John 8: 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said.“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Because Luis was targeted by paramilitary squads for death, he left his home in Colombia and fled to neighboring Ecuador. There in the city of Quito, he one day worshiped in the Mennonite church, planted by the Colombian missionaries who have visited us, Cesar Moya and Patricia Uruena. There he also met the Rivera family, who were part of the paramilitary unit that drove him from his home.
Or a woman, let’s call her Cecille, and her children fled the civil war in Eastern Congo, where her husband was killed, she was raped and lost her home and her crops, to find refuge and help from Congolese Mennonites. But soon another person joined the same church: a former child soldier from the same militia who so deeply offended Cecille and her children, a teenager who’s also seeking refuge and a chance to start over.
In both of those cases, what should they do? The offended, the offenders, and the churches that host them?
If this were script of a Hollywood movie, like True Grit, Luis would shoot the Riveras, and Cecille might betray the former boy soldier to a rival militia. Then the movie would end and everyone would go home happy. Justice was served. Hooray! That’s what we call retributive justice. It says, “an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.” It’s in the law of Moses, and while it sounds barbaric, it was actually an improvement over the honor code at the time that said, “Both your eyes for the one I lost,” or “All of your teeth for one of mine. Then no one else will mess with me!”
Retributive justice is all about evening the score, so that the offender hurts at least as badly as does the offended. The victims may feel like their injury has been taken seriously, and they and the community get some closure. If we’re talking prison, well, some people should be kept off the streets and away from victims, real or potential.
But even when the score is evened, the relationship stays broken, and insecurity remains. We have only to look to Palestine and Israel, or Eastern Congo, or to the gangs of this neighborhood to know that not everyone agrees when the score is settled. So one round of settling the score always leads to another, and then another. Where will it stop? And with whom? An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind. And the community loses both the offender and the offended. So are we stuck, with no way out of this mounting pile of offenses, offended and offenders around the world, until it finally crushes us all?
Well, we could say to the offended, “That was then, this is now; just get over it; suck it up.” In which case we destroy the possibility of faith, hope and love for the offended, who must always live with their hurts minimized, and with the fear that they will be hurt again.
Or we could say to the offenders, “You blew it so bad, there’s no space here for you; off you go, like Cain after he killed his brother, Abel. Off you go, east of Eden, into eternal exile where you will always be watching over your shoulder for an avenger.” In which case we destroy the possibility of faith, hope and love for the offender.
Or we could ignore the needs of both the offended and the offenders and say, “Let’s build a society so justly structured that no one will offend anyone else again, and a society so tolerant that no one will be offended by anyone else again.” But when did that ever work?
To further complicate matters, we are all both offended and offender, at some point in our lives. That’s what makes conflicts really thorny and complicated, when everybody has something to confess and everyone something to forgive. Frankly, that’s how most interpersonal conflicts are. Rarely can we say, that’s the villain, because he’s all dressed in black, and there’s the 100% innocent victim, all dressed in white.
Today’s Gospel passage tells me there’s another way through this mess besides the usual Hollywood venge-fest. I saw how it captured the imagination of new Christians in Burkina Faso. Every time a church starts there in a new language group, a new tribal culture, there is an explosion of new Christian worship music in their language and their style of music. Without fail, one of their first new Christian songs would be about this very story, about the woman brought to Jesus. Because in it they saw the very essence of the gospel, and the difference that the gospel makes.
If they had come from one of the super-strict Wahabi Muslim communities, they might indeed have stoned the woman in today’s story to death. Or if they had been tribal traditionalists, they might have cut off her ears or nose, or made scars on her face, so that she would be marked with that sin for life, like what the Puritans did with the letter A. Or just as bad, they might have said, “No big deal; her lover is a powerful man, and so naturally he gets more women than other men do, even if they are other men’s wives. We’re not going to mess with him or his harem.”
But in that progression of Jesus’ words, from “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” to “neither do I condemn you,” to “go and sin no more,” we see the movement of a redeeming and reconciling power that is true biblical and restorative justice. In that order is all we need to know about the work of God to reintegrate offenders into community with the offended, plus much of what we need to know about how to heal the offended. In that story is what we need to know about how to restore both the offending individual and the offended community to wholeness and security.
