of Aotearoa New Zealand
Dr Thomas Noakes-Duncan is a lecturer with the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice – School of Government, at Victoria University of Wellington.
‘The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’ Dostoevsky’s sentiment remains as true today as it did during his. We might extend his insight by saying civil society can be judged by how many it sends to prison. On this measure, New Zealand would not fare very well at all, as we have one of the highest rates of incarceration in the OECD.
With the prison population fast approaching 10,000, Jesus’ words take on new significance: ‘I was in prison and you visited me…for just as you did this for the least of my family, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:36-40). Such visiting requires both being in solidarity with those behind bars as well as exploring approaches other than punishment for dealing with the harm caused by crime. This is where restorative justice comes in.
It offers a way of conceptualising the justice needs that exists in those affected by wrongdoing as well as offering a set of skills for satisfying those needs. As a way of doing justice, it makes space for mercy and compassion to guide all respective relationships towards a more peaceable outcome. Crucial is respect for each person’s human dignity and what needs to be done to restore it.
In the context of crime, restorative justice is concerned with restoring a sense of trustworthiness in offenders as they take responsibility for their actions. Restoring wellbeing in victims as their needs are addressed and dignity repaired. Restoring relationships damaged by the offending, especially within whānau. Restoring belonging by extending to the released prisoner all the benefits and obligations of equal citizenship. And finally, restoring peace to society by addressing the drivers of crime.
The church could have a special role in realising this high calling. By supporting initiatives that bring together those harmed by crime with those who have done the harm, for the purpose of seeking healing, the church participates in Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation. By welcoming released prisoners into its community and extending its resources, including the community’s source of love and belonging, the church fulfils its mandate of being the beloved community.
This work of seeking restoration in wider society is not additional to but, an extension of the church’s own sacramental life. The social actions performed in the Eucharist are meant to overflow the altar so others may begin to taste and see the reconciliation God has ordained for all creation. The community of faith are called to be a foretaste of God’s peaceable revolution, witnessing in its life together His justice and mercy.
It is this understanding of justice that the church needs to bring to bear on the pursuit of justice in civil society, especially on how prisoners and their victims are treated. Doing so will not always be easy; indeed, more will be demanded of us. We owe as much to those who are in need of mercy, and we will be a better society for it.
This article was originally published in WelCom, a newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses. It is republished here with permission from the author.