Two Kinds of Justice

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8

Two years ago, a truck driver failed to slow down in a construction zone and slammed into the vehicle in front of him, killing a mom and dad and their three children. He was sentenced just last week to 180 days in jail and probation. Was justice served? Hold onto that question for a moment.

I’ve been reading the Minor Prophets lately, those 12 little books in the Old Testament from Hosea to Malachi. While they don’t often get a lot of preaching, the ancient message of these prophets is both profound and relevant and they center around one concept: God’s restorative justice.

The Minor Prophets were called to convict God’s people of their sin, especially their idolatry and abuse of the poor. According to the prophets God used both natural disasters and powerful foreign powers to punish the Israelites. But here’s the news flash – God didn’t punish the Israelites just for the sake of punishment. God’s purpose was always to restore the Israelites to wholeness and holiness.

And that brings us to a critical distinction between two types of justice. Retributive justice is all about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You do the crime, you pay the time. It’s about giving people what they deserve. Retributive justice is what our criminal justice system is built upon. Restorative justice, on the other hand, is ultimately about healing. It’s about doing what’s needed to help people to be whole again, to restore them and to restore relationship. Restorative justice is about giving people what they need, not what they deserve.

These systems of justice are not mutually exclusive, but let’s be clear – the God we worship is bent toward restorative justice, and those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus need to follow God’s example. And that raises some important and relevant questions for us.

What would it mean to exercise restorative justice for “dreamers” in our country?

What would it mean to exercise restorative justice for refuges who are fleeing war and persecution?

What would it mean to exercise restorative justice for the mostly minority individuals who are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes in our overcrowded jails?

I don’t have perfectly clear answers to those questions, but here’s what I do know – retributive justice gives us the illusion of safety and satisfaction, but restorative justice provides a pathway to wholeness and peace.

Back to that truck driver at the beginning of the story…. From the perspective of retributive justice, it seems unconscionable that he should receive only 180 days of jail time for taking the lives of an entire family. But it was the deceased family’s extended family that pleaded for the lightest sentence possible. Why? Because they are followers of Jesus who believe in mercy and forgiveness. They believe in restorative justice. Not only did their faith-in-action set the truck driver free, it also set them free from bitterness and resentment. That’s how restorative justice works.

How will restorative justice work in your life?

Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN.

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