Restorative Justice: Rightly Remembering

Guest author: Peter Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of peacemaking & conflict studies.

For many Americans, September 11 was a defining moment 16 years ago. One of the comic strips in the morning paper directed my attention this way. It read: “Never Forget” and included a shadow outline of the Manhattan skyline with the World Trade Towers. It got me thinking about the role of memory and what message I was to be taking from the comic stip. What exactly should not be forgotten? Evil deeds? Symbols of capitalist conquest? First responders? Terrorists? So, my musings began with what we are not to forget and it was not clear to me. But, more than that, it is not just what we remember but how we remember that makes a significant difference. For instance, the Israelites were counseled to always remember that they were once slaves/mistreated aliens in Egypt, so this should inform the ways that they related to strangers living among them thenceforth: with compassion and justice rather than exploitation and disregard. Thus, remembering is critical for current action.

The preeminent story for Christians is the life of Jesus, a narrative which we are to “Never Forget.” But here, again, it is not merely what we remember but how we remember. One way of remembering could be steeped in bitterness and the desire for revenge against those who persecuted and killed Jesus. Rising up in rebellion against Rome was a tempting option for some. Later generations of Christians fell prey to the temptation to blame the Jews as those responsible for orchestrating the death of Jesus. In such cases, remembering of the death of Jesus becomes fuel for revenge. But the story of Jesus, rightly remembered, is one of healing and the quest for right relationships amongst humans. When Jesus holds his last supper with his disciples, he predicts his death and tells them that the new covenant will be centered in his self-offering of his whole being; bread and wine symbolizing his body and blood. Thus, rather than encouraging his disciples to focus their remembering on the perpetrators and the atrocity of putting an innocent person to death, he invites their (and our) remembering to be oriented around his consistent way of life, which death could not vanquish, self-offering love.

The work of restorative justice has to do with leading people in an exercise of remembering that emphasizes how we remember, not just what we remember. For, when offenders are called upon to remember their deeds, they do so with guidance to take responsibility, to not make excuses, and to apologize. And when victims are called upon to remember the offense they suffered, they are counseled to do so with honesty, speaking from their pain and confusion. And both parties are counseled to listen respectfully, which is a major contributor toward remembering the events in a way that leads toward healing and harm repair rather than further hurt and destruction. So, we might ask ourselves whenever we are encouraged to “Never Forget,” what is it that needs remembering and in what ways can our remembering be most helpful toward bringing about the flourishing humanity?