Restorative vs. Retributive Justice and the Implications for Public Life

Restorative Justice vs. Retributive Justice: Definitions and Illustrations

My daughter – then a 3rd grader – came out of school crying. Her teacher explained to me that she had confessed to writing graffiti on the stalls of the girls’ bathroom: “Happy death day.” Apparently, it was the name of a movie I had never watched. When the 1st grade and kindergarten girls used the bathroom, they were scared. The teachers asked students in every classroom who had written the graffiti. Eventually, my daughter confessed. She was ashamed and terrified of what would happen next.

An urban school district, Boston Public Schools had decided a few years ago to adopt a “restorative justice” approach to disciplining students. “Restorative justice” is often contrasted with “retributive justice” in formal criminal justice. In a technical sense, “restorative justice” means that the offender must help undo the harm s/he did, especially if the victim is able to name what would be helpful to move forward. That compares with “retributive justice,” which means that the offender must suffer in some proportional way to what s/he did. The former paradigm is victim-centered. The latter is offender-centered.

My daughter’s teacher suggested that since my daughter had harmed school property, that she should help undo the harm she had done. That involved not only cleaning her graffiti off the stalls, but helping a teacher at lunchtimes for a week clean up a classroom. I agreed. In fact, I suggested, “Two weeks would be fine with me.”

I had a serious conversation with my daughter at home. She told me that another girl in her class was in the bathroom with her and proposed the idea in the first place. I wasn’t sure if I could believe that with certainty, as this other girl had not confessed and truth-telling was something we were working on at the time. What was unquestionable, though, was the fact that my daughter struggled to fit in at school and had wanted to be friends with this other girl. So I said that Jesus loved her and she needed to give to Jesus that part of her that wants to be loved and another part of her that is willing to break rules in order to get something she wants. “Something inside all of us is broken,” I said, “which is the same reason I need Jesus, because Jesus heals that part of us. But we need to give all of ourselves to him.” She seemed to understand that, through her tears.

There was still one other thing for her to do, however. “You also made the 1st graders and kindergarteners feel unsafe at school,” I said. “You harmed their feeling of safety. So, if the teachers are okay with it, I think you should make brownies for all of the 1st graders and kindergarteners. Then, you should go into each of their classrooms, confess that it was you who wrote graffiti on the girls’ bathroom, say that you are sorry for scaring them, and that you want them to feel safe at school again.” My daughter’s face lit up brightly. She agreed, as she wanted to repent, and make things right again. I will reflect on that in just a moment.

Restorative justice has also been used in much more serious cases of harm, although less often.

An older woman once approached me after I had spoken on this topic. She told me that her husband had been killed in an automobile accident years ago. He had been a pedestrian. The person who was driving the car was their neighbor, a younger woman. Though stricken with grief, this now-widowed woman could see that her neighbor was also terribly undone. I’m saddened that I don’t remember all the details of this story. But what I do remember is that this older woman’s husband had loved Jesus and had served homeless people in various ways for years. So this older woman felt Jesus led her to the following: she decided not to press charges (if I recall correctly). She either asked the judge for the lightest charge (vehicular manslaughter?) or a dismissal of the charge, if this neighbor agreed to go serve the homeless community in some way once a week for the rest of her life, because this neighbor had not just taken away a husband but also a friend to many people who were struggling with homelessness. What did Jesus want from this younger woman? In part, to restore the help that she had taken away from others and to teach her something in the process.

Another example is found in the case of Conor McBride. Nineteen-year-old Conor was arguing with his girlfriend and fiancée of three years, Ann Grosmaire. In a moment of rage and sleep deprivation because of a fight that had lasted 38 hours, he shot and killed her. Conor immediately walked to the Tallahassee Police Department and said to the intake officer, “You need to arrest me. I just shot my fiancée in the head. This is not a joke.”

Ann’s parents Andy and Kate Grosmaire were shocked and dismayed. But they wound up taking a long journey of restorative justice, which is summarized movingly in a 2013 article by The New York Times Magazine.1

As Ann’s parents, Andy and Kate had to tell Conor how absolutely devastated and shaken they were. Kate eventually went to visit Conor as he was being held in prison. She said, “Before this happened, I loved Conor. I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment — as a murderer — I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.” Conor and Kate faced each other, separated by the partition of reinforced glass. Later, Andy and Kate reflected on the fact that they had known Conor for three years, and had appreciated him. Through their shock and anger, they still wanted to have hope for him. As followers of Jesus, Andy and Kate eventually felt like Jesus was asking them to forgive Conor and meet regularly with Conor’s parents. That was far from easy.

