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  • Writer's pictureMatthew J Mills

Forgiveness and Restorative Justice

The language of criminal justice is ‘slippery’. Discussing central concepts, such as ‘punishment’, experts often cite a ‘lack of definitional consensus’; in other words, we simply cannot agree what such terms mean.

Is the punishment of incarceration, for instance, merely a dispassionate making visible of society’s displeasure (i.e. a symbol that such and such an act is something of which we, collectively, do not approve) or is it the imposition of pain, especially that of social exclusion, for the purpose of retribution?

In various ways, the theory known as ‘restorative justice’ challenges the place of punishment in our criminal justice system, arguing, with some justification, that in so far as it is retributive punishment is immoral and that, in any case, it fails to achieve the most vital outcome of criminal justice processes, which is (or ought to be) rehabilitation. (A restorative justice theorist might call the latter ‘reintegration’.)

Yet, restorative justice also has its own problems with language.

What is meant by ‘restoration’?

Is the theory of restorative justice chiefly concerned with transforming the value system underpinning criminal justice processes, or is it about working within the system to improve such processes and their outcomes?

The concept of ‘forgiveness’, sometimes referred to in restorative justice literature as being of relevance – though that is itself rarely defined – is certainly one of the most contentious.

For some, forgiveness may be described as the vital ingredient enabling stakeholders concerned in an act of harm or wrongdoing to ‘move on’ and rebuild their lives. The words of Desmond Tutu to South Africans recovering from Apartheid, that there can be no future without forgiveness, echo down to us today.

For others, forgiveness is a theological term best avoided. It has religious ‘baggage’, at best alien, impracticable and therefore largely irrelevant to criminal justice processes, but at worst potentially coercive (e.g. if victims were told that forgiveness is a necessary part of a just outcome) and therefore dangerous.

Recently, I co-authored a little book on this subject with two colleagues and fellow theologians: Myra Blyth, previously a senior figure in the World Council of Churches, and Michael Taylor, a former Director of Christian Aid.

The book, Forgiveness and Restorative Justice: Perspectives from Christian Theology (Palgrave, 2021), takes a look at key questions, including whether forgiveness is necessary to achieving a fully restorative resolution to acts of harm – and what happens when forgiveness cannot be achieved.

We also grapple with an array of related concepts – victimhood, sin, love, vulnerability – and suggest that Christianity, with its meaning-giving metanarrative of restorative, may even have epistemic value for evaluating and deepening the theory and practice of restorative justice, in general.


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