocks through every window of the offender's house and follow that up with incendiary bombs in your rage to "get back." In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed this banal form of "justice" with these words: "You know you have been taught, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you" (Matthew 5:38-39).

Tutu observed: " 'An eye for an eye' asks that the culprit should be the sole target, and not others, whose only crime was to be related to him. So the 'eye for an eye' adage was not intended to mean what it has come to mean, namely that killing be paid for by another killing.

"Given the brutality of the apartheid era, that would have never worked in my homeland. Some South Africans called for Nuremberg-type trials, especially for perpetrators of those atrocities that were designed to maintain the vicious apartheid system.

"There were demands that the guilty be brought to the book. But we were fortunate in that Nuremberg was not really an option for us. Nuremberg happened because the Allies inflicted unconditional surrender on the Nazis and so could impose a so-called victor's justice. In our case, neither the apartheid government nor the liberation movements could defeat each other.

"Moreover, in the case of Nuremberg, the prosecutors and judges could pack up their bags after the trial and leave Germany for their several homes. We had to make our homes in this, our common motherland, and learn to live with one another.

"Such trials would probably have gone on nearly forever, leaving gaping wounds open. It would have been difficult to procure the evidence to get convictions. We all know just how cunning bureaucrats can be in destroying incriminating evidence.

"So it was a mercy that our country chose to go the way of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granting amnesty in exchange for the truth. This was ultimately based on the principles of restorative justice and ubuntu.

"At the TRC hearings we were exposed to gruesome details about atrocities that were committed to uphold or to oppose apartheid. 'We gave him drugged coffee and shot him in the head and then we burned his body. As it takes seven to eight hours for a human body to burn, we had a braaivleis on the side, drinking beer and eating meat'. How low men can sink in our inhumanity!

"Each time such horrible stories were published, we had to remind ourselves that, yes indeed, the acts were demonic, but the perpetrators remained each a child of God.

"A monster has no moral responsibility and so cannot be held accountable; but even more seriously, designating someone a monster closes the door to possible rehabilitation. We cannot give up on anybody. If it was true that people could not change, then the whole TRC process would have been impossible. It happened because we believed that even the worst racist had the capacity to change.

"And I think we in South Africa have not done badly. Because an 'eye for an eye' can never work when communities are in conflict; reprisal leads to a counter-reprisal in the sort of blood spiral we are seeing in the Middle East. [Is this not was Christ was teaching?]

"The type of justice South Africa practiced, what I call 'restorative justice' is, unlike retribution, not basically concerned with punishment. It sets high score by healing. It regards the offender as a person, as a subject with a sense of respon-sibility and a sense of shame, who needs to be reintegrated into the community. There is a wealth of wisdom in the old ways of African society.

"Justice was a communal affair and society set a high score by social harmony and peace. The belief was that a person is a person only through other persons, and a broken person needed to be helped to be healed. What the offense had disturbed should be restored, and the offender and the victim had to be helped to be reconciled. Justice as retribution often ignores the victim and the system is usually impersonal and cold.

"Restorative justice believes that even the worst offender can become a better person. This does not mean being soft on crime. Offenders must realize the seriousness of their offenses through the kind of sentences they get, but there must be hope, hope that the offender can become a useful member of society, after paying the price they owe to society.

"When we act as if we really believe that someone can be better, is better, then they will often rise to our expectations."
(Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1381342.cms).

I once challenged a prisoner who stated he was repaying his debt to society: "How so? By doing nothing in prison but time? What kind of service to society is that?" Christ practiced restorative justice. So we must also. However, let me pull the ratchet up a few notches, into the arena of those "offenders" who are innocent and wrongly convicted. The US holds the greatest percentage of its citizens in prison, remarkably exceeding comparable nations such as those in Europe. Statistics estimate between ten to twenty percent of US "offenders" in our prisons are innocent. (The Prison Ministry section of our web site addresses these people, many of whom express greater faith than us and are examples from whom we have much to learn. Yes, there are many "offenders" in our prisons. There are also many brothers and sisters of Christ in them. "Lord, when did we ever see you in prison?" How many of us are blind to the presence of Christ in "the least of My brothers"?)

The statistics of innocent prisoners in other countries, such as China, North Korea, Cambodia and many nations of Africa are astounding. These countries and the former Soviet Union never espoused "restorative justice." They have nothing to restore or implement other than their evil agenda of retribution and power. A nation whose motto is "Under God" and "In God We Trust" best lead the others into that realization in practice. However, perhaps shamefully, Desmond Tutu and the south African nations are teaching us the way of Christ.

We have much to learn from each other. Our nation can teach others many things. But a wise teacher is always open to learning from others. One essential learning is that of restorative justice, so well declared in the Psalms and through the words of Christ.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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