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Restorative Justice


This morning we’re kicking off a new six sermon series on Justice. What it is, why it’s important, and how we actually go about living it. Throughout scripture, we learn that Justice is central to the very heart of God and Justice itself is a theme that is woven all throughout scripture. And because of this, the way we’re going to study Justice is by doing a flyover tour of the bible, from Genesis to Revelation and how the theme of Justice is carried through and developed throughout scripture. Part of why I think this approach will be helpful, is that truth is, you and I each bring a lot of preconceived notions about what justice is based on our age and stage, life experiences, yes, even our political views. In fact, within this room there might be very different understandings as to what is should be considered a justice issue or not, and so in light of that, my goal is to stay in the middle of the fairway and reflect the biblical perspective, which I’ll be honest is very uncharacteristic of me because I almost never find myself in the fairway during an actual round of golf. But I’ll try my best ☺

And so for today, while we’ll start in the beginning, by looking at part of the Creation account in Genesis 1, we’ve got some important table setting to do and concepts to understand first. After all, what are we talking about when we talk about justice anyway?

I imagine for many of us, when we hear the word justice, we immediately imagine one building to our north, to a courtroom setting. Judge and jury, defendant and plaintiff, where a judge hands down a sentence and punishes the guilty. This certainly is one kind of justice and it’s what many have defined as retributive justice. It’s about giving people what they are due, giving the guilty or criminal what is right and fair, and in many cases, what the guilty are due is punishment of some kind. And this kind of justice is important, as every functioning society needs restorative justice, law and order to some degree. The bible addresses this kind of justice at times and so we will too.

And yet, there’s another kind of justice, that’s equally, if not more important - it’s what we might call restorative justice and it’s tied to this greater biblical concept of shalom. Oftentimes throughout scripture this word shalom is translated as peace. And yet, peace is way too weak of a word to capture what shalom means. Because when you and I think peace, we most often think of it as silence, stillness or absence of conflict. For example, when Callie and I put the boys down for bed, there is peace in our home, and as Callie and I like to say, “Dessert always tastes best when the kids are in bed.” Amen?

And while that’s great and all, the real idea behind shalom points us to a much deeper and holistic vision of justice, it’s a kind of justice that is about the flourishing of all peoples, and about seeing those most vulnerable among us provided for and cared for. It’s what many have called restorative justice. It’s about restoring the created order, the world as we know it, as it was always intended to be.

It’s about caring for the widow and orphan, the poor and the immigrant. It’s about feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless. Similar to retributive justice, restorative justice is also about giving people what they are due and giving people what is right and fair. And yet, while retributive justice is about giving people their due in terms of punishment, restorative justice is about giving people their due in terms of provision and care.

And so, consider the housing crisis here in Dillon; there are homeless people among us with no stable housing, while many of us (my family included) live in nice houses with ample space. In many respects, we might consider that as a great injustice.

Retributive justice, restorative justice. Though both are important and both have their place in society today, it’s this second kind, the restorative, human flourishing kind of justice, that the bible calls us to as followers of Jesus again and again and again. In fact, when the bible calls us to justice, 9 times out of 10 it’s got restorative justice in mind.

In fact, when we look at this famous verse from Micah 6:8 we find three biblical values working in concert with each other, when the prophet Micah says, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”

This justice is a restorative, flourishing justice. This mercy is a compassionate, kind, generous love towards another. And this humility is thinking of others more highly than yourself. It’s about making your neighbor’s problem your problem. A humble spirit that compels us to love deeply that brings about real justice.

And this is the kind of justice that we’ll be talking about over these next 6 weeks. And one reason why I believe this is such a timely and critical issue for the church and followers of Jesus like us today is that I am so very convinced we as the people of God are the best equipped and best positioned to usher in this kind of justice while at the same time the unbelieving world around us is woefully unequipped to do. And here’s what I mean by that. We’re going to switch gears here a bit.