People who served as legal and spiritual resources explained how a restorative justice process could work. The Grosmaires reached out to the McBrides, Conor’s parents. When the State of Florida charged Conor with first degree murder, Andy and Kate asked the state prosecutor if he could charge Conor with first degree murder, which in Florida carried a life sentence. Together with the resource people, they all stepped through a structured process of meetings. Conor was deeply remorseful and willing to participate. After some deep, personal storytelling and truth telling, they came to a consensus about the story they shared. Andy and Kate eventually asked the prosecutor for a second degree murder charge, with a twenty year sentence plus probation. The Tallahassee Democrat, in a 2016 article, notes Conor has become much more introspective, acknowledging his emotional abusiveness, for instance; he appears to have also given his life to Jesus, because of the Grosmaires’ example.2 Their journey is quite remarkable.

Restorative justice, on a strictly human level as a possibility in criminal justice, does not mean that there are no consequences for the offender, which is a common misconception. Nor does it mean that we could completely abolish prisons. But if both the offender and victim are willing to undertake this journey, restorative justice can bring about personal and social good when people have committed terrible acts.

Consider the difference a restorative justice approach could have made in one case in Boston in 2014. Not too far from my house, a 14-year-old named Juanly Peña illegally acquired a handgun, thought he had emptied it of ammunition, and shot and killed his 9-year-old brother. “Prosecutors… obtained indictments of Peña as a youthful offender, opening his case to the public and exposing him to both juvenile sanctions and sanctions an adult would face.”3 He was sentenced to six years in the custody of the Department of Youth Services (juvenile prison) and three years of parole. Granted this young man had a troubling record of anger and school-related difficulties, so he needed some kind of support services and supervision. But our criminal justice system treats “the state” as the victim, whereas the real victim was his family and his immediate community. Could there not have been a more flexible, creative process designed for his young man?

Restorative justice would allow for a different texture of relationships to emerge, perhaps especially in urban communities where cycles of violence need to be broken. Plus, restorative justice is inherently Christian.

Restorative justice practices are not easy, but they would certainly reduce the magnitude of the mass incarceration problem we face, and the overwhelmingly retributive ethic that shapes our society. When people get out of prison, they are often denied housing assistance, food stamps, voting rights, and jury service. This creates financial challenges if, for example, they want to reunite with a spouse or significant other who receives those benefits. They are also slapped with fines and fees related to their own prosecution, drug rehabilitation, and missed payments for child support while they were in prison. They face discrimination in job hunting because of the box they must mark identifying them as having a felony record. These people never stop paying for their crimes. Wasn’t time in prison enough?

Restorative justice would allow for a different texture of relationships to emerge, perhaps especially in urban communities where cycles of violence need to be broken, and young children of incarcerated adults still need to see their parents grow, morally and spiritually, even if from a distance.

Plus, restorative justice is inherently Christian.

The Broad Outline

Wait, what?  Restorative justice is Christian? Absolutely. The earliest Christians, like Irenaeus and Athanasius, understood God’s justice to be restorative because Jesus came to restore human nature.4

God is a good Doctor, lovingly working with a sick patient population that denies the disease and resists the necessary treatment. Therefore, centuries ago, God called together a focus group, Israel, while respecting their own freedom. He placed Israel in a garden land to partially restore the beautiful picture with which He started. God originally made Adam and Eve in a garden to spread the garden along the four riverways, to turn the wild creation into a garden under His protection and guidance. When humanity became corrupted in the fall, God partially restored that original picture by bringing Israel into a new garden land. In Leviticus 25, God showed that every generation or so He would hit the “jubilee” button as if He were bringing Israel into the garden land afresh. God redistributed the garden land to each family in Israel, preventing one generation from passing down unlimited advantage and disadvantage to the next, because God was saying, “You are all My children, and I restore My relationship to you.”

True, God gave Israel a very demanding spiritual health regimen for their restoration. His goal was to help them partially recover from the sin-sickness–enough, at least, that they would taste some spiritual health and want the full cure (Rom. 7:14-25). God called the Israelites to partner with Him by internalizing His commandments into themselves as deeply as they could. He called them to “circumcise their hearts” (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4), or, in another idiom, “write His law on their hearts” (e.g., Prov. 3:3; 7:3). That is, God wanted them to partner with Him in undoing the sin-sickness in human nature – the problem we each inherit, and sadly make worse through our own choices. But no Israelite could undo the corruption. No Israelite except one.

