In her book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling begins with a scene in which 15-year-old Harry uses magic outside of school. He does so not to get himself out of a scrape or for his own benefit, but to protect his cousin, Dudley, from Dementors, evil creatures that suck the soul out of a person. Even though he is defending his unappreciative and unkind cousin from the Dementors, when they return home, Harry finds a note from the Ministry of Magic informing him that because he has broken the rules, he has been expelled from school.
At that, his Uncle Vernon, who despises Harry and is frightened and distrustful of the wizarding community, turns and gives him a wicked grin. “Justice,” he hisses.
He believes that Harry has received justice because he has been punished. In Vernon’s mind, punishment, no matter how disproportionate, translates to justice. But Vernon’s thinking is retributive. And in the new calculus of Jesus’ teaching at the beginning of his ministry, justice is not retributive but restorative.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Everything that Jesus says in quoting from the prophecies of Isaiah seems to fly in the face of the usual order of things. Those who were poor had no expectation of good news; those who were oppressed had no reason to suspect that they might be granted liberty. Jesus is sending a signal that his coming into the world is an invitation to look at everything we think we know from a different perspective. Everything that Jesus says has been fulfilled is something that restores righteousness to the universe and heals and builds relationship. Those who receive good news, those whose wounds are bandaged, they are now free to live completely as God intended, at liberty and released from societally imposed bondage.
All sorts of social cues tell us that “justice” requires vengeance, punishment, pain for pain, even death in the case of violent crime. What Jesus promises in the fulfillment of the prophecy is restorative justice rather than retributive justice, because justice that promises peace at the expense of others is no justice at all. If we can be satisfied only when we believe we have transferred our suffering and pain to someone else, then we have not heard the message of Jesus at all. We are still captive, still enslaved, if we cannot find completeness without making someone else incomplete.
Our culture encourages a retributive mindset. We want offenders to suffer, thinking that it will deter them from their actions. It seldom does. This retributive mindset sadly has its roots in Christian thinking. God is understood in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured. According to this framework, God’s response to sin is punitive. Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful humans to escape our deserved punishment.
For this view, punishment is God’s will, reflecting God’s character. The first, and most basic, attribute of God is holiness—the belief that God simply cannot countenance any kind of sin. So justice, in this framework, requires payment for wrongdoing. This payment is made through punishment, pain for pain. Salvation happens only because God’s holiness is satisfied through the ultimate act of violence – the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. In this view, God is no pacifist. In fact, it is part of God’s plan that God’s own Son be violently put to death.
The thinking is that retributive violence is required in response to wrongdoing. But this dynamic only reinforces the spiral of violence. Restorative justice, in contrast, is the turning around offered by Jesus when he states that the Isaianic prophecy has been fulfilled.
It would be easy enough to point to multiple examples from the Old Testament that appear to favor retribution. But justice, in God’s eyes, has always been not about punishment but about the restoration of life and wholeness. Imagine hearing these words from Isaiah if you or I feel oppressed, or broken-hearted, or captive. Imagine hearing those words and learning that to be freed from oppression, to have our broken hearts mended, is no more and no less than justice – that God seeks to restore each of us so that we may exercise restoration for others.
What in our lives oppresses us? What breaks our hearts? What in our daily living is holding us captive? Are you enslaved by others’ opinions of you? Am I a slave to technology? Do you and I go through our days hearing that voice in our heads that says we are not good enough, not kind enough, not diligent enough? What are the Dementors in our lives that steadily suck away our souls, leaving us feeling as though the only answer is to inflict pain on others – that depriving others of their liberty or their life will make us feel better, will bring us peace?
Restorative justice is the foundation of salvation. And that is why Jesus reads the prophecy from Isaiah in the Temple and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Because by his coming into the world, he brings with him the salvation that will proclaim liberty to all of us who are captive to something. Whether we deserve it or not. Because retributive justice justifies itself by claiming that punishment is deserved – but restorative justice reminds us that love is not about deserving. That God’s will for you and for me is to be so filled with God’s grace that we are once again made complete, once again made whole, once again restored.