Restorative Justice Challenges "Myth of Redemptive Violence"

by Ron Claassen

Third in a series of papers on restorative justice by Ron Claassen, Director of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University and Founding Executive Director of Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of the Central Valley.

These articles first appeared in the newsletter of VORP of the Central Valley and may be reproduced in works not produced for profit so long as they are not edited for content, the source is acknowledged, and the legend "Printed by permission" is included.

© 1996 Ron Claassen

Is there an alternative to vengeance and retribution as a way of responding to a wrong, an injustice? Walter Wink (in Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination) says that our society’s preferred response is one of vengeance, and Wink has labeled it the “myth of redemptive violence.

The redemptive violence myth, he says, is the belief that violence is a necessary and appropriate response and even healing for the victim especially when administered by the state on a victim’s behalf. Wink points out that Jesus clearly rejected violence as a constructive way of responding to a wrong or injustice and helps us to understand that there are some alternatives to violence.

One passage of scripture Wink uses to help us understand that there are alternatives to violence is found in the fifth chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye.’ But I say to you." This is followed by a series of statements that sound awfully weak and seem to call for the offended party to become a "doormat."

Jesus says things like: "If one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;" and, "If you are forced to carry a pack one mile, carry it two miles;" and, "If one takes your coat, give him your cloak as well." And then, if that is not enough apparent passivity, Jesus adds this: "You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘love your enemy." Here we really tune out because we know that we don’t have warm and gushy feelings for someone who has just committed a serious offense against us.

So how, when we have been offended, are we to understand and take seriously what Jesus is saying? I have found Wink’s work describing the context in which Jesus was speaking to be very helpful in understanding how Jesus might want us to respond. The easiest to explain of the three "doormat" suggestions is the one about carrying the pack. The context was this: soldiers in the Roman occupation force often had to carry heavy packs and had a practice of forcing the locals to carry their packs for them. It was a practice that was degrading and very inconvenient, and it was experienced as an abusive injustice by the locals. The soldiers, on the other hand, thought it was their "right" since, after all, they were the ones with the "power." The army authorities supported the soldiers’ right to the practice but also realized that this should be limited to guard against becoming "too abusive." Therefore, they imposed a limit of one mile on the distance a soldier could force a local to carry his pack.

Now, it is in this context that Jesus makes the statement, "If you are forced to carry a pack one mile, carry it two miles." It no longer seems like a "doormat" type of response. In fact, it seems rather aggressive. It is a nonviolent and assertive response - not a passive one. Try to imagine the situation. I think it would be something like this: at the beginning the soldier forces the local to carry the pack. Then, at the end of the first mile, the soldier asks the local to give the pack back. But according to Jesus’ suggestion, the local, the one who had been forced to carry the pack, would just continue walking, refusing the order to give it back and knowing that this would put the soldier in jeopardy of possible punishment. The initiative had been seized by the local, the one who earlier appeared to be powerless. Not only is this not a passive response, it is very possible that it could become an abusive response in return. It appears that this is why Jesus immediately follows these suggested responses with the statement: "Love (agape meaning most literally ‘to be constructive with’) your enemy."

Restorative Justice must not be confused with approving, ignoring, or saying that wrongdoing is OK. Restorative Justice needs to develop assertive and constructive responses that bring appropriate attention to the problem in ways that encourage the offender to recognize and accept responsibility for the offense. Once this is done, victims are amazingly willing to consider how equity might be restored and how agreements might be made for the future so the injustice will not be repeated. If the offender accepts responsibility and keeps the agreements, trust grows and reconciliation (movement along a continuum from ‘increasing hate’ toward "increasing care") happens. VORP cases provide a wonderful illustration and reminder that there is a viable, redemptive alternative to "an eye for an eye."