Jesus alone fulfilled what God had asked Israel to do. In Jesus, God the good Doctor became incarnate in the focus group. He did so to inherit the sin-sickness in His own body. Jesus substituted himself into Israel’s role, the role of the patient. But He did not give into the corruption. Empowered by the Spirit of God, Jesus fought it at every moment, resisting every temptation to be selfish or to live in an alternate universe of selfishness, and pressed the love of the Father into every part of His human nature. Jesus constantly received His identity from the Father by the Spirit. At His death, Jesus killed the thing that was killing us. In His resurrection, he raised His human nature as a God-drenched, God-soaked human nature. Now, in himself, Jesus has the antibodies/antivirus to the sin-sickness, and shares himself with us by his Spirit so He could restore us, too.

This early Christian understanding of Jesus makes the atonement a “medical substitution.” Salvation is framed as a medical analogy; we are saved from our own sin-sickness. Jesus saves us through His active obedience, for He alone healed and perfected human nature. He alone corrected and completed human nature. Since He alone has the antibodies/antivirus to our sin-sickness, He alone faithfully and perfectly carried out God’s restorative justice, and carries it out in us by the Spirit.

God’s Commandments and God’s Actions: Example of Restorative Justice

What about “an eye for an eye”? Is that not the principle of retributive justice? And does that not demonstrate that God’s justice is karmic-retributive? What comes around, goes around?

Evangelicals tend to read the “eye for an eye” principle of Jewish Law (Ex. 21:23–24; Lev. 24:17–22) as requiring strict proportional retribution for all bodily harm in all cases. But in the first major collection of laws given at Sinai (Ex. 21-23), an offender must assist a victim “until he is completely healed” (Ex. 21:18–19). In cases of permanent damage, the victim names a compensation price instead of having the offender suffer bodily (Ex. 21:22, 30). That is, the “eye for an eye” principle provides a maximum outer limit of compensation. The victim plays a greater role in a restorative justice process.

In fact, Jewish tradition reasoned that the “eye for an eye” principle must refer to assistance or financial compensation (Talmud BavaKamma 83b – 84a) or, in some rare cases, lashes (Makot 1:1), because they imagined a blind man blinding another man. In that situation, you cannot blind an already blind man! Therefore, the “eye for an eye” principle must mean that the offender places his “eye” in service to a blinded victim, his “hand” in service to a maimed victim, etc. Mention of this principle in Ex. 21:22 and 30 is intended to be carried over throughout the case law of the Pentateuch, which is the only way to make it cohere with Lev. 19:17-18.5 This means that the phrase “an eye for an eye” is subverted and changed in meaning as it moved from other ancient law codes (e.g., the Code of Hammurabi) into Jewish law. Jewish law, therefore, is what we call today “restorative justice,” not retributive justice.

What about the way God dealt with wicked choices or people in the Old Testament? Consider this. When God exiled humanity from the garden of Eden, He was not simply inflicting pain on us.  He wanted to prevent us from eating from the tree of life while we were in a corrupted state (Gen.3:21 – 24).6 Therefore, God was acting in love and with an eye towards our restoration when Jesus would undo the corruption in human nature.

Or, when God exiled Israel from their garden land, He was not simply acting to inflict pain on them. He wanted one generation of Israelites (or more) to repent and teach their children, the next generation, to trust God to fulfill His promises. The story of Numbers (Num. 13-14) was a paradigm. If parents harmed their children’s faith, they had to help restore it. Adam and Eve had harmed their children’s faith; though in exile from Eden, they had to help nurture and restore it. So, one generation of Israelites, as the offending generation, would have to engage in that aspect of restorative justice as well.

Or, when God took life in the Old Testament (Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian firstborn, the Canaanites, etc.), He was not making an example out of people who opposed Him by pouring out karmic-retributive justice on them in principle. Rather, He was protecting Israel from threats so eventually Jesus could be born in a physical community in a physical land. In the meantime, He protected others like Lot and his family (Gen. 19), welcomed the “mixed multitude” as part of Israel (Ex. 12:38), and welcomed into Israel believing Canaanites like Caleb (Num. 32:12; Gen. 15:19), Rahab and her family (Josh. 2-6), and the entire tribe of the Hivites of Gibeon (Josh. 9-11).

Because God is loving, God needed to restore human nature in Jesus and offer it back to us. Therefore, God needed a physical Israel in a physical land, to preserve a physical documentation of the disease in human nature, along with a physical documentation of the anticipated cure (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Ps. 51:9-10; Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 11:18; 36:26-36; etc.), and eventually physical human partners for Jesus in the mission to the world. Meanwhile, before Jesus came, as God developed Israel as His human partners, He foreshadowed His outreach to the whole world through Israel. And when God had to take life to protect Israel, He held them until Jesus could present Himself to them to offer them His restoration, and theirs (1 Pet. 3:18-20; 4:6). Throughout the Old Testament, God’s justice was restorative. He never simply “satisfied” Himself by human suffering, extracting from us in tears whatever He did not get from us in human obedience because He loves us, and He wants our obedience because our obedience affects ourselves.

