10/20/2011 10:39 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

Restorative Justice and the Economy of Grace

Grace is not fair. Fairness means treating people as they deserve. Grace means treating people better than they deserve. Grace, after all, means unmerited kindness. Because of this, theologians have traditionally spoken of a conflict between justice and grace. In this way of thinking, justice is about there being consequences for wrong action (usually in the form of punishment), and grace, in contrast, is about leniency -- overlooking problems rather than actually dealing with them.

Over the last century however, there have been major shifts in how we understand justice and its relation to punishment. While it was common in the past to think it was good to beat children at home and at school, or to beat one's servants and workers, we as a society have largely come to realize that, far from being good for a person's soul, such violence instead can cause significant psychological damage that stunts a person's healthy development.

One of the last places where we still embrace the idea of punitive justice today is in our prison systems. Yet even within our criminal justice system there is an increasing awareness that a strictly punitive approach rarely produces reform. Offenders who simply serve their time commonly go right back out and commit more crimes because the root factors have not been dealt with. In contrast, where rehabilitation programs have been made available, there have been dramatic drops in repeat offenses. In other words, this is not merely a matter of compassion, but of societal self-interest, because it means working to stop the "revolving door" of our prison system.

While punitive justice does little to actually mend wrong, restorative justice in contrast is all about making things right, about changing negative dynamics and helping people to overcome hurt. That's what grace is all about: It does not ignore problems, but in fact addresses them on a much deeper level than punitive justice does. So while grace may be in conflict with a strictly punitive understand of justice, it is not in conflict with restorative justice. In fact, grace is all about restorative justice.

Despite these broad trends away from a punitive understanding of justice, clearly evident in the changed approach to child rearing and education, grace is still largely a foreign language to us, while the language of payback remains our native tongue. Recall the Amish school shooting in 2006: The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community was widely discussed in the national media. Reporters hardly knew what to do with it because it was so radically different from the usual tenor of sensationalism and fear that characterizes how television news typically covers crime.

On an international scale, the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission responded to the violence and injustice of Apartheid stands out sharply against the backdrop of so many other places in our world where cycles of violence just seem to be never-ending, each side finding a justification for their continued retaliation. In the entertainment industry, it is extremely rare to find a movie that plumbs the depths of grace, and so common to see yet another film or television show that glorifies violence and paints the world in black and white. Yet when something like the musical "Les Miserables" comes along, it is an international sensation.

These are all lofty examples, and they can therefore feel overwhelming and out of reach. But the issue here is not ultimately about being virtuous or good (let alone is it about tolerating injustice!). It is about allowing healing to take place in our lives, and refusing to be sucked into the perpetual cycle of violence and toxicity. Grace is indeed hard, but even taking a few small faltering steps in its direction can open the doors for healing to start and violence to stop. That's why grace is not an ideal luxury, but quite literally a life and death necessity. Grace is the very means by which true justice comes about.