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Three Types of Justice Missions

Amy Sherman

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.” Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

“Justice mission” is part of the essential calling of the Church corporately as we seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, imitating His Kingdom mission. Justice is, according to Micah 6:8, something that “the Lord requires of us.” But what does it mean to do justice? How is this lived out?

There are at least three general categories that we might call “justice missions.” Applying the call to “do justice” in our personal lives is fairly straightforward. It looks like not stealing, not defrauding, not taking bribes, and the like. These are all important expressions of “doing justice.” But the call to do justice goes beyond these moral injunctions.

There is an important, public side to the call to do justice that we must hear. But we are immediately confronted with the fact that all sorts of people, in all sorts of contexts, toss the word “justice” around. Much discussion about “social justice” is very grey, very messy. People disagree – sometimes vehemently. Identifying the “just solution” for particular problems is very difficult work indeed whether that issue concerns the minimum wage or the death penalty or tax cuts or any of many thorny debate topics.

In suggesting the three categories of “justice mission” below, I hope to offer some helpful clarity.

1) Remedying Blatant Injustice

This is the easiest one to understand – and likely, the least controversial. Instead of floundering in a morass of grey, we often see quite clearly, in black and white. Here justice looks like identifying, exposing, and remedying situations where there is a clear abuse of power against a victim or victims, typically perpetuated through coercion and deception.

Most of the work of the International Justice Mission fits into this first category. When a sex trafficker tricks a poor family into sending their teenage girl to the city, with promise of a good paying job in a restaurant, and then locks that girl up, beats her, and forces her to become a prostitute to earn money for his brothel, we are in the territory of “blatant injustice.” We see deception and coercion. Addressing this kind of injustice involves very difficult and often dangerous work. But it is “easy” in the sense that it is not morally complicated.

This kind of blatant injustice occurs in the US too. For example, several years ago in Lawrence, Massachusetts a coalition of religious congregations, unions, and community advocates called the “Merrimack Valley Project” came together there to address the abuse of temporary workers, most of them immigrants. Temporary agencies were charging temp workers transportation fees of up to 15 percent of workers’ salaries – far higher than the actual costs of shuttling these workers to their job sites. Worse, these agencies required their workers to use this transportation service, whether they wanted or needed to, and threatened workers with the loss of their jobs if they refused. In this way, the agencies earned a hefty profit at the workers’ expense. Members of the Merrimack Valley Project were successful in documenting this abuse and bringing it to the attention of public authorities. Eventually they successfully got the Massachusetts state legislature to outlaw the practice.

There are two principal strategies in this first category. The first is confronting the power. In IJM’s case, the unacknowledged power is often the power of national laws that make underage prostitution or child slave labor illegal. IJM documents the abuses and then insists that public officials responsible for enforcing the law actually do their job. In the case with the temporary agencies, the Merrimack coalition essentially told them: “You are not the highest power here. You are accountable to the state legislature. The state has power to regulate economic life in Massachusetts in instances where there is exploitation occurring.”

The second strategy involved in justice-as-rescue is exposing lies. Blatant injustice is often sustained by deception. Sex traffickers tell their victims that they owe them for the costs of their transportation to the city and must work in the brothel to pay off this debt. Slave owners tell the illiterate families that they owe them money that has to be repaid in full in one lump sum, and if it’s not repaid, then they are required to work off the debt with their labor. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the temporary agencies told the immigrant workers that they were required to ride the van pools or they could be fired. So the role of a group like IJM or the Merrimack Valley Project is to speak the truth – to abusers and victims. IJM tells the slaves that Indian law protects them against being bonded laborers; the Merrimack coalition tells the immigrant that, in fact, the temp agencies do not have the right to force them to use their transportation service. In both instances, the “doers of justice” sing out the truth publicly, and the abusers of power can no longer hide in the darkness. Instead, their misdeeds and their lies are exposed by the light of the truth.

2) Promoting Equity

The second type of justice mission is what we might call “promoting equity.” The word “equity” is used because it denotes fairness, impartiality, and equal treatment. This category of justice is not so black and white. The general idea is that public policies should be crafted in such ways that the poor do not bear a disproportionate burden of the cost of addressing social or economic problems that affect the whole community. It involves fostering fairness in the distribution of society’s common burdens. Let’s consider an example, this one from Minnesota.

Like most cities, Minneapolis faces a challenge in providing affordable housing for all citizens who need it. There is a lot of “NIMBY” (“not in my backyard”) that occurs in public discussions about this issue. Typically, wealthier citizens do not want low or moderate income housing built in their communities. They fear this will bring about a spike in crime or a drop in property values. Because the economically rich typically enjoy greater political power than the economically poor, most subsidized housing gets built in poor areas. This creates what sociologists call “concentrations” of poverty. Research consistently shows that concentrated poverty neighborhoods create attendant social ills: unemployment, violence, gang activity, poor schools, lack of economic opportunity, and hopelessness.

