Rugged Relationships and a Restorative Church

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In our society of increasingly complex webs of relationships, systems of governments and institutions -- shalom, or the way things are supposed to be -- seems increasingly more challenging to envision. There has never been as much history as there is in the present. If you have watched the TV series The Good Place, (while I don’t agree with its humorous depiction of the “after-life”) you will find an excellent illustration that shows that doing something “good” is far more difficult in today’s society than it was in a less connected world. Yet, as we have become ever more connected, it seems we have also become even more ruggedly individualistic; we often fail to see our connection to each other, creation and God. Perhaps it is time we find common language and practices together as the church -- and as a society -- that could bring about holistic ways of valuing respect, responsibility and relationship. 

Fortunately, there have been people doing this kind of work over the past 50 years in what has been called the Restorative Justice/Practices Movement. Howard Zehr says that respect, responsibility and relationships are the three values underlying restorative justice, or restorative practices. If you are unfamiliar with restorative practices and its connection to the Christian Reformed Church denomination, check out this brief overview.

This training was not merely about managing conflict, or doing justice; but it was a way to think. 

I was trained in restorative practices through the International Institute for Restorative Practices in the spring of 2018; my trainer was Monica Evans, a former Detroit police officer, who happened to be featured on the cover of the 2013 Restorative Works year in review. It was a fantastic experience that included learning key concepts of the restorative framework, practicing restorative questions in circles, and learning about ways of being restorative with one another. It was clear that this training was not merely about managing conflict, or doing justice; but it was a way to think and be with others that allowed for a process of restoration to take place. Howard Zehr, in his Little Book of Restorative Justice refers to this by saying: 

“During the years I have been involved in this work, many people have commented that restorative justice is in fact a way of life. At first I was mystified; how can an approach designed initially to respond to crime become a life philosophy? I have concluded that it has to do with the ethical system that restorative justice embodies. The Western criminal justice system is intended to promote important positive values… but it does so in a way that is largely negative; it says that if you harm others, we will harm you… It does not, in itself, offer us a vision of the good. Restorative justice, on the other hand, provides an inherently positive value system, a vision of how we can live together in a life-giving way… a reminder for those of us living in an individualistic world--that we are interconnected. It reminds us that we live in relationship, that our actions impact others, that when those actions are harmful we have responsibilities” (pp. 80-81 Zehr, Little book of Restorative Justice revised and updated 2015). 

Since I have been trained in restorative practices the key restorative questions have reframed the way I think about conflicts, great and small, in my own relationships. It has helped me to pause an argument with my spouse and ask, “what is the hardest thing for you?” Trying to be restorative is not easy, but it is well worth the effort. Things shift when we are able to understand how we are affecting one another, and when we care enough to take responsibility for our actions.

It has helped me to pause an argument with my spouse

In July of 2020, I was given the opportunity to provide leadership and guidance to an initiative to increase the use of restorative practices within the CRCNA while I continue my role on staff with Safe Church Ministry. I’m excited about the possibility for this collaborative effort to provide ways of integrating restorative practices into ministry that we are already doing.

Recently, I have been connecting with pastors and faith leaders throughout the U.S. and Canada who have been deeply engaged with restorative practices for years. I have spoken to pastors attempting to create a restorative culture in their congregation. I have spoken with Christian Reformed leaders who have been administrators of schools as they not only reimagined disciplinary processes for students, but also dreamt of ways teachers and administrators form and carry out a restorative curriculum within the school system. Further, I have heard from chaplains in corrections facilities who have witnessed firsthand the reintegration of those who have taken responsibility for the harm they have caused and further seen those victimized have a pivotal say in what they believe needs to be done in order to make things right.

In my opinion, we need something to help us get on the same page together.

As the church, we are living in a more disembodied world as virtual meetings and work has become the norm. Our arguments have become disembodied as well as we argue past each other on social media platforms. The trend of civic disengagement and fragmentation of social trust has already been well documented by Robert Putnam, particularly in his first book Bowling Alone (2000).  In my opinion, we need something to help us get on the same page together to process harms that have been caused, not only in our justice system but also in our neighborhoods, facebook groups, families of origin, relationships with our spouses and children, and our congregations.

What would it look like if we, as the church, in our own congregations, began to use similar restorative practices, which are currently being used throughout the world to reimagine justice systems, schools and communities? I don’t think restorative practices are a silver bullet that will fix all of our issues, but I think they could serve as a valuable tool, giving us common language and a path forward that we could take together. The Spirit has already gone before us, and continues to provide a variety of tangible ways to further extend the powerful grace of Jesus with each other and our neighbors. In a world of schisms, perhaps we need to be far more intentional about being reconciled with one another and our communities. What would it look like if we no longer played the games of trying to be winners at the expense of the losers, but instead became people who united to take responsibility, extend respect, pay attention to harm, understand shame, seek justice, and experience grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

I am currently invested in hearing the many stories of how people have seen restorative practices lead to a new way of processing harm and/or strengthening relationships - particularly in congregations across North America. If you would like to connect in regards to restorative practices, please don’t hesitate to send me an email: [email protected]

 

This blog was initially posted on Do.Justice in October of 2020.

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