Retributive Justice and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The principle of karmic-retributive justice, when placed in the realm of Christian faith, becomes the idea that when God does not receive all the human obedience He demanded, He will “satisfy” Himself by receiving human suffering instead, whether ours or Jesus’.

British theologian Timothy Gorringe, after carefully examining church history from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries to observe the deeply interwoven personal and historical interactions between atonement theology and criminal justice paradigms, says succinctly: “Wherever Calvinism spreads, punitive sentencing follows.”7

By “Calvinism,” Gorringe means “penal substitutionary atonement.” For example, John Owen (1616–1683), an English Puritan and Calvinist theologian, wrote that God must punish sin:

He who cannot but hate all sin cannot but punish sin; for to hate sin is, as to the affection, to will to punish it, and as to the effect, the punishment itself. And to be unable not to will the punishment of sin is the same with the necessity of punishing it.8

The results of penal substitution are troubling. In the U.S., evangelicals favor capital punishment more than the overall population. They are also more likely to justify torture.

If retributive-meritocratic justice is the highest form of justice in God’s character, as penal substitution asserts, then rewarding good behavior and punishing the bad is the highest form of justice that we can maintain in human relations. Appreciating God in a penal substitution framework seems to depend, psychologically and socially, on a human experience of “tough parenting,” “getting what you deserve,” “meritocracy and working hard,” “getting tough on crime,” and “law and order.” Those who seem most concerned that people have a spiritual experience of God’s mercy–defined primarily as judicial forgiveness–also seem most concerned that people have a socio-political experience of law, merit, reward, and punishment.

The results are troubling. In the U.S., evangelicals favor capital punishment more than the overall population.9 They are also more likely to justify torture. Regarding the controversial CIA treatment of men suspected of being terrorists and detained at Guantanamo Bay, 69% of white evangelicals believe it was justified, 20% said it was not; that compares to 59% of the general population believing it was justified.10 And just in case you think that the word “evangelical” is based only on a self-reported label, the Pew Research Trust says that they measured behavior: “Attend religious service at least weekly or monthly or a few times a year or seldom or never.” The percentage of people agreeing with the use of torture increases with the frequency of attending a religious service.11 Among white evangelicals in 2018, one poll showed that 75% believed that “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” was positive, ostensibly because crossing the border in an improper way justifies such treatment, compared with 46% of the overall U.S. population, and 25% of non-white Christians.12 Another poll showed lower percentages, but the overall pattern was still the same.13 Finally, white evangelicals are more than twice as likely to view people in poverty as the result of “lack of effort,” as opposed to unjust policies and laws that tilt the playing field against them.14

Restorative Justice in Practice

A contrast is helpful. When Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized in 988 AD, and embraced the Christian faith in its Eastern Orthodox expression and its healing, restorative atonement model, “among his first acts as a Christian ruler was to tithe his wealth to the Church and the poor and to outlaw capital punishment and torture.”15 That example illustrates the difference in trajectories.

White evangelicals are more than twice as likely to view people in poverty as the result of “lack of effort,” as opposed to unjust policies and laws that tilt the playing field against them.

Indeed, the earliest Christian leaders thought about “penance” or “penitence” as a part of repentance in a restorative justice framework. Even though systems of “penance” came to have a bad name because it was abused centuries later, penance was an early showcasing of a restorative justice principle used increasingly in classrooms and school discipline. How do you rebuild trust with someone whose trust you damaged?

Also, Christian leaders set up “ecclesiastical courts” to settle conflicts in the mode of restorative justice. Because the courts of the Roman Empire were overburdened, the Emperors asked Christian bishops to be available. Although we don’t do that today, that level of involvement was a lot like Christian leaders today showing up to courtrooms to show the judge that offenders have a supportive community that will support them towards growth goals and hold them accountable.

Moreover, Christian leaders and theologians called for people to restore right relationships with one another, as God originally intended them. For example, they called for people to be set free from slavery16 because they understood the “have dominion over the creation” clause from Genesis 1:28 as still applicable to every human being and relating to each person’s freedom, work, and wealth!17 Imagine what would happen if Christians had a public policy goal of spreading civil rights, wealth, and work as broadly as possible, on the grounds that we wanted to restore God’s original vision for His good creation?

