Restorative Justice Week, Nov. 14 to 21, is a time to learn about the human impacts of crime. In Canada, the justice system has traditionally responded to crime with punishment, and often incarceration. Restorative justice suggests a more holistic approach. If the victim, offender, and community are willing, they can pursue alternative justice methods that work on relationships between people, including mediation or sentencing circles.
When the Rev. Christina Guest encountered Restorative Justice Week materials as a parish priest several years ago, she knew she had discovered something powerful.
“It really hit home for me,” said the Diocese of Ottawa priest. “There’s something deep in us that knows restorative justice is right. We are so used to a punishment model but there’s something in us that knows there must be a better option.”
Ms. Guest was quick to incorporate the materials into her church’s liturgy. She coordinated guest speakers and wove justice themes into the intercessions.
This interest grew into a passion. Ms. Guest began to work for Correctional Service of Canada in the chaplaincy branch, where she helped develop these same ecumenical resources along with the Church Council for Justice and Corrections (CCJC). Now she serves as an Anglican representative on the council, a national coalition of 11 churches that aims to “foster healthier communities and crime prevention through social responsibility.”
Church communities never far from crime
Crime and punishment touch church life in many ways. Offenders return to communities. People become victims of robbery, assault, or fraud. Sometimes the church itself suffers a crime, as was the case with Ms. Guest’s former parish. She arrived one day to see that the church had been vandalized.
“I can tell you that our first thought was not, ‘Gee, I wonder how we can be reconciled with these people?'” she said. Unfortunately the criminals were never identified.
Ms. Guest notes the positive example of St. George’s Round Church, Halifax, damaged by fire in 1994. When two young people were found responsible, the parish priest requested that the courts pursue restorative justice. The parties worked out an arrangement where the young people did community service instead of jail time. They were able to see the impact of their actions first hand.
These alternative justice routes are not widely known. Although the federal government is pursuing restorative justice policy and programs, there is no standardized national process for getting on this track. The victim, offender, or community must initiate their own process and solution, suitable for their circumstances.
Restorative justice can also be approached as a broader concept, apart from the traditional justice system. Its principles can be traced to Indigenous conflict resolution, and seen in new anti-bullying programs.
Restorative justice a Biblical mandate
Churches must take the lead in thinking big about restorative justice, said the Rev. Ellie Clitheroe, Anglican priest and president/CEO of Prison Fellowship Canada (PFC). “Just because there isn’t a prison in your community it doesn’t mean it isn’t your mandate,” she said. “It’s a mandate for all of us.”
She notes that restorative justice is a Biblical theme. She cites several supporting passages, including Micah 6:8: “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV).
PFC offers several tangible ways for volunteers to support offenders. They coordinate pen pal programs, prison book clubs, and support for offenders’ children.
Ms. Guest agrees that church communities can make a difference for all groups affected by a crime, including victims, families, and local citizens.
“Churches can make a real difference,” she said. “We can journey with people whose lives are being torn apart, because that’s what we do best—pastoral care. Our privilege is birth-to-death care of people.”
For more information about Restorative Justice Week, visit the Correctional Services of Canada event homepage.
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