Here in the States and in many parts of the Western world, there’s been this massive push in all sorts of different ways and for all sorts of different causes towards freedom, progress, equality, tolerance, acceptance, love. It’s part of the common ethos, part of the cultural air that we breathe. You’ve probably even noticed that even the makers of your favorite soft drinks are championing this message too. It’s everywhere you look.

And while, all of those things are in many instances very good things to want, many philosophers, scientists, historians, theologians and people way smarter have pointed out how there is a deep and profound incompatibility between what people actually believe and the values they actually champion.

For example, many people in our world today don’t believe in a God of any kind, and many people believe that we found ourselves here on earth by total and complete randomness. Whereas we as Christians believe that we were made by God on purpose, for a purpose, those Americans who consider themselves atheists and don’t believe they were created by God really have no logical choice but to conclude that human beings exist without purpose and without value.

Historian Carl L. Becker writes, from a strictly scientific viewpoint, human beings must be viewed as “little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn.”

Scientist Stephen Hawking agrees saying, “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet.”

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (my apologies, I can never say his name correctly) despaired over all Christians did to comfort sufferers, encourage the oppressed, and preserve the sick ... he said this, that they were sustaining a population full of weak and poor people, he said, instead of letting nature weed them out. As a result, he believed, the humans in Europe were not evolving as they could have."

Okay, that is absolutely horrific. And yet, Nietzsche in a very dehumanizing way is actually connecting the dots rightly here. If you, like Nietzsche, believe that we are here by accident, that humans have no intrinsic value, no intrinsic worth, if you believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest, then yes, the humans in Europe were not evolving as they could have.

Now, truth is, even the most secular atheists among us can’t stomach such a cruel and devastating worldview. And because of it, there is a deep and profound disconnect between what people actually believe about the world they live in and the values they actually champion. Or in other words, the idea of human rights and human flourishing and the need for restorative justice really has no place with the secular worldview.

Which, after all that, brings us to this crucial point, where is it that the very ideas of human rights and human flourishing and the need for restorative justice come from anyway?

Where in the world did our founding fathers ever come up with the idea that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” ?

Well, friends, I imagine many of you saw this coming from a mile away. Look no further than the creation story itself and Genesis chapter 1.

Over the first six days, God created all sorts of spectacular things, the sun and the moon and mountains and the trees, animals of every kind, and yet he saved his best for last. When he made you and me.

And here’s what God said about these first two humans he created, he gives them a distinction that he gives to nothing else in the created order:

27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

There’s a lot that can be said about what it means to be made in the image of God, and Lord knows, many have written books on this subject. But for our purposes today, and as it relates to our theme of justice, here’s what you need to know:

One of the key implications of being made in the image of God, is that each and every person here on planet earth has intrinsic value and worth, or what some have described as “unconditional dignity.” From the moment we are conceived to the moment we die, as people made in the image of God we are equally and unequivocally worthy of protection and care, regardless of age, gender, race, disability, intellectual ability, and so on.

You see, our worth and dignity isn’t something that’s created or earned. Rather it is because of the one thing we together all share in common, we are made in the image of God.

In fact that seems to be the truth that the narrator is really trying to drive home in verse 27. Notice what’s repeated there three times: “God created … God created … God created.”

Our value isn’t created or earned by us, rather it’s given because we have been created by God himself, on purpose, for a purpose.

And so why bother, why pursue justice? Well, yes, because the bible tells us to, and yet also because everyone has been made in the image of God. Why should we care about the vulnerable, the widow and orphan, the poor and immigrant? Because they’ve been made in the image of God. Why make our neighbor’s problem our problem? Why make another person’s suffering, their poverty, their homelessness, their hunger, their hopelessness our problem? Because they too have been made in the image of God.

Which brings us to one of the most powerful stories I’ve heard in recent months. We’ve admittedly been discussing all this in rather abstract and conceptual terms, it’s time we now get on the ground level, with a story that’s about as practical as practical can get. And I wouldn’t categorize this as a justice story, per se, it’s not a story of healing the sick or ensuring that someone has the right to a fair trial, but it’s a story that I think will drive home everything we’ve been talking about so far.

