Jesus: Our Model for a Justice that Heals – Restorative Justice Week – November 19 – 26, 2017
In John 8:3-11 we find the story of “the woman caught in adultery”; given that it is a story of the Justice of Jesus, we can be assured that it contains the foundational elements of a right and proper system of criminal justice.
The accused is brought by the male authorities to Jesus, whom they desire to mediate their violence and to thereby compromise his Spirit of compassionate love, all couched in their rhetoric of religious righteousness.
Standing alone, this nameless woman bears the burden of every element of oppression: exploited and abandoned by the one who shares complicity in her so-called crime’, she stands on the margins of her society; powerless as a woman, she fears the systematic violence of her accusers who would fulfill the process of oppression which characterized her disadvantaged experience, as woman.
Jesus’ initial response is directed to her oppressors: Acknowledge your own sin first, before trusting yourself to deal with the perceived sinfulness of another.
The men, unmasked, in denial of their own sinfulness and unwilling to risk compassionate identification with this woman, choose instead to leave her in the Temple…with Jesus.
This ‘retributive’ model of justice inherent in the dominant culture, contrasts with the ‘restorative’ justice embodied in Jesus’ relationship with the woman.
The first is an energy of condemnation, shaming, punishment and exclusion. But the love-justice of Jesus seeks to ‘restore’ the woman’s relationship with God, with her community and with herself; a shift from shame and vulnerability, to loving acceptance and inclusion.
It is not difficult to imagine Jesus speaking the woman’s name to her then, refusing to define her by her sin, seeing the fulness of her humanity.
He responds to her with a balance of tenderness and firmness, compassionate forgiveness and realistic challenge, non-judgmental validation and a call to accountability and commitment to growth.
Jesus calls us to a model of justice which restores the broken victim to a state of relative wholeness, and the one who breaches the boundaries of another to a state of responsible atonement and of reconciliation.
The faces of the men and women in prison sometimes appear to reflect selfishness and greed, and even evil. But more often than not we see in them the faces of poverty, abandonment and marginalization.
They seem often to be a circular reflection of the shadow side of a culture: As long as we can castigate the individual prisoner, we avoid coming to terms with the social system in which he developed and the cycle of systemic, generational poverty and violence of which he may be the current manifestation.
To put a human face on this, I recall (to mind and to heart) the story of Paul. Many years ago, Paul was serving a life sentence at the maximum security prison at which I ministered as Catholic Chaplain. He was devotedly anti-authoritarian, and had little tolerance for any but a select few of his fellow prisoners.
Paul’s crime was murder, and he had been in prison for much of his adult life. He was 46 years of age when I knew him.
Paul was eventually diagnosed with cancer, and his health declined quickly. His irascible characteristics endured, but it became increasingly evident that beneath these defensive features was a wounded and vulnerable spirit.
As he became increasingly ill, his sisters told me more of Paul’s story. He was the only son, in a family of four children. Their father was regularly violent with their mother and Paul, when he reached the age of 8 years, began to intervene to protect her and, later, to protect his sisters as well.
They told me that by the time Paul was 12, virtually “every bone in his body had been broken at least once. “When he killed that man”, they said, “he was really killing our father”. Paul died only after he had been told of, and was shown, the deep love which Jesus has for him.
I draw no simplistic conclusions from Paul’s story, but his story challenges me as a Christian;
i) first, when we look at Paul’s life through the lens of Jesus, at what point can society justify fully replacing the tearful compassion which we feel for the 8-year old child with the absolutistic, vengeful judgment which we feel for the “murderous” adult?
ii) Secondly, despite our repugnance for the violent act which Paul committed is there not, within us, both the Grace (of the spirit) and the grace (of human decency) to see a broken person, a subtle wit, a fraternal devotedness, a beloved child of God? To see a humanity which is far fuller than his worst deed?
It has been said that in our culture “beneath the pain of many women, can lie an unspoken anger, a voice which they’ve been required to repress”. To this I would add the suggestion that beneath a man’s anger, we will often encounter deep pain.
For true healing to be achieved, it’s vital that a person – man or woman – be supported and encouraged in coming to terms with experiences and emotions, hopes and fears, at every level of their own authentic reality.
As Christians we participate in the unfolding incarnation of the Paschal Mystery in the world: the inevitability of the cyclical nature of life, suffering, death and life restored, and the promise that an intimate and loving God is at the very heart of that mystery.
As Christians, we are called to communion with Christ, with all of humanity, with God’s creation, but especially with the poor and oppressed. And communion requires generosity and risk.