Christian bishops from the Council of Elvira (~306 AD) applied Jesus’ call to restore right relationships to the troubling issue of prostitution and sex slavery. They recognized that in a fallen world, women could be prostitutes for any number of reasons: poverty, blackmail, kidnapping, threat of violence, etc. So, they decided on a policy. They treated the woman as participating in a social sin. This meant they did not hold her personally responsible, but as a victim, however much any given woman at any given moment might attest to willingly being a prostitute. There was simply too much uncertainty about her personal narrative. But they decided that a man who bought sex from a prostitute was always personally guilty of sin; that act never reflected a right relation, and in fact drove the market.18 This is what we now call the “progressive Nordic model” of confronting sex trafficking. As we try to confront the troubling issues of sex trafficking and pornography today, this is a Christian precedent we absolutely must keep in mind.

As we confront issues of health and sickness, especially in urban areas with food deserts, pollution, biotoxins, and often unequal medical care, we must recall that part of God’s restorative justice is the Christian precedent to restore people’s health.

In the Eastern Byzantine Roman Empire, Christian leaders, along with Christian Emperors and lawmakers, set up a network of public hospitals, because (1) public health was in fact a public matter, as we are relearning through the COVID-19 pandemic, and (2) God’s restorative love was partially shown when individual people recovered their health.19 As we confront issues of health and sickness, especially in urban areas with food deserts, pollution, biotoxins, and often unequal medical care, we must recall that part of God’s restorative justice is the Christian precedent to restore people’s health.

It’s not that I think the historical church was “perfect.” But perhaps as we “decolonize” our theology today, we might constructively restore major pieces of Christian thought, practice, and life. It would be fitting, as we restore the things we have lost as part of our Christian inheritance, if we rediscovered God’s restorative justice as well.


1 Paul Tullis, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?”, The New York Times Magazine, January 4, 2013;
2 Democrat Correspondent, “Conor McBride Lives with Regret, Searches for Redemption,” Tallahassee Democrat, September 16, 2016;
3 Kelsey Luing, “Mattapan Teen Sentenced to State Custody in Brother’s Murder,” Homicide Watch Boston, August 25, 2014;
4 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.18.7; see also 2.12.4; 3.18.1; 5.1.3; Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 6.7-10; 7.4. See also Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption, Volume One: The Incarnation (Chesterton, Indiana: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2015).  T.F. Torrance, edited by Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), and Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016, 2nd edition). For more resources on atonement and the early church, please see papers and collected resources at
5 Darren W. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), p.408.
6 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.23.6; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.8; 7.16; Methodius of Olympus, From the Discourse on the Resurrection, Part 1.4 – 5; Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 8.1; Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45; Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thalassios, Question 44.5.
7 Timothy J. Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Vengeance, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.140.  See also Henry Collin Minton, “John Calvin, Lawyer,” The North American Review, Vol. 190, No. 645 (August 1909),, p.212-221, writing about Calvin’s approach to law, crime, and punishment.
8 John Owen, Works 10:550; originally titled Justitia Divina in 1653.
9 H. Prejean, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (New York: Random House, 1993), p.124.
10 Sarah Posner, ‘Christians More Supportive of Torture Than Non-Religious Americans,’ Religion Dispatches, December 16, 2014;
11 Pew Research Forum, “The Religious Dimension of the Torture Debate,” Pew Research Center, April 29, 2009;
12 Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer, “Why many white evangelicals are not protesting family separations on the U.S. border,” Washington Post, June 18, 2018;
13 Brandon Showalter, “White Evangelicals Most Supportive of Separating Migrant Children From Parents, But Most Oppose: Poll,” Christian Post, June 27, 2018;
14 Julie Zaumer, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort,” Washington Post, August 3, 2017;
15 Father Stephen Freeman, ‘Going to Hell with the Terrorists and Torturers,’ Ancient Faith, December 12, 2014;
16 See my research summarizing this abolitionist activity and scholarly examination of it, through various papers and presentations, available at
17 Gregory of Nyssa (c.335 – c.395 AD), Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes, demonstrated this remarkable understanding of Genesis 1: “You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and in doing so you lay down a law in opposition to God, overturning the natural law established by Him. For you subject to the yoke of slavery one who was created precisely to be a master of the earth, and who was ordained to rule by the creator, as if you were deliberately attacking and fighting against the divine command… What price did you put on reason? How [much money] did you pay as a fair price for the image of God? For how [much money] have you sold the nature specially formed by God? [For] God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’” See also Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1983) for quotations from other early Christian sources.
18 Leah Lydia Otis, Prostitution in Medieval Society: The History of an Urban Institution in Languedoc (1985), 12–13.
19 Timothy S. Miller, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

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