This blog post was initially posted on Do Justice Blog on September 3rd, 2021.
A driver was going 5 mph over the limit due to not seeing a damaged speed limit sign. After a police officer issued the driver a traffic infraction the driver immediately scheduled a time to argue it. However, even before the driver could talk, the judge simply threw out the infraction. Even though the driver didn’t have to pay the fine, they left feeling dissatisfied because they did not have the opportunity to speak.
In many studies, these dynamics are referred to as procedural justice. The Justice Collaboratory of Yale Law school states: “Extensive research has shown that the driver’s perception of the quality of this encounter depends less on its outcome, that is, on whether they have received or not a ticket, and more on whether they felt treated in a “procedurally just” way. Individuals’ perceptions of procedurally just encounters are based on four central features of their interactions with legal authorities:
Whether they were treated with dignity and respect;
Whether they were given voice;
Whether the decision-maker was neutral and transparent; and
Whether the decision-maker conveyed trustworthy motives.
Power dynamics are all around us and many may not be aware of the power they hold in a simple conversation with another. Processes or procedures of using that power can be very one-sided and we may actually be marginalizing those around us without knowing it.
Listening to Young Voices:
One key way power is manifest is through a person's voice. I have two young boys and I am fascinated at the ways they have learned to use their voices to communicate and interact with their peers and other adults. I often observe closely when people in our neighborhood or in our church ask them a direct question, like "how old are you?" or "do you have a bike?" I don’t observe closely because I am worried or concerned about my child, but because I see this as an opportunity for my child to practice using their voice. Inevitably my oldest son, almost five years old, will look at me and smile nervously. I will often raise my eyebrows and wait for him to respond, or ask him to respond to Mr. or Ms. so-and-so. I feel a sense of pride when he is able to answer a question and share his voice with confidence - knowing that my son is learning how to be in relationship with others and grow in trust and connection with our community.
There are times too, when I ask kids (that are not my own) direct questions to invite them into conversation. Although, many times their parents intervene and answer the question I invited the young person to answer. When this happens - it whisks me away to a time when I was a child and I had the sense that I should be merely seen, but not heard. My voice was not welcomed; my ideas were not valued. Perhaps the parent did not trust their child to give an answer, or they didn’t trust me to speak with their child, or it was simply uncomfortable for them.
I believe that being heard, listened to, and given an opportunity to share your voice is fundamental to being an image bearer of God - no matter how small, different or marginalized your voice may be, regardless of the system in which you live.
How can we as individuals and within our institutions and systems find ways to allow voices and stories to be heard?
Jesus and Empowering Voice and Agency:
Amidst the systems of the 1st century, Jesus used his power to be with others in ways that gave others voice and agency, especially the marginalized. God empowered Mary, Jesus' mother, to boldly give voice to the way God scatters the proud, lifts up the humble and fills the hungry (Lk 1); Jesus called young working class men from Galilee, far from the prominence and power structures of Jerusalem; Jesus welcomed the children (Lk 18) and heard the concerns of Martha and empowered Mary (Lk 10), Jesus spoke to and listened to the Samaritan woman at the well, revealing his identity of the Messiah which then empowered her to raise her voice to the village. These are just a few ways Jesus was with others and listened to and gave others opportunities to raise their voices.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus then empowered an entire movement of the holy spirit that transformed lives into being living stones built up into a holy living temple as a royal priesthood, and as Peter says in chapter two of his first letter: "to live as free people, not using freedom as a cover for evil, but live as God’s servants. Show respect to everyone, honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king."
The church grew in number as people's voices were empowered and their love and care for all were evident. The church was with one another in vital relationships, built on respect and honoring all. Of course, it wasn’t always perfect, which is why Peter may have been writing his first letter to the church. Perhaps there were heightened levels of dissension and unrest between the Christians and others in their communities and their relationships were not marked with respect or honor.
So, what should the church do in a fractious society that is hesitant to give respect and voice to those who have different opinions? Or put simply, how can we give dignity and respect by listening and hearing other’s voices? Perhaps we can learn from fair process, procedural justice, and restorative justice practices.
Engagement, Explanation and Expectation Clarity:
Authors Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne write specifically on the importance of fair process in the ways power is stewarded, especially in the “knowledge economy” of today in this 2003 article in the Harvard Business Review. They name three principles of fair process that are particularly important and resonate with procedural justice:
- Engagement — involving individuals in decisions that affect them by listening to their views and genuinely taking their opinions into account
- Explanation — explaining the reasoning behind a decision to everyone who has been involved or who is affected by it
- Expectation clarity — making sure that everyone clearly understands a decision and what is expected of them in the future.
This article has been often quoted by the International Institute of Restorative Practices as a way to be with others, rather than to them or for them. The IIRP states here: iirp.edu/defining-restorative/fair-process that, “Fair process demonstrates the restorative with domain of the social discipline window. It relates to how leaders handle their authority in all kinds of professions and roles: from parents and teachers to managers and administrators. The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practices embodies fair process by asserting that "people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in behavior when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them."
What would happen if we lived in societies where the voices of all were given spaces to share their stories? What if those who made decisions that affected others were to engage and explain their decisions and share clear expectations? Would we learn more from one another? Would we be more respectful and honoring of all?