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Howard Zehr on what restorative justice and revenge have in common

Jun 25, 2009

From his blog entry

Before you gasp and close this page, stay with me.  I’m not trying to rehabilitate the practice of revenge or retribution.  Nor is my intention to discount the importance of forgiveness.  I do want to explore an underlying link between them, however.

I have heard prisoners as well as residents of our inner cities talk about what it takes to survive in their violent environments.  If they are wronged, they feel they have to over-react.  Only by being seen as irrationally violent will they be safe from future attacks.  In this perception, only the threat of revenge can provide safety in a lawless environment.  This, says, McCullough, has been one of the functions of revenge historically:  to provide some semblance of safety in situations where “pacified social spaces” don’t exist. This is, however, a very shaky and dangerous state.  

Structures of retribution such as criminal justice systems, with their emphasis on a measured, proportional, response are one effort - though far from ideal - to provide such pacified social spaces.  We are less likely to take things into our own hands when we know that some kind of justice will be done, when balance and honor will be restored.

What does this tell us about justice?  One important implication is that when a wrong occurs, we need a response that acknowledges the wrong and in some way balances the score.  To be balanced, however, it seems essential that the resulting obligation must be costly for offenders; given the pain and harm, if the offenders action isn’t difficult, it doesn’t feel satisfying. 

Read the whole entry.


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