Before moving to Atlanta for seminary a decade or so ago, I had a tiny little apartment in a neighborhood called Loring Park, close to downtown Minneapolis. Nowadays Loring Park is a higher rent neighborhood than it was when I lived there. Over the last eleven years the city has poured lots of money into beautification projects in the park, and as a result the park has undergone a transformation. There are fields of prairie grasses growing along the edge of the lake to foster and protect urban wildlife. There are basketball courts and playgrounds and horseshoe rings and flower gardens. Developers have capitalized on this new urban asset, building condos and opening restaurants along the perimeter of the park.
When I lived there it was kind of different. I moved to Loring Park because it was blocks from my job, where I was a case manager in an apartment building for formerly homeless youth. It was my first apartment, and the first time I’d lived alone. The park was conveniently located between downtown Minneapolis and the interstate that took commuters back out to the suburbs at the end of the day, which meant that it served as a convenient stopping off point for picking up the sorts of things you couldn’t find in a grocery store on the way home – mostly drugs and prostitutes.
Toward the end of my time living in Loring Park, the city was investing in new approaches to addressing the forms of crime that haunted the park. One of those efforts was a decision to create restorative justice panels that deferred non-violent crime resolution out of the courts and back into the neighborhood. Restorative justice is a term that covers a broad range of alternative dispute resolution strategies that “focuses on the needs of victims and offenders, instead of the need to satisfy the abstract principles of law or the need of the community to exact punishment. Victims are given an active role in a dispute and offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions.”
Shortly before I moved out of Loring Park I had a chance to participate in a community conference, the name for the court-deferred process that brings together victims and offenders to look for solutions that not only address the crimes committed but also seek to heal the underlying hurts and residual mistrusts that linger long after the crime is past. The case I was brought in on was a man who had been picked up in a sting operation on charges of solicitation. Because he’d been arrested by an undercover police officer, there was no prostitute involved in the case. Instead, the identified victims for this community conference were residents of the neighborhood.
Rather than meeting in a sterile courtroom with judges and juries, we met in a church basement. There was a coffee pot in the corner of the room, and chairs arranged in a circle. As I recall, there were about six of us in the room: a justice coordinator who oversaw the process, the offender and someone he’d brought to support him, and three of us who lived in the neighborhood. We each took turns talking about the crime, starting with the man himself. He talked about the first time he’d solicited a prostitute, and how that had become his way of dealing with a number of unmanageable elements of his life. We each talked about what it felt like to live in a neighborhood known for supporting prostitution. I spoke about working with homeless youth who had been forced into prostitution as a way to survive. A neighbor spoke about the shame she felt when she told friends where she lived and heard their jokes about Loring Park. Another talked about being afraid to walk the streets after dark for fear of what she would see or hear.
Something incredible happened as we talked. Those of us who lived in the neighborhood, who had learned to just put up with the low-level crime that existed all around us, found our voices. What we usually just shrugged off and chalked up to being a part of “the way things are” we could finally allow ourselves to notice again, as if for the first time. We heard ourselves describing the nagging sense of insecurity, and shame, that cloaked the neighborhood, and we got angry.
At the same time, we saw the man who’d been picked up more clearly as well. Rather than being some nameless, faceless “john” coming into our neighborhood and committing a crime, we learned his real name. We heard about his failed marriage. We saw the fear and shame and humiliation on his face. We empathized with his suffering, without condoning his decisions. We wanted justice for our neighborhood, but we also wanted him to be healed.
In a typical courtroom model using typical models of justice, this case would have been dealt with as a crime against the state. There would have been no identified victim, just a crime charged against a citizen, with the mandate to determine the appropriate punishment. What happened in our community conference wasn’t about crime and punishment, it was about harm and restoration. Rather than the nameless, faceless court asking “what laws have been broken, who did it, and what do they deserve?” the community asked, “who has been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligations are these?”
What does all this have to do with the scriptures for this morning, or for the reign of Christ that we celebrate on this final Sunday of the church’s year? The prophet Jeremiah speaks to the kings and rulers of Judah, comparing them to shepherds who “destroy and scatter the sheep of [God’s] pasture.” In contrast to their ineffective wars and unending violence, God promises to raise up a righteous branch who will “reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Christians have gone back and re-read this Hebrew scripture as a prefiguring of the justice and righteousness revealed in Christ Jesus – who we see this morning speaking to a convicted criminal as they both hang upon a cross, the ultimate symbol of retributive justice. The criminal speaks, “we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
All along, Jesus’ disciples had hoped that he would be the kind of messiah they imagined Jeremiah was forecasting. They’d hoped he would restore the fortunes of Israel by kicking the corrupt temple authorities out of Jerusalem, perhaps by leading a revolt against the occupying Roman army. But on this day, the day of his crucifixion, it was clear to all that Jesus would not be leading them in the style of the priests or the prefects.
Those of you who’ve opened this week’s eNewsletter have already heard about how on the first week of our new member class, Chris was teaching on the subject of Lutheran theology – focusing on law and gospel and justification by grace through faith. The idea that we are saved out of the goodness of God’s mercy, and not by any action of our own, is easy to recite but hard to believe. One member of the class said what any reasonable person thinks when they hear such a thing, “that doesn’t seem very fair.”
It doesn’t seem fair to think that people guilty of horrible crimes can be forgiven. In a culture raised on the myth of redemptive violence and nursed with images of action heroes pursuing justice by gunpoint, the idea of sitting in a circle and talking about our feelings definitely seems weak and unfair. We want justice to mean punishment, but God in Christ Jesus says to the criminal on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The thing we tend to struggle with in our conceptualizations of God, and God’s justice, is that we often want God’s justice to be the same as our justice – just stronger and more universal. But what the prophet Jeremiah and the psalmist both affirm is that the God of our Lord Jesus is a God of peace, who “makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; [who] breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; [who] burns the shield with fire.” We are dissatisfied with this kind of justice that looks like forgiveness and peace, we want to set the terms for what true justice will look like, but the voice of love says, “be still, and know that I am God!”
God’s justice is not concerned with punishment; it is concerned with healing and restoration. Jeremiah says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold.”
This restorative justice may seem naive, even foolish. The research, however, says that it is effective. Victims of all sorts of crimes report feeling heard and healed. Offenders show greatly reduced rates of recidivism as they come to understand their actions as having real consequences for real people. Locally, restorative justice techniques are being used in Logan Square by groups like ALSO – the Alliance of Local Service Organizations – to address gang violence and domestic abuse in our neighborhood. It has application even in our own individual lives, and we see it working whenever we avoid the easy paths of labeling and name-calling, and take the time to really listen to each other after feelings have been hurt and relationships have been wounded.
This way of making justice requires an open heart instead of a closed fist. It is a paradigm shift to say the least. Thank God for that. What we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked so well. As we close out the church year and prepare for the start of a new one, with the season of Advent to come, I am ready for my heart to be opened. I long for the Prince of Peace. I want to follow Christ the King and live in the reign of God forever. Come, Lord Jesus.