This story comes from our latest Presbytery meeting. Dr. Ron Pyle, one of Callie’s favorite professors during her time at Whitworth University was leading a couple seminars and he shared this story about a conversation he had with a woman he was sitting next to on the plane.

Over the course of the conversation Ron learned that this woman had three kids, two were in high school I think and were not on the flight with their mother, but the youngest daughter, in elementary school was and was sitting next to her mom on the plane.

Ron was asking about this woman’s children and she was gushing about the older two, she was so proud of them. Honor roll students, great athletes, accomplished in music and drama. This woman couldn’t speak more highly of her oldest two.

And then the conversation shifted to the youngest daughter sitting next to her mother. Ron asked, what’s her name? All of sudden the mother’s tone shifted, where she said in what Ron described as kind of a regretful and condescending tone, “And this is Jennifer. She’s our ‘oops’ baby.”

Yes, you heard right. Her “oops” baby. The child they didn’t plan for, the child that came unexpectedly, the child they didn’t want.

Friends, I want you to put yourself in that airplane seat. What would you say to something like that? How would you respond to this mother that day?

So often in life, we find ourselves in these heartbreaking, yet God-ordained moments, where we have a split second to respond, yet an opportunity to respond in a way that breathes hope and life. So what would you say?

I suppose one approach would be to lament and sympathize with the mother. Maybe say something like “I know friends who have had or my spouse and I had an unplanned pregnancy too.”

Maybe you could abruptly end the conversation right there with a nice pleasantry of some kind. “It was great talking to you, have a great trip.” After all, you could easily conclude “this is not my problem, this is not my family, I’m staying out of this one. Only an hour until we land and go our separate ways.”

Maybe you could say something to the mother, helping her see her daughter is precious in God’s sight, that she should be grateful to have her, and yet how do you do that without making the mom feel like total garbage and like the worst parent ever? I’m sure Ron wanted to assume the best of this mom, maybe she was at the end of her rope, tired and weary. After all, she’s made in the image of God too.

Maybe you lean over and tell this little elementary school girl that she’s made in the image of God, but yet chances are such an abstract concept might go right over her head, you might as well introduce the Pythagorean theorem while you’re at it.

So what do you do? What do you say? Well, Ron’s response was simple and beautiful and brilliant. He simply started asking this little girl questions and engaged her in conversation. “Hey Jennifer, what do you love to do? Do you love music, sports, art, science? What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently? What’s been the best part of your summer so far? And so on.

In other words, how do you communicate to a little girl, or anyone for that matter that they were made in the image of God? One way is to start by showing a joyful curiosity towards that person.

Friends, everyone, everywhere, all at once have been made in the image of God. The divorced gas station attendant, the Muslim exchange student, the lady from customer service who’s put you on hold again, the teenager bagging groceries, the shut in that lives across your street, the immigrant without proof of citizenship, the toddler with down syndrome, and yes, Jennifer, the “oops” baby, the baby her parents didn’t want, was made in the image of God.

There’s a lot more that can be said on the topic of justice and I can promise you a lot more will. But for now, we must start here. To do justice is to embrace people made in the image of God who live in a broken and hurting world and reconciling the difference. Yes, it is more, but it’s certainly not less.

And I’ll finish with this. Last week, Earl Palmer, the pastor of the church I grew up in passed away at the age of 91. I had the joy of spending a year with Earl after college and before seminary and I consider him a pastoral mentor and one of the reasons I’m a pastor today.

Earl had a line that he would say, from a poem he once wrote, it went. “I know a house that took me in to send me out.”

He was talking about the church. And friends, for the next few weeks, we’ll continue to gather here in this sanctuary, as we consider our justice calling as followers of Jesus, and then we’ll go our separate ways, sharing the love and justice of Jesus wherever it is that we live, work, play or learn.

“I know a house that took me in to send me out.”

Eager to explore this justice calling with you. Let’s pray.

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