Restorative justice is not just for people in prison. It’s a worldview for every person for whom Jesus died.
Recently on a Crossroad Connection TV episode, I interviewed Teresa Weatherall Neal, the superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, who discussed actions she is taking to employ restorative justice rather than retributive justice within the public school system.
In her experience, restorative justice practices transform students through fostering conflict resolution. These practices stand in stark contrast to retributive responses, such as immediately calling the police, which can turn schools into pipelines to prison.
But restorative justice—the restoration of shalom—in all areas of life is proving to be a better solution than payback justice. Why?
Every relationship—whether it’s a friend, spouse, neighbor, classmate, supervisor or fellow church member—goes through three stages:
1. The Honeymoon Stage: Here everything is wonderful. You think you have the best friend, husband or job in the world. Things couldn’t be better. It’s downright exhilarating. The honeymoon can last several weeks, months or even years.
2. The Conflict Stage: However, every relationship will eventually be tested by some kind of misunderstanding, offense or conflict. The problem may be trivial at first, but it can sometimes take on a life of its own. Before you know it, you can have a war on your hands.
3. Resolution Stage: At this stage, the relationship will go in one of two directions: down or up.
- Crash and Burn:
Those involved in the difficulty can choose to padlock the cockpit door like a pilot that deliberately crashes his plane. The crash is ugly because it leaves behind the smoldering, stinking debris of anger, retribution, vengeance, clandestine activities, slander and sometimes even nasty litigation. Everything is poisoned and everyone loses, while Satan wins.
- Restore and Soar:
Option B takes the relationship upwards into another direction. It’s based on Jesus’ restorative model of Matthew 18:15:
If a person sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.
And guess what? Jesus’ model actually works. When two reasonable people decide to work it out—to restore and soar rather than to crash and burn—that relationship, now tested by fire, turns into gold, stronger than ever, and reaches new, lasting, stratospheric heights beyond even the exhilarating honeymoon stage.
It breaks my heart to see so many marriages, friendships and job positions end way too soon. Countless relationships that could have soared, crash instead. With Jesus’ model for restoration, success was probably just around the corner.
How can restoration be possible in this messed up world? It’s the power of the cross.
Jesus came to deliver us from the crash and burn of payback and retribution that, as the Hebrew Scriptures amply demonstrate, would bury us all. He has abolished the reciprocity code that bound us in endless cycles of misery (cf. Matt. 5:38–42; Rom. 12:14–21; Luke 23:34).
How could the cross accomplish all this?
Jesus took on all the payback in our place and paid for all our sins and the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). That’s why Paul says we now can live—and should try to live—at peace with all people (Rom. 12:18). There is no need to keep a record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5) because love covers all wrongs (Prov. 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). Jesus paid it all. That means there is no more ugly payback, only glorious restoration.
At Crossroad, we have a conflict resolution policy based on this restorative worldview that every employee signs on to when they accept a position. And that’s one of many reasons why we have many long-term employees. They understand that because of the cross, the restoration of shalom is not only for prisoners but for us all. Every organization and relationship should embrace such a restorative model.
The restorative justice that Superintendent Neal is experiencing in the public school system can inform your life too. The light has dawned. Jesus has overcome the old world order and ushered in a new one that is changing everything, one relationship at a time. It’s never too late to restore and to soar in the shadow of the cross.
H. David Schuringa serves as the president of Crossroad Bible Institute.