An Overview of Restorative Practices

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Synod 2005 of the Christian Reformed Church adopted the following recommendation: “That synod call our churches to preach and teach restorative justice as a biblical perspective;” and further “that synod urge congregations, schools, denominational offices, other Christian institutions, and homes to employ restorative justice practices” (Acts of Synod 2005, pp. 761-762). You can read the entirety of the report from the Committee to Study Restorative Justice (available as a PDF download)

This report was an appendix of the Agenda for Synod 2005, pages 529-565, which includes the following items: I. Introduction; II. A criminal justice crisis and the restorative justice response; III. Biblical principles of justice; IV. Principles and conclusions; V. Recommendations. The practices that were referred to as "restorative justice practices" have continued to develop, shift and be used by a variety of organizations, states and countries throughout the world.

Of note was an initiative in the Christian Reformed Church to pilot “Restorative Congregations”, which included four Christian Reformed Church congregations that were trained by Shalem Mental Health’s FaithCare to use restorative practices as a tool to become proactive systems where conflict could be seen as an opportunity for growth. More can be read about this through this report to synod in 2014.

Several organizations have continued to teach, equip, and empower leaders to use restorative practices or restorative justice in criminal justice systems, schools, workplaces, congregations, a few these organizations of note are: the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice (a part of Eastern Mennonite University), Communities for Restorative Justice, and Shalem Mental Health (an Ontario, CA based mental health provider that facilitates restorative practices in a variety of contexts, including congregations via a program they call: FaithCare).

The use of “restorative practices” or “restorative justice practices” or “restorative justice” is used a bit differently from organization to organization, context to context; for this reason, it can be challenging to put a very descriptive definition around what exactly these are.

Howard Zehr, who some consider the grandfather of modern restorative justice, acknowledges this in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, which was revised and updated in 2015. There he states: “I sometimes envision restorative justice as a blend of key elements in modern human rights sensibilities and traditional approaches to harm or conflict. Although the term "restorative justice" encompasses a variety of programs and practices, at its core it is a set of principles and values, a philosophy, an alternate set of guiding questions. Ultimately, restorative justice provides an alternative framework for thinking about wrongdoing.”

Another definition articulating both restorative practices and restorative justice comes from The International Institute for Restorative Practices. The IIRP defines restorative practices as: “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.” They go on to state that “the use of restorative practices helps to: reduce crime, violence and bullying, improve human behavior, strengthen civil society, provide effective leadership, restore relationships and repair harm.”

The IIRP also distinguishes between the terms restorative practices and restorative justice. “We view restorative justice as a subset of restorative practices. Restorative justice is reactive, consisting of formal or informal responses to crime and other wrongdoing after it occurs. The IIRP’s definition of restorative practices also includes the use of informal and formal processes that precede wrongdoing, those that proactively build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing.”

If we try to break-down restorative practices into a more tangible set of practices between people it may be helpful to view them on a spectrum, or a continuum ranging from informal to formal. At the most informal level, an affective statement may be used when faced with a challenging behavior; for example when a neighbor, or roommate, is blaring their music, instead of yelling at them to turn it down, an alternative affective statement may be: “I have a video call right now and your loud music is making it tough for me to speak to others”. As a practice becomes a bit more formal, other examples may include an impromptu circle conversation mediated with affective questions like:

  • “What happened?”

  • “What were you thinking at the time?” 

  • “How did that affect you?” 

  • “What have you thought about since?” 

  • “What can you do to make it right?” 

If a situation includes higher level conflict it may be deemed appropriate to have a facilitator engage a restorative conference to process the harm that has been done, a conference includes not only those directly involved, but also others within the community who also may have been affected by the harm. In this more formal setting, all people involved must be present voluntarily; in addition, for a conference like this a facilitator would often do an assessment or “pre-work” to determine readiness for the process. This includes asking the participants a variety of questions, like those above, individually, or in smaller circles before the more formalized conference.

There are many times when a restorative justice conference may be used in place of, or alongside of the criminal court system⁠—especially for juveniles. Rather than using punitive shame, a restorative conference gives an opportunity for reintegrative shame and a way for the person who caused harm to take responsibility and try to make things right, and it further gives an opportunity for the person who was harmed to state what they need along with key supporters and community members. Much more could be said about the continuum of restorative practices, to read more about the IIRP’s definitions and descriptions of restorative practices you can view their website

A quick note: many Christian Reformed Churches in Ontario, and in British Columbia have been involved with training in how to be a restorative congregation or other restorative practices conversations with FaithCare (a program of Shalem Mental Health), Shalem is also an official partner of IIRP Canada.

To conclude this brief overview, it may be more helpful to state what restorative practices or restorative justice is not in order to better describe what it is. Howard Zehr did this in the introduction to his Little Book of Restorative Justice on pages 14-20. Below are a few references Zehr makes:

  • Restorative Justice (RJ) is not primarily about forgiveness or reconciliation⁠—while it may provide a context through which these could happen, there should not be pressure to forgive or to seek reconciliation; it is not a necessary outcome of restorative processes.

  • RJ does not necessarily imply a return to past circumstances⁠—rather as Fania David, a practitioner of RJ and attorney puts it: “For me it’s about returning to the part of us that really wants to be connected to one another in a good way.”

  • RJ is not mediation⁠—while “mediation” was used early on in the RJ field it is increasingly being replaced by terms like “conferencing” or “dialogue.” there are many times in which a person who has been victimized, especially if they are survivors of sexual assault or have been violated in other ways, a direct mediation may further lead to re-victimiztion or types of self-blaming. 

  • RJ is not primarily designed to reduce recidivism or repeat offenses⁠—it is done because those who have suffered harm should be able to identify their needs and have them addressed, those who have caused harm should be encouraged to take responsibility; others who are affected should be involved in the process. 

  • RJ is not a program⁠—there are a variety of communities that embody RJ, but there are no pure models or ideals that can be simply implemented. Restorative practices continue to shift and develop; new practices and implementations continue to be imagined and experimented. 

If you are seeking to learn more about restorative practices or restorative congregations, please contact Rev. Eric Kas at [email protected] for more information. 

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