That’s why its called “restorative justice.”
Restorative justice begins with understanding that we have all offended God, others and our best selves at some point in time. So no one can cast the first stone. None of us is entitled to take the life that only God, the Giver of life, can give and take, whatever their sin. It goes on to say that just as Jesus did not condemn the woman, we too can condemn no person, even when and if we must condemn their actions. That’s an important distinction to make, between a person and their actions.For at times we can and must condemn actions, as Jesus did when he said, “Go and sin no more.”
He called what the woman did sin. Yes, its wrong that the man is not there too, paraded before the crowd alongside her. That’s a sin just as serious. Yes, its wrong that the crowd is only concerned about her behavior as a way of getting at Jesus. They’re no better than her. I’m sure Jesus understood that. But restorative justice does not minimize nor deny the seriousness of anyone’s offense to God, themselves or the community.
For the offender then, biblical, restorative justice involves some hard work and heavy lifting in the area of repentance, truth-telling, confession and making restitution if necessary, without bargaining or minimizing the offense, like what I think I hear the cyclist, Lance Armstrong, still doing, now that he’s been busted for doping. Truth-telling and repentance are absolutely necessary if the offender is to take advantage of the invitation to a new life, a better life, in the words of Jesus, to “go and sin no more.” But the offender must not only seek and receive repentance and forgiveness, he or she must re-earn trust, by making restitution, if possible, and displaying trustworthiness to the community. That can take time. But I’ve seen it done.
For the offended, restorative justice also means some hard work and heavy lifting in the area of admitting and naming all that they have suffered and lost, and just what grief, anger and trauma they feel, sometimes to the offender himself. Mennonite Central Committee is helping women in Colombia do just that through quilting. They often find it hard to name, verbally, the losses and injuries they have suffered in Colombia’s drug-fueled civil war. But they can often express them more easily with needle and thread, on fabric. Our Hmong neighbors have done the same with their story cloths.
That done, biblical restorative justice then involves the hard work and heavy lifting of offering forgiveness and trust, and then offering them again every time the old fears and resentments raise their heads anew. If that sounds hard, you’re right. But the alternatives always prove harder. Restorative justice is as much a journey as a destination. Like with Luis in the church of Quito, Ecuador, alongside the Riveras. The church has processed and prayed with Luis and the Riveras, and Luis says, “Although I continue to feel annoyed with the Rivera family, I can no longer attempt to end their lives, because I am a new person in Christ.” That was in 2006. I hope he and the Riveras are farther along on the journey by now.
Retributive justice asks, “What’s fair?” The first complete sentence that one of our daughters uttered at the age of 20-some months was, “But that’s not fair!” That was the younger daughter, of course. But biblical, restorative justice goes so way far beyond the question of “What’s fair?” to ask, “What do we need?” and “What can we give?”
As for “What do we need?” the restorative justice of God’s grace is infinitely bounteous and generous, giving us, the offenders, so much more than we have any right to expect, by way of forgiveness, renewal, the gift of repentance, and newness of life and relationships. God’s grace also gives the offended power to forgive and to reintegrate the offender. Otherwise, we remain prisoners of our grudges, and the offender remains an external threat.
But the restorative justice of God can also be more demanding, strenuous and costly than simple fairness might demand. It holds offenders to high standards, and demands of the offended strenuous and honest self-examination if they should have any part in the conflict beside victim. It calls us to be the best we can be, and not to sink to the level of our offenders. It tells the offenders, “Go and sin no more.” It will also keep pushing and prodding the offended toward forgiveness of their offenders, not any faster than they are ready, but not any slower, either.
But thank God that his version of restorative justice is not fair. It was not fair for the One who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” when another mob later on did not turn away, but lynched him even worse than what they would have done to the woman. And yet in that death on the cross is the fount, and the guarantee, of God’s restorative justice for everyone and everything.
No, the justice of God is more than fair. It gives to each one of us all that we need, and calls forth from each one of us all that we can give, for the sake of ourselves, our offenders, the community, and the honor of God, all by the grace of God.