In response, citizen activists – Christians and nonbelievers – worked together and achieved success in getting the task of providing affordable housing regionally distributed so the burden wouldn’t fall alone on the inner-city. Their argument was that suburban jurisdictions ought to provide a portion of the affordable housing based on the region’s need. The campaign took three years and debates often took an ugly and even racist tone. But in their third year, the coalition convinced politicians to agree to a new strategy. A seven-county Metropolitan Council was established to negotiate housing goals and withhold regional services to cities that didn’t participate in the regional housing fund. Today, this Council works to ensure that the common societal burden – the need to provide affordable housing – is equitably shared by citizens throughout the region. Each jurisdiction contributes money for the construction of such housing and each accepts a certain number of units to be built in their jurisdiction.

The principal strategy employed by the doers of justice in this category of work is that of devising ways to frame the issues so that a wide constituency is able to recognize the value of equitable policies. Stakeholders in both city and suburbia have to see that the problems of concentrated poverty affected both. The most immediate and visible consequences are seen by the city, but ultimately the poverty and violence of concentrated poverty neighborhoods “spills over” to affect suburbia – through things like higher social welfare costs or crime control costs.

3) Restorative Justice

The final category is what can be called “restorative justice.” This involves considering where an injustice has been perpetrated, and what can be done to best bring healing, restitution, and rehabilitation.

Put simply, restorative justice is a process in which victims and offenders meet to talk about the effects of crime, the harm it causes, and how to make things right. Offenders must take responsibility for their action, make restitution if possible, and become productive citizens if released (or good role models in the prison if never released). Victims get “heard” by offenders – and they work hard to understand and eventually forgive the offender. The notion of restorative justice is at the root of country-wide efforts like South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” commission, established after the end of apartheid.

A story from Canada offers some insight into the work of restorative justice.

In 1997, Katy and her husband Bob were entertaining some friends for dinner. Bob and the other two men became concerned about the raucous noise coming from a party in a house next door, whose owners they knew to be away on vacation. The men went to the house and found nearly 100 teenagers drinking, taking drugs, and dancing. Bob went up to the master bedroom to tell the teens that they needed to stop the party and leave the home. Instead of agreeing, the drunk adolescents set upon Bob viciously, punching and kicking him. Bob later died in hospital of his injuries.

Five years later, police solved the crime by identifying a young man named Ryan who finally confessed to having delivered the final, fatal kicks to Bob’s pummeled body. Ryan was convicted and received a life sentence from the trial judge.

Eventually, with the help of individuals engaged in the restorative justice movement, Ryan wrote a letter to Katy. He confessed his crime and took responsibility, apologizing for his act. Other restorative justice advocates arranged for Katy to visit the prison. There, through video conferencing, she met Ryan. Obviously the moment was emotionally charged. Katy found herself feeling compassion for Ryan because he was obviously very remorseful. She was reminded of how young Ryan was, and how even younger he had been when he’d gotten drunk and killed her husband. With help from restorative justice advocates, Katy and Ryan began to get to know one another slowly. Eventually, Katy decided to begin taking her story to high school students. She put together a presentation about her husband and their life together. She told the story of Bob’s murder and of Ryan’s conviction, hoping to help young people recognize the seriousness of their choices about drugs and drinking and unsupervised parties.

In 2003, Katy and Ryan met face-to-face in an Offender Mediation Program sponsored by a Canadian ministry that does restorative justice work. Katy played her presentation about Bob. Ryan became tearful when Katy shared with him that she and her twin boys had forgiven him. Soon after the meeting, Ryan decided that he should try to help Katy’s ministry in the high schools. He composed a letter that she could read as part of her presentation. His letter shares his fuzzy recollections of the fateful night, talks about how his life spiraled into despair and had a devastating impact on his family, and implores other young people to consider the consequences of their choices, to recognize how easily a wrong can lead to tragedy.

Restorative justice organizations are involved in all kinds of Victim-Offender Mediation. Sometimes meetings occur before the sentencing and influence the type of sentence meted out. Other times the meetings happen after the offender is already in jail. Sometimes the group meetings are between victims and the actual offenders who hurt them or their loved ones. Other times, it’s victims getting together with unrelated offenders, to talk more generally about the effects of crime.

The popular TV series “Law and Order” typically concludes with the moment in the courtroom when the jury announces its verdict: guilty or not guilty. The show illustrates the predominant philosophy of the contemporary criminal justice system: retributive justice. The focus here is on the fact that the offender broke a law and needs to be punished by the state. The philosophy of restorative justice includes some elements of retributive justice but is also different. It focuses attention on the harm caused to the victim by the offender. It is eager for the offender to admit her wrong and to take responsibility for it – including wherever possible some forms of restitution. But ultimately it goes beyond punishment.

The “end of the story” in restorative justice is not when the offender is sent to jail (or set free), but when the offender is able to be rehabilitated back to society after fully taking responsibility for the harm he has caused. It seeks also the fullest measure of healing possible for the crime victim, acknowledging what we know from Biblical truth to be reality: that full healing without forgiveness is impossible.