Seeking Restorative Justice

by Rob Irish

Between May 17 and 20th, I had the opportunity to attend part of the conference put on by Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based justice organization. One session, entitled “Lessons from Indigenous Spirituality,” was led by Rev. Dr. Ray Aldred, a professor at Vancouver School of Theology and a Cree from Swan River Band in Treaty 8 land. 

He focused on the concept of “Restorative Justice.”  When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed in response to the tragedy of residential schools, Indigenous leaders pushed for “reconciliation” to be part of the mandate because restorative justice is central to the Indigenous worldview.  The goal is always to bring the brother or sister back into the family.  For Christians, this should feel familiar: God’s heart is always to restore communion with his people by setting right the relationship.

Aldred explained that in Indigenous practice, restorative justice has three aspects:

  1. Tell the truth—the first step in any restoration is speaking the truth. This is true whether the discussion is between individuals, within a family, or between people groups and nations. Without an acknowledgment of the truth, without being willing to say what is true, no restoration is possible.
  2. Listen—actually hearing through deliberate and empathetic listening is difficult. Once we have said the truth, we have a responsibility to listen to the stories of the impact, of the hurt it caused. We need to do this without succumbing to the dismissive impulses: we cannot say, “just get over it,” and we cannot say, “it wasn’t that bad,” and we cannot say, “Look, I said I was sorry.”  Any of those impulses—which are natural enough—has the capacity to undermine restoration and curtail justice.  Listening must come without judgment, and most importantly without self defence.
  3. Develop a shared plan to fix the damage—ultimately, the parties in the impasse need to work to develop a way forward together. At a personal level, we might need counselling together (or separately first).  At societal level, we need a process of acknowledging and learning and building trust.

Dr. Aldred drew our attention to the letter of 1 John 1:8-9: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  Here we see a call to tell the truth—to confess our sins—and we see the promise of blessing that comes from it: forgiveness and righteousness.

Perhaps, John is skipping over something of the process involved in reaching righteousness. To get there, we need to listen—both to those who have been harmed and to the Spirit of the loving God—and develop a plan to fix the damage.

Or in terms of Christian doctrine: we need to repent. Repentance (or metanoia in Greek) is a difficult concept. It has the specific meaning of “making a change” or “reversing one’s action.”  Just so in our relations with Indigenous people, we face a call to reverse our actions.  We Canadians need to start by acknowledging that we are not as superior as we like to believe. We have a nation built on the abuse of the land’s first inhabitants. We have run roughshod over their rights and even their personhood.  These are painful admissions. They are a first step.

If we want to develop a plan to fix the damage, to repent, to make a change, we need to start by acknowledging the truth.

More specifically, there are some concrete actions we can take today.

First, we can start to use a land acknowledgment as we did at the Wellington Square AGM.  Maybe we need to build that more regularly into our practices in meetings and worship.

Second—and urgently—we can write to our MP and especially the Canadian Senate to get them to pass the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).  Legislation is currently before Parliament—Bill C15—and we need to use our voices ensure that it gets passed. A number of churches have come together to support this through an organization called Faith in the Declaration. You can find a letter to sign and send here.

As we embark on this journey there is much to learn, and much to do.  As James reminds us, “Faith without works is dead,” so as we learn even a little, we must enact our faith in ways that are faithful both to Christ our redeemer and to our brothers and sisters who journey with us.

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