1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision[a] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the centre of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the centre of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.
re·stor·a·tive jus·tice noun “a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.”
A few years ago, I saw something on Facebook, that stated, “Imagine the celebration that happened in heaven amongst the Christians that Paul had persecuted and helped killed, when Paul himself became a Christian, and started to spread the Gospel.” And it was a few years ago, but that has always stuck with me. To often when we think of justice we think of punishment. Or an eye for an eye. But what if there was another way? A better way? A way in the Bible that offers hope, joy and transformation. We see this in both the Old and New Testament.
In the very first book of the Bible, in Genesis. Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery, which eventually leads him to spend many years in slavery and then prison. Eventually he is brought face to face to his brothers, and at first he takes one of them and puts them in prison for a few days so that they might understand what he endured, and then he explores if they have learned to think about others before themselves. And then they are reunited. And together they reconcile and embrace a new united way of life.
We have Jesus, from the cross-offering mercy, forgiveness and kindness. As we heard in our scripture today, Paul was on his way to persecute and kill Christians is transformed by G-d, and then instead of being punished or rejected by Christians, they invite him into their homes. They teach him, they eat with him, they share with him, they worship with him.
All the way to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, we have people who have hurt the lamb of G-d worshipping before his thrown and being in community and relationship with him.
Restorative justice is beautiful and transformative but can also be hard, and requires a great deal of bravery. I think at times it would be easier to lock someone away, to refused to see their humanity to separate ourselves into us vs them. Good vs. bad. Innocent vs. guilty…And we see this in today’s first reading as well…the talk of G-d’s goodness involving eating with my enemies.
But restorative justice says, perhaps there is another way. A way that says, I see the humanity in you. I know everyone is better than their worst mistake. That G-d is bigger than anyone person or pain, and that heaven can break through and we can participate in it.
About 8 years ago, I was serving as an Associate Pastor in New Jersey and part of my job was to organize a huge Youth Mission Trip for Habitat for Humanity. And some of us were assigned to the Re-Store Store. Which is where there are extra supplies from the builds or items that people donated and they’re sold to the public and all the proceeds go to support Habitat for Humanity and the amazing work they do. And towards the front of the store on the checkout counter, they also had these coasters for sale. And I purchased a set of 4. And in the moves of life, I have some how lost 3 of the 4, and this one is what remains. And what makes these coasters so special is that they are part of restorative justice. For a young adult, had vandalized one of the builds and they found out who it was. And instead of punitive damages, they got some unused bathroom tiles and modge podge and nature magazines and had the person create art, which is then sold in the store. And the person also had to help on the build, get to know some of the volunteers as well as the family of the home they messed with. And they were seen and valued and their life was changed for the better.
Wild Mercy; Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of Women Mystics contains the following true story;
“In the classroom and the courtroom, restorative justice methods are being applied to a range of violations, from petty theft to rape, from able-bodied people parking in spots designed for the disabled (so they won’t be late to football practice or some such reason) to fatal collisions caused by drunk drivers.
Here’s how it works. When a crime has been committed, everyone impacted by the incident comes together in a circle. Each person affected has the opportunity to speak directly to the person responsible for the violation, sharing how they were hurt by the offender’s action. The person who committed the crime also has a chance to speak. They can apologize, express their own pain and sorrow for what they did, and may begin developing a concrete plan to restore wholeness to the community. Unlike the punitive model practiced in most Western courts, restorative justice is about repairing harm. It speaks to the whole person; it addresses and heals the soul. The philosophy underlying this process is that when someone violates the rights of an individual, they are damaging the fabric of the entire circle.
One of my most powerful experiences I’ve ever had—in a lifetime overflowing with powerful experiences—was sitting in a restorative justice circle. I was there in the capacity of grief counselor to a woman whose sixteen-year-old daughter had been run over by her boyfriend following a fight. They were in the parking lot of a motel where they had been partying.
When the young man entered the room where the session was to take place, his hands cuffed and his feet shackled, he did not make eye contact with anyone gathered there, including his own parents. Even after he was seated, he did not look up. Each person spoke of the way they were impacted by the event, and at first his face was like stone. But little by little, I saw his body language begin to register what was happening around him. As the girl’s basketball buddies spoke and cried, he flinched. His girlfriend’s sister, who was pregnant, wept when she expressed that her dead sister would never get to be an auntie or mom herself. Her stepfather spoke of his helplessness in the face of his wife’s grief.
When the mother spoke, she did not cry. She did not hurl hateful accusations. She quietly shared the texture of her days, sleepless nights, tortured dreams, waking to remember all over again that her beautiful, feisty daughter was gone. Them, to the amazement of everyone present, she shifted her focus from her own pain to her daughter’s boyfriend. She acknowledged that not only had she lost a child, but that he had lost his girlfriend. She told him that she holds him in prayer and that she might even like to visit him in prison to see how he is doing. She hoped this tragedy would inspire him to return to his community and teach boys about nonviolence. As this mighty mama shared her heart, I watched the young man’s eyes fill with tears. Soon he was openly weeping. And then we were all crying: her family, his family, the district attorney, and the assistant DA. Me…
And everyone had a chance to share how this incident had affected him, a blanket of collective exhaustion laced with tranquility feel over our group and rendered us momentarily mute. The facilitator skillfully allowed us to sit in this sacred hush for a few minutes before closing the circle. And then the girl’s mom asked if she could hug her daughter’s boyfriend. The guards consented. As if in the presence of the Madonna herself, we all made way for her as she crossed the room to where stood the person responsible for her child’s death, who was suddenly looking like a little boy.
She took him into her arms and began to whisper in his ear while stroking his shaved head. His shoulders were trembling, heaving. They stayed that way, pressed together, for along time. Then he was led away, back to jail. His sentencing followed later that week, taking into account the transformational fruits of our restorative justice process. The fabric of community had been carefully and collectively rewoven. Not a single one of us would ever be the same.”
Thanks be to G-d.