Panelists call for Restorative Justice to end violence
A panel of scholars convened to discuss the role of forgiveness, reconciliation and Restorative Justice in inner-city neighborhoods, war-torn countries and college campuses on Tuesday.
“Any time you are dealing with issues around youth violence and gun violence, you’re dealing with broken families, broken communities and people who are incarcerated or getting out of incarceration,” said Reverend Jeffrey Brown, the University’s 2016 to 2017 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. Those situations call for Restorative Justice, he argued — a method of mediation between offenders and victims.
When asked to define forgiveness, Rodney Petersen, executive director of The Lord’s Day Alliance of the U.S. and the Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries in Boston, said that he thinks of it as “a process, a perception, a way of life that helps us to no longer be victims of our circumstances and transforms us into creators of a new reality.”
While forgiveness is an individual process of giving oneself a clean slate, reconciliation asks that multiple people come together to change. Restorative justice brings together the offender, the offended and the surrounding community so that everyone can move forward, Petersen said.
In neighborhoods suffering from poverty and crime, the question of restorative justice is especially tricky.
In the 1990s, Rev. Brown co-founded the Boston Ten Point Coalition. Composed of clergy and other community leaders, the group has worked to address issues facing at-risk Black and Latino youth in Boston.
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“We started that in the streets,” said Robert Lewis, president of the Board of the Values over Violence Institute. “How do we reconcile, how do we get these young men to value something, to value their lives?”
One approach was midnight basketball, an initiative to present youth with late-night alternatives to crime. Rev. Brown described how he would join them on the court.
“At first they wouldn’t talk to me,” started Brown. “But after a while, when they saw I wasn’t going away — and that, you know, I couldn’t really play any ball, either,” he added, “they started to talk to me.”
Lewis pointed out how difficult forgiveness can be for at-risk youth.
“'Forgiveness,'” he explained, “wasn’t a word that was thrown around in the inner city.” He added, “When you think of forgiveness and you mention that to a young guy that’s growing up in the city, that’s a word — that’s kinda like, a little soft, man.”
Panelists agreed that forgiveness and reconciliation are far from easy. Sheila McMahon, the University’s director of Sexual Assault Services and Prevention, talked about how difficult the concept of Restorative Justice can also be on college campuses.
“Often, what happens is that the person who has experienced the harm or who is feeling frustrated maybe doesn’t feel like they can address it with that other student,” said McMahon. “And so they talk to their friends — and friends talk to their friends — and then it’s on Facebook, and maybe there’s some other messaging that happens. It gets pretty ugly pretty fast, but then there’s never been an opportunity for some conversation or connection.”
Connections are often difficult to make between those who are most vulnerable and those who are in the position to change that, panelists agreed.
“You cannot build a program magnetic enough that’s going to bring gang members and drug dealers into your church,” said Rev. Brown, emphasizing the need for pastors to go out into their neighborhood and “take the first steps.”
Petersen also noted the importance of knowing when to be quiet and listen, he said, and learn to respect the “other” — someone who is not simply another person, but one’s brother or sister.
Petersen also brought up an experience where he brought his students to Zenica, a city in Bosnia, to hold a dialogue with faculty and students at a Muslim academy. The massacre at Srebrenica had been in the news, and the conversation proved tense.
“All we want is for somebody to say ‘I’m sorry,’” a man told Petersen. “Somebody from the West. For Srebrenica.”
Forgiveness, Petersen emphasized, was not a Christian value